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Chef Roberto Berrelleza of Babita Recalls the Early Days of Dining in L.A.

LA Mexicano Babita Roasted Papaya and Cilantro Soups | Staci Valentine

When celebrated food critic Jonathan Gold first came across Chef Roberto Berrelleza’s now-shuttered La Moderna in 1992, he wrote, “La Moderna's food, prepared by a true restaurant maniac, is among the best Mexican food in Los Angeles.” Berrelleza spent years as a waiter and maître d’  before ever going into the kitchens. His journey parallels the rise of the Mexican chef in the Los Angeles food scene. This is his story, as told to Samanta Hernandez Helou.

Learn more about the chefs at the forefront of the Alta California movement on "The Migrant Kitchen." Watch <a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">S2 E1: Alta California</a> now.
Alta California

I'm from a small port in the state of Sinaloa. Much of the shrimp and good seafood comes from Topolobampo where I was born.

My father was a captain of fishing ships in Topolobampo. He used to be a cook in his off time. He was also a cook for all the other fishermen.

My abuela, who raised me, she used to serve food every night from home. That's how it was. You get a couple of tables outside and a couple of benches and all the community used to eat there. I grew up around food. It’s within me because of my father and abuela.

Later in life, I went to Tijuana and I was in the university there and I joined a band playing guitar. One day, we got a gig in Los Angeles. When I got here I said, "I don't think so, I'm not going back. This is too beautiful for me." That was in 1975.

I needed to do something normal. Having Friday, Saturday and Sunday working in music was not going to give me my new car, my new clothing. It wasn't going to give me what I wanted. I needed to work.

I had a friend that worked at one of the best, most prestigious restaurants in L.A. in the 70's. It was called The Tower. It was a restaurant where all the menu was in French. It was highly regarded. He got me a job there as a busboy. I spoke English which was a plus.

LA Mexicano Babita Cactus Huarache | Staci Valentine
Babita's Cactus Huarache | Staci Valentine

There's a lot of money at those types of restaurants; only the top people go to those places. I said, "I think I like this." When I was a busboy they used to call me "El Capitano." I learned about wines; I was buying wines; I was trying the wines; I was studying the wines. Then it evolved into me starting to cook and research. I would see what was done in the kitchen and then learn to do it at home.

Eventually, I went from busboy to a waiter and then to a captain. At the Tower, I worked for about a year and a half in the 70s and then I went to Francois [another haute cuisine French restaurant?] for like about eight years.

I never worked in the back of the house of restaurants. I never wanted to cook because it was easier for me to be in the front of the house and see the preparation and see the techniques. I could see how it is in the kitchen and the reaction of people. It's better and broader if you're outside looking in. When you're in the kitchen, you're concentrated in your particular duty.

After that, I had the blessing of serving as the managing maître d’ for one of the glories of Hollywood, The Brown Derby. This was in the 80s. 

It's one of the biggest things someone can achieve in the restaurant business. Not too long after that, the owner told me, "Roberto, let me tell you something. Don't think that I gave you the opportunity to be the manager maître d’ of the Brown Derby because you're good. No. The reason I gave it to you is because every fine establishment has somebody at the door with an accent. Ok?" I'll never forget that. And it's true when you go to fine dining places there's always someone with an accent. Maybe not so much today. 

In those days, in high cuisine, most of the cooks were Hispanics but the main chefs were Europeans. You never saw a Mexican chef. Now you can see in the big restaurants Hispanics as chefs and as owners. 

Then my wife had a medical issue and the Brown Derby was a place where I worked six days and rested one day. And on that day off, in the morning, I would get a call from somebody at the restaurant saying, "Roberto, there is a problem." It never failed. I had to go in. I never had a day off.

Roberto Berrellza | Samanta Helou
Roberto Berrelleza | Samanta Helou

The economic status was beautiful, it was very good, just incredible but you don't have a life. With my wife in those circumstances, I couldn't do it. So I resigned. I was there for about a year and a half. 

