As part of his extensive Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) responsibilities, Tim Hockett drives the culinary creations of 13 restaurants, including Nacional 27 and Tallboy Taco, both known for their Hispanic menu items. The challenges of Tim’s early college basketball career impacted his oversight of LEYE restaurant kitchens, which he sees linked by their “addictive intensity and adrenaline rush that it takes to do the job right.” Tim’s career began when he was a summertime food runner at Maggiano’s and got his first glimpse of a professional kitchen. Motivated to attend the Washburne Culinary School in Chicago, upon completion he worked his way up the Chef succession at various restaurants before joining LEYE as a corporate chef. He credits his success to his passion for food and is enthusiastic about promoting the growth and success of the cooks he oversees.
Symrise: Thanks so much for joining us today, Tim. So, let’s begin by your telling us something about your connection to Latino foods. Since your heritage is not Hispanic, how did you become a specialist in Latino cuisine?
Chef Hockett: I grew up in the Chicago area with food memories limited to my grandmother’s cooking of homemade turkey with frozen sides. We ate prepared foods for the most part. Growing up in the 80s, the Latino culture was only slightly familiar with reference to typical refried beans, enchiladas and Mexican restaurants. I started cooking about 20 years ago, doing the corporate chef thing for “Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.” Currently I manage the food at 13 different operations, including Nacional 27, our Latino restaurant and salsa club, and Tallboy Taco. I have experience in cooking many styles – French, Italian, and Asian such as Thai with Jean- Georges Vongerichten – and, of course, in our five Burger joints. I have a passion for flavor and for freshness – for taking something authentic and making it bold and better, reflecting the local ingredients and the surrounding culture.
Our motto right now is to keep food simple; taking a clear direction and clear focus, and making sure it authentically comes from the heart. Tallboy Tacos came out of its being a Nacional 27 favorite. Nacional 27 is about 17 years old and specializes in food from 27 Latino South and Central American countries and Spain. We prepare everything from tacos to enchiladas, with part of our goal to educate the public about South American flavors and Cuban cuisine. But we keep going back to the simple taco. They can be delicious as long as you use incredible corn, make your tortillas by hand every day with great meat or protein and use a wicked, tangy salsa – that’s how you can create an unbelievable taco. We wanted to do a taco restaurant, using our favorite flavors, incorporating them into a really simple presentation. Lately, I’ve fallen in love with quick-service of the burger places we’re running. So these concepts came together several months ago, leading to the opening of Tallboy Taco. Having travelled a great deal for R&D purposes and on vacation, I always end up cooking or finding a new restaurant, always trying to learn about different food cultures. I’ve taken trips to Mexico City and I’ve sampled tacos in L.A., down the coast in Baja and in Miami – and want to bring the best of all these experiences here to Chicago. Tacos have taken off for us, so it means the development of a new style taco that requires authentic techniques and incorporates Central and South American ingredients.
Symrise: Can you tell us more about authentic flavors from South or Central America?
Chef Hockett: Some of the favorite dishes that we have created at Nacional 27 include Asada – a Gaucho-type barbecue that originated in Argentina - as well as plantains, beans and rice with flavors from Cuba. There is also the sharp pico de gallo taste and the crispiness of tacos from the Baja peninsula of Mexico. We have taken the best of the flavors from places like these and pumped them into our menu. We now have about seven tacos on the menu. Our barbecue brisket taco is actually a cross-over taco, something you don’t usually find in a taco
joint and not at all Latino. The Cowboy 12-hour Smoked Brisket Taco at Tallboy features meat that has been smoked over hickory, put in a handmade taco and served with a tangy, traditional salsa arbol, then topped with fresh onion and cilantro, the typical garnish found on any taco in Mexico City. Although Americanized, it doesn’t fight the Latino flavor that people enjoy in their tacos. Another taco that we feature is Carne Asada, our skirt steak taco, based on a very traditional steak found in South America, especially in Argentina. We developed this taco from one of the best selling entrees I previously mentioned which has been on our menu for years. We cook it over our grill, topping it with fire roasted corn, and pico de gallo. It happens that anything that works well at Nacional 27 becomes a signature salsa, such as our tomatillo salsa.
Symrise: Have you found that a food item that combines the food concepts of different cultures into single creations can fall under an overall Hispanic banner, rather than the country of origin?
Chef Hockett: In our Lettuce Entertain You group, there’s a restaurant called Hub 51, one I helped open about eight years ago. There are three sections on the menu – Incredible Tacos, Burgers and Sushi. It doesn’t feel Mexican or American or Asian but each section reflects the cilantro, spices, heat and chili flavors that are common to Latino and Asian cooking and are now wanted in American cuisine
ss well. So, yes, we’re breaking down the cultural barriers that exist from Mexican to Brazilian restaurants – all of which are likely to become American style. For example, you see tacos on all sorts of different menus now, everything from a two-star dining place to grabbing something from a taqueria. I think tacos are basically American now.
Be sure to check back next week for Part 2 of our interview with Chef Tim Hockett!