Applications are open for the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2020, which will see an aspiring chef complete stages in three restaurants in the 50 Best family: Mirazur, The Test Kitchen and Leo. Fancy travelling the world in the name of gastronomic education? Then get your application in by Friday 20th December. Enjoy a taste of the experience through Andersen Lee’s reflections on working at Quintonil in Mexico City as part of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2019.
After training in the kitchens of Odette in Singapore and Core by Clare Smyth in London, 20-year-old Canadian cook Andersen Lee packed his bags for Mexico City to work alongside chef Jorge Vallejo at celebrated Mexican restaurant Quintonil, No.24 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019, for the final stage of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2019. As he prepares to return to his home country, Lee reflects on the key learnings from the period at Quintonil and gives a taster of his top seven experiences that applicants can expect if they are lucky enough to be selected for the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2020.
1. You will discover ingredients you have never worked with
“At Quintonil, I used so much produce I hadn’t experienced, such as mamey, which is like a cantaloupe melon and an avocado at the same time. I worked with citruses I had never seen and with insects, too. On the tasting menu, there is a dish with avocado and ant larvae, a fish dish with adobo sauce that has grasshopper in it, and the chorizo also has ants. I ate a whole cockroach and it was delicious – fatty, rich and it tasted like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was like trying bacon for the first time.”
Left: Quintonil dish featuring charred mamey; right: Catch of the day 'barbacoa' style in a grasshopper 'adobo' sauce
2. You will meet people who will inspire you
“One of the people who really makes Quintonil is the chef de cuisine