LA Mexicano Babita Roberto Berrelleza | Staci Valentine
Roberto Berrelleza | Staci Valentine

I then went to The Castaway in Burbank as a banquet manager. I stayed for about a year or so. They were premiere in banquets. Even though it was a mass production, it was fine, fine food. I learned how you arrange banquets, how you position the tables, it was invaluable.

From there is when, in 1990, we opened La Moderna. It was a little Mexican place serving tacos, burritos, menudo, cocido, pozole. There was already a number of restaurants serving that; mostly every Mexican restaurant was serving the same thing.

Then, soon after the Kuwait War started and the riots happened here, the business kind of started failing. I decided since my background is in French food, I'm going to do a Steak au Poivre, a pepper steak. I did the pepper steak with the crusting of black peppercorn and the cream and the demi-glace, like at a French restaurant. I put it on the board, "Especial del dia: steak a la pimienta."

Everybody ordered that and they were not used to those flavors but it was nothing new. It was just French flavors. Then, bing, the light came on in my brain. People are hungry for something new. They want to see something that is good and is new, something that they will look forward to, to come back and see what Roberto is doing the next day for lunch or for dinner.

I started doing things like Chicken and Shrimp Elba, which is a breast of chicken, a couple of large shrimp on top and a tequila banana chile chipotle sauce. Then I made a potato au gratin but instead of potatoes, I used chayote and used that as a bed. It was a hit. 

Then I came up with the Shrimp Topolobampo. It's a little mustard, tomato, onions, cilantro, jalapeno and habanero, and a little white wine reduction. It was very hot and good enough that I got a review from Jonathan Gold. From then, I came out with yellow chile gueritos stuffed with salmon ceviche and I finish them with a savory, not sweet, strawberry sauce. Soon I had enough stuff that I had "Roberto's Menu" and I had La Moderna regular menu. People started saying “no no no ... give us your menu.”

When we came here to Babita’s in 1999, I used only my unique menu and I started making new dishes. Town and Country, and Plate Magazine from Chicago and all the locals, LA Times, LA Weekly, Pasadena Weekly, were covering my food. For the next seven or eight years, it was busy all the time.

LA Mexicano Babita Mexicuisine | Staci Valentine
Babita Mexicuisine | Staci Valentine

If you see my food, you will find all my dishes are compound and that's what I believe works for me. It’s compound because I don’t just serve a piece of chicken with sauce or a steak with sauce. I try to make a little bed, then the meat, and I top it with maybe another garnishing and then the sauce. It's three, four, five layers. That's what I attribute to the success we've had for so many years.

I started using epazote, huitlacoche, chilorio because I wanted to make Mexican food because I'm Mexican. What would I create in French cuisine with French ingredients that another chef hasn’t already done? I wanted to use the French technique but with other ingredients.

I didn't think I was making modern Mexican cuisine. I was trying to do something that would make my restaurant, if not successful, at least survive. I baptized my food as "Mexicuisine."

During those days, there was Jose Rodriguez from La Serenata de Garibaldi. He was doing fine dining Mexican food in L.A.  He was doing sauces. He would give you a piece of fish with sauces with the names of places. What I was doing with compound food and the mélange of ingredients was different.

There's more opportunity now than when I started. I had to pave the way. I don’t mean pave the way for the new chefs and restaurants but to pave the way for myself because it was not always as rosy. 

Now, it's a different world. I'm so glad that I didn't have these new, young guys as my competition when I started creating and doing new stuff. I'm sure some of them read about me.

When I started working in those French places, there was not a day that I did not spend at least one, two, three hours reading and researching. Even now, I spend at least one hour hitting the books because it's a necessity. I need to stay abreast with all the other guys. I'm insanely driven by, “What new thing can I do? How can I tweak things?”

Ultimately, Babita is a family restaurant. It's my two daughters, my wife and myself. We have cried together, we have cooked together, we have laughed together, we have traveled. This little thing has given us so much in every way.

What else can I say? If it was easy, everybody would do it. Babita is here. It's a classic. 

Top image: LA Mexicano Babita Roasted Papaya and Cilantro Soups | Staci Valentine

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