For Best Chefs America
Chad Clevenger has cooked all types of cuisines. He's been a personal chef for celebrities in France, a chef/owner of a fine dining restaurant, a chef/owner of a food cart, and a restaurant consultant. At Alma Cocina, he cooks Mexican food, a cuisine that's not looked at as high end unless you create new ways to interpret it.
BCA: Where and how did you develop your love of Mexican and Latin cuisine?
CC: I attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Texas. There's a lot of Tex-Mex food in Austin and many Southwestern restaurants. The food at one restaurant, Z’Tejas, grabbed me. I liked all the flavor combinations. Out of culinary school, I went to work at Coyote Café in Santa Fe. I was hired as a sous chef. I worked my way up over a few years time and became the executive chef at the age of 26. I started to love Southwestern cuisine and culture. Ever since, I have been cooking Mexican full-time or as a hobby at home.
BCA: What did you enjoy the most about staging in the Michelin-starred restaurants Saint Paul at Hotel le Saint Paul and Jacques Maximin?
CC: At 26 years old, I was offered a position to be a private chef in France for six months. I lived with Leslie Bricusse, a famous lyricist and composer. While Leslie would travel, I would stage at Michelin-starred restaurants. I enjoyed seeing some of the different techniques that chefs are using, whether it was for haute food or pastries. In France, they have quite a few ingredients that we can’t always get here in the States. They are just more readily available: little courgette squashes, different types of whole fish, and other local ingredients.
BCA: What did you enjoy the most about working as a private chef?
CC: I went to three different villages for shopping: Cagnes-sur-Mer, Vence, Nice. I got up and cooked whatever I felt like cooking, and every single meal I cooked something different. I chose whatever looked good at the market. I would go to these little towns and visit a cheese monger, who has been making cheese his whole life. I would go to the butcher and have them break down the meat, truss it for me. It's a pretty neat experience.
BCA: You’ve worked in European kitchens as well as kitchens in the United States. What are the biggest differences between the two?
CC: French kitchens are a touch more organized—cooks are in the mode, heads-down, working. In American kitchens, cooks talk and cut up while they’re working and sometimes play music. French kitchens are more strict, more serious in their approach.
BCA: Tell us a little about your food cart in Denver.
CC: I opened a food cart named The Porker, and it was anything and everything pork. “Street Food at its Swinest” was my motto and The Porker was named Best Street Food in Denver. I was nominated for Street Food Chef of the Year in Denver and a couple of my dishes won awards.
BCA: You cook contemporary Mexican cuisine at Alma Cocina in Atlanta. How do you define what that is?
CC: It's about technique and ingredients; elevating the dish with either the technique that is involved, or using local, authentic, and made-in-house ingredients. I’ll take something that’s very traditional in Mexico and put a spin on it just by using a nicer cut of meat or a modern technique. For example, sous-viding a piece of octopus, charring it on the grill and having octopus al pastor.
BCA: What cuisines (and who in your life) have influenced and inspired your cooking style and menu?
CC: My menu and cooking style incorporate French influence and techniques from studying at Le Cordon Bleu, and also Southern influences, like collard greens I'll stew with white Peruvian beans. I owe a lot to the women in my life: my mother, grandmothers, sister-in-law, and especially Mama Jewel for showing me how to cook and enjoy good Southern food. The restaurant in Texas that kind of made me want to pursue Southwestern/Mexican was Jack Gilmore’s Z‘Tejas. Jack’s son is now a great chef himself, Bryce Gilmore.
BCA: What would you say is the most incorrect assumption about Mexican cuisine? What do you want people to know about Mexican cuisine?
CC: Think about Mexican food as you would your favorite French and Italian; they’re allowed to do new things.