Richard Ampudia moved to New York in 1986 to study film, but after working in a restaurant to pay for his tuition, he unearthed a passion for cooking the kind of food he grew up with in Mexico City.
As one of the early pioneers of bringing Mexican street food into a restaurant setting with his venue La Esquina, Ampudia has broadened his horizons with interests in several restaurants, including Bar Bruno and Super Linda in New York and La Bodega Negra in London. He also works as a consultant, helping others develop Mexican-inspired eateries.
The chef and businessman hit Melbourne this week to serve up some of his specialty dishes based on Mexican street food at a series of events hosted by CBD eatery Touche Hombre. He spoke to Broadsheet at the beginning of his weeklong stay in Melbourne.
Paul Best: What are you doing in Melbourne?
Richard Ampudia: I’m adding a few special items to the menu at Touche Hombre. The kitchen is very small, they do mostly tacos, so I’m going to try and keep it real and do the same thing: pork carnitas and a light ceviche for example, which is the stuff that I really like now about Mexico, particularly the northwest coast. I think it’s what people here will take to because they like Asian food.
I’m also working on a rooftop party, doing very simple Mexican food: grilled corn, street tacos, quesadillas.
PB: Melbourne has had a swag of Mex-styled eateries open in recent times. Have you had a chance to sample any?
RA: Hopefully later in the week. I want to try Mamasita, because I know the person who helped set it up. There was a cactus event there for the Food and Wine Festival. I love cactus, it's my favourite ingredient. Also the new place, Acland St Cantina.
PB: Why has Mexican food found such a global following?
RA: When done right, it’s healthy and affordable. One of the things that made it very successful is that people relate it to fun times and celebration. What we’re seeing in the world is a kind of backlash against the super-pretentious [dining] experience. Mexican street food speaks totally to that idea to enjoy, partake and share with friends.
PB: Is there a danger of overkill?
RA: I’m a little afraid that [Mexican street food] will be stripped of its soul and in a few years it will be replaced by another fad. As long as what people do is real and they are focused on the love of the experience – not looking to dumb it down for people – the great restaurants will keep doing it well.
PB: What is good Mexican street food to you?
RA: It has to be clean, spicy flavours, very intense; the acidity of the salsa working with the tortilla. You’re looking for that umami taste you sometimes have with Japanese food. That craving, like all you want with it is a beer.
PB: How does Mexican food elsewhere compare to that served on the streets of Mexico City?
RA: I live with the fact once I leave Mexico, tortillas are never like what they are in Mexico because of the way they process corn and the water they use to mill it. It gives the tortillas a certain fluffiness and flexibility.
In Melbourne I have had trouble with ingredients, getting my hands on tomatillos [Mexican green tomatoes] for the salsa and fresh habanero chillies. For me, 90 per cent [of Mexican street food] is about the salsa. But I have already found ingredients at the Queen Victoria Market that just blew me away, like finger limes. The tomatoes are also amazing.
I have given up trying to replicate. What I do now is find something that is true to the spirit of the flavours, something local, like finger limes.
PB: So is Mexican cuisine like any other in that it evolves?
RA: Food is an ongoing experience that always changes. In New York, we now make tacos with ingredients that aren’t Mexican at all, so it’s becoming like the new pizza. You can put whatever you want in a tortilla. I don’t judge. As long as people are putting out good food, it doesn’t have to be totally authentic. But if you want the real experience, you have to go to Mexico City.
PB: I have to ask, because it’s big in the news, have you used horsemeat?
RA: I tried it once, only in France. It’s not really my thing.
Richard Ampudia is cooking traditional street food from Mexico City at Touche Hombre this Wednesday and Thursday night. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call on 9864 0603. Ampudia will also be hosting the Rooftop Mexican Party on Friday 8 March.