Chef Josef Centeno grew up in San Antonio and spent time cooking in New York City and for David Kinch at Manresa, but he developed his unique personal cooking style in L.A. He’s been a central figure in the rise of downtown’s L.A.’s Old Bank District. Centeno runs globally inspired Bäco Mercat, Tex-Mex based Bar Amá, seasonal American Ledlow, vegetable focused P.Y.T. and Japanese-Italian Orsa & Winston within a one-block radius, and recently launched fast casual BäcoShop in Culver City. Bäco: Vivid Recipes from the Heart of Los Angeles is a cookbook he wrote with partner Betty Hallock that beautifully explains the globally-inspired sauces and spice blends that fuel his flavorful, seasonal, multi-layered cooking. I recently interviewed Centeno by e-mail, which helps to explain his vision and approach.
Joshua Lurie: You must have developed hundreds if not thousands of recipes over the years. How did you decide which recipes to include in your cookbook?
Josef Centeno: A good percentage, but not all, of the recipes are from Bäco Mercat. Some are signature dishes—hamachi crudo with crushed avocado and potato croquette, Caesar Brussels sprouts, fava hummus and eggplant puree with lebni and za’atar. The rest are meant to be in the same vein—lots of flavor inspired by seasonality, different cuisines, textures, colors. I try to show how I think about putting a dish together and in turn hope they spark more creativity.
JL: In what ways have working on this book helped to focus or influence your culinary vision moving forward?
JC: I think it really brought into focus the way dishes are supposed to taste and how to make them consistent. And it inspired new ideas. Some of the recipes were entirely new but have ended up on the menu at Bäco Mercat or even P.Y.T. or Orsa & Winston.
JL: Pulling from all of the recipes in your Bäco cookbook, construct a dream day of eating. Keeping in mind the realistic limits of human consumption, what would eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
JC: Barley porridge with ginger and sautéed oranges for breakfast. Imjadra or maybe bulgur pancakes, with cumin-spiced beef and lamb patties with raisins and pine nuts. Chicken escabeche or the berberé chicken with creamy Pecorino rice.
JL: It’s no given that just because you’re a great chef, you can also juggle multiple restaurants. How did you develop a knack for the business side of the restaurant business?
JC: My grandmother had a big influence on me growing up. Other kids went to summer camp, while I spent my vacations painting her house, sweeping her drive, cutting the grass. She passed her work ethic onto me. I also come from an entrepreneurial family. Over the generations there were some successful businesses and some failed businesses, but the drive to try was there. I trained really hard as a chef, but I also know that running a restaurant is not just about cooking. You really have to be able to jump in and problem solve.
JL: What can we expect from you and your restaurant group moving forward? Different restaurant concepts? Additional BäcoShops? More cookbooks?
JC: We’re working on the Bar Amá cookbook right now, which will be published in 2019. In the meantime, I opened six restaurants in six years. So I want to take stock of where I’m at and figure out what my best move is, but for now there is no shortage of things keeping me busy.