Raised in Veracruz, Mexico, Gonzalo Guzman was cooking as early as six as a way to take care of his family. He moved to the U.S. when he was 14, holding multiple jobs and double shifts to make ends meet. He started washing dishes at the infamous McArthur Park, where he quickly became a prep cook. A year later he moved four doors down the street to help open Kokkari Estiatorio, where he met Chef Laurence Jossel.
In 2000, Guzman was tapped as lead line cook at Chez Nous, an acclaimed neighborhood restaurant owned by Jossel and Pascal Rigo of La Boulange. Just over a year later, he moved up to sous chef, running the line and helping plan the menu. By the time Guzman was 22, he was a head line cook at the award winning Boulevard Restaurant under Nancy Oakes. Three years later, he helped open and manage Nopa alongside longtime friend and mentor Jossel.
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After working together off and on for nearly 10 years, the two decided it was time to open a restaurant where Guzman would not only be the chef, but a partner. In 2009, Guzman opened Nopalito on Broderick Street in San Francisco with partners Laurence and Allyson Jossel and Jeff Hanak. Three years later, they opened their second location on Ninth Avenue near Golden Gate Park.
In 2011, Nopalito established a full service catering department specializing in sustainably-sourced Mexican corporate lunches and festive weddings. The restaurant has been on the San Francisco Chronicles’ Top 100 list since it opened and was featured on the Food Network in 2013. Aside from running two restaurants and a full-service catering program, Guzman regularly teaches cooking classes at the San Francisco Cooking School.
Symrise caught up with Chef Guzman for a quick take on his favorite ingredients (onions and garlic), his go-to kitchen tool (an eight-inch knife), and how hard work and perseverance pay off in the kitchen.
Symrise: So, I read you started cooking at age 6… did you know then you wanted to be a chef?
Gonzalo Guzman: No, I started cooking because I had to. My dad worked in the city and my mom worked in the fields. My younger sister has struggled with health issues for most of her life so I needed to take care of her and my other sister. I wanted to help my parents, especially my mom, and cooking was just one of those things I could help with. I also learned to sew, clean the house, and do all the things that it takes to keep a home together, so no, cooking was not seen as my dream career at that point.
Symrise: Tell me about your culinary background.
Guzman: My mom taught me some things but I learned most of what I know about cooking from different mentors and other chefs and cooks I’ve met along the way. I’d witness other cooks making something that interested me and then I’d try to emulate them or ask them to teach me. I also learned a lot about ingredients and techniques from books.
I started washing dishes at 15. I was a hard worker so I quickly began prepping and then started cooking on a line. I worked for mainly European-style restaurants but being Mexican, I always had a deeper understanding of that cuisine. In 2006, I helped open Nopa as a sous chef and then in 2009, I opened Nopalito as the chef/partner.
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Symrise: How has being self-taught helped you with your restaurants?
Guzman: Being self-taught, I’m able to learn as I go. I am always learning something new about how to do it better or more efficiently. I’m also open to learning from my peers and others in my industry. It is always helpful to share ideas and mutually benefit from those relationships.
Symrise: What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with and why?
Guzman: Onions and garlic are the best. They are at the beginning of almost everything and have a ton of variation in what they can do. I also love working with chilies and masa and of course, they are the base of Nopalito’s entire menu and I have hundreds of expressions to worth within.
Symrise: Do you have a favorite dish on your menus and again, why?
Guzman: I personally like the empanada. I have an affinity for great texture and the empanada gets a wonderful crust when it’s fried just right. I also love the “surprise “of a stuffed dish. The mystery of what’s inside begins to reveal itself when you cut into it.
Symrise: What do you like to cook when you're off duty?
Guzman: Homemade pasta. My kids love it and I like making dough. I also like ceviche.
Symrise: Where do you get your inspiration for your menus?
Guzman: From everywhere. Recently, I’ve been inspired by Mexican street food and Mexican home cooking. I like using the older recipes that I can pull ideas from and find a way to transform them using our techniques and ingredients of today. I love to take something from the past, update it, and make it better.
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Symrise: How would you describe your cooking style?
Guzman: Free style. Simple style. But with complex results. Techniques that are expressive, but easy to execute in a restaurant.
Symrise: Do you have a favorite kitchen tool?
Guzman: An eight inch chef’s knife. It’s the only tool I need.
Symrise: Do you eat out a lot? If so, what are some of your favorite cuisines to try?
Guzman: I don’t eat out too often as I’m in the restaurants all the time or at home with my two kids. When I do get a chance to eat out, I like to find places that are doing interesting things with ingredients or new concepts. The restaurant trends in San Francisco are ever-changing and I like to try and keep my finger on that pulse.