This is part 2 of a 2 part Symrise interview with Chef Tim Hockett
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: Based on your knowledge of how Hispanic food items are being adapted to American tastes, do you foresee a similar translation in off-the-shelf, prepared, packaged foods and in this connection, what flavors come to mind?
Check Hockett: Take the Chipotle restaurants, and you’ll see that chipotle has become synonymous with great salsa whereas 15 years ago it was hardly known. Today it’s used everywhere as a background profile and in all sorts of salsas. If you’re speaking of Latino off-theshelf products, I think Rick Bayless has done a great job with salsas, tomatillos, readymade marinades and red salsas. In general, Latino ingredients are being used more than ever though they are not necessarily labeled as Latino, just as great cooking ingredients. For example, we throw different chilies into our turkey marinade, as a background to give a little bit of tang, flavor and depth. Chilies in general give a zip without highlighting them when you add them - they have become a mainstream ingredient that you can add as a background note just about anywhere.
Symrise: People are increasingly aware of chilies like jalapeño, chipotle and habanero – are there other ingredients that you believe are likely to go main stream?
Chef Hockett: We definitely see arbol, pasilla and ancho coming more into play. The arbol can stand alone while the pasilla and ancho add good background notes. I’m just waiting for someone to come up with a great arbol sauce or someone to call a restaurant Chili Arbol. I believe it will really take off as a new kind of chili.
Symrise: What do you think are the most significant misconceptions that people have about Latin cuisine?
Chef Hockett: I believe that Chicagoans have a true concept of Latino food but I am not sure about other areas in the country as yet. Here in Chicago, it’s recognized that Mexican food doesn’t have to be heavy or full of lard or drenched with cheese. Twenty years ago, restaurants like Chi-Chi’s featured really heavy Latin cuisine. In Chicago, there’s a trend to make it really light and really fresh. Hispanic food can be as light as any other cuisine. Tacos can be as light as sushi when you use great quality fish. Misconceptions here and in New York are less common even though you still find heavy enchiladas and burritos. Tamarind is good example of the lighter taste to be found Latino food. It has so many uses from savory to sweet, and when used as a sweetener in paletas, marinades and moles – you get results that are so much lighter than the heaviness you would find if you were just using a sugar.
Symrise: You spoke of inspirations from your travels, will the location of your anticipated travel plans serve as the next area of influence?
Chef Hockett: I am looking forward to returning to Mexico City because in the past I’ve hardly touched the city, but I did fall in love with the El Pastor Taco when I was there. On every corner it was sold, everyone having his own recipe. I am eager to get to Oaxaca which has a different cuisine than Mexico City. It’s distinguished by incredible food and cheeses. I hope to find something from Oaxaca to include on our menu.
Symrise: What Central or South American county do you see as the next area of influence?
Chef Hockett: I believe that Cuban cuisine will be influential now that it will be easier to travel there. While you find Cuban food in Miami, you don’t
see it in the north. Many people still don’t know about jibaritos, which is a smashed plantain sandwich. In general, it’s difficult to introduce unfamiliar items on dinner menus since customers are more comfortable with things they know so we take it one step at a time, adding new ingredients as new twists to familiar offerings.
Symrise: We haven’t spoken about vegetables to any degree - which vegetable dishes have been successful?
Chef Hockett: Well, the underuse of chayote is notable but we use it in our Latino and Asian restaurants. It’s delicious and has apple crunchiness to it with a lot of staying power since it does not oxidize. We use chayote in salads and salsas. We have some vegetarian dishes on our Nacional 27 menu. We have a Crispy Avocado Taco with ingredients that make an incredible vegetarian meal, but most people still seem to prefer protein meals with great salsa. We are beginning to use vegetables in our sweet presentations, like in our cucumber elderberry paleta, our cucumber lime paleta and our sweet corn pudding one. We are doing crossovers from sweet to savory, using flavors that are somewhat unusual.
Symrise: How about breakfast – do you see any upcoming Latino influence?
Chef Hockett: I see the Latino influence making breakfasts more flavorful. Just two of our restaurants are actually open for breakfast. My favorite Latino breakfast is chilaquiles, fried tortillas with rice, cheese and salsa. Breakfast tacos are awesome, as are huevos rancheros and churro-style dishes. Our customers prefer traditional American breakfasts. I don’t believe they are ready for a bolder breakfast.
Symrise: What are your thoughts when it comes to the Latino influence on sweet selections?
Chef Hockett: We’re experimenting with paletas at Tallboy Taco, one with a spicy, pineapple flavor, as
well as a cinnamon horchata one and a rice pudding flavor. As I see it, we’re interested in the potential of tamarind. It’s such a good sweetener with its raisin-like flavor and it’s a departure from the sugary type desserts. We also see a trend in sweetness in agua frescas. We make a chia lemon which is our version of Mexican lemonade – the fresh chia seeds make it really good. You can add a little pomegranate or mango to it to further “doctor” it up.
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