Hot Chef: Akhtar Nawab is toying with Mexican tradition at La Cenita
Talk about multicultural: Akhtar Nawab is a Southern boy (raised in Kentucky), with Indian roots, now cooking Mexican food at the cavernous, buzzy Meatpacking District eatery La Cenita. After stints in French and Mediterranean kitchens, Nawab became interested in Mexican cuisine after recalling the delicious meals his colleagues in the kitchen would make to feed themselves and the restaurant for the staff meal.
You’ve said that you wanted to step outside the borders of Mexican dishes at La Cenita. What did you want to keep from classic Mexican dishes, and what did you want to change?
We have a handful of things that are nontraditional and contemporary and modern, but for us, the process was really just to make sure there’s a connection, and let’s expand upon that. The lamb barbacoa has a lot of traditional ingredients in it, but we approached it a little differently; it has some great cavolo nero [black leaf kale] … so all of a sudden it turns into something a little different, but it has the flavors of something very traditional and authentic. I think it’s finding a balance of something that’s exciting and different, rooted with some real authenticity.
Would you say your approach is to play more with the ingredients rather than the technique?
Yeah, I would say that. We play around with the ingredients a little bit. We’re trying to make sure we’re using the best quality ingredients at the same time as treating them with the same kind of simplicity and straightforwardness that Mexican cooking really is. It’s actually a very simple kind of cuisine, but it has a lot of long cooking times, and there’s a lot of care involved.
With a lot of long cooking times, how do you keep on top of how busy and crazy your restaurant is?
It’s really tough. The braised meats, I find, are always better the next day. Just like if you make a stew or chili or something at home, a lot of times those things are better the next day, when they’ve had the opportunity to sit. And I think it’s the same for the short ribs and the braised lamb, for example, and the chicken tinga — usually things that are very long, three to five hours cooking.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not working? Are you sick of Mexican food?
I wouldn’t say I’m sick of it, but I do want to try other things. I’m crazy about Vietnamese food; I’d like to go to Vietnam some day. It really is very, very exciting to me. I’m always crazy for Indian food, but nothing’s as good as my mother’s cooking … so I make it for my daughter and I at home. Those are the things that I always go for. I always love sushi, but everyone does.
Your daughter is seven. Does she still eat off the kids’ menu?
No, she’s very adventurous. She eats what I eat. She doesn’t like mushrooms yet. It’s because that old nursery school she went to made her mushroom soup, and I tasted it too, and I’m not surprised she doesn’t like them anymore. … I just want to raise her to give everything a chance.
Since you work so many nights, it must be hard juggling your time with her.
It’s tough. It’s really hard. … It always makes me feel like a horrible parent, but it gets better. Having her come in for dinner, I start thinking then she can kind of put it together in her head. She can say, “Oh my God, Dad, this place is so big, it’s so huge!” “I know honey, that’s why it’s taking me away from you for a little bit. I’m sorry for that. I’ll start taking a couple of days off so we can spend time together soon.” I’m lucky she’s understanding.
Lastly: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
I think it’s a tie between the octopus and the lamb barbacoa. The octopus is with red and black quinoa and some some tomato marmalata and preserved lemon. The lamb barbacoa just feels very deeply satisfying. It’s rich and it’s flavorful, but it’s also kind of clean and simple. It has some cumin; the cumin makes it exciting for me, and the vinegar. The chipotle onion and the lamb and all that stuff when it’s cooked together, it’s this great, rich, delicious but simple and satisfying kind of thing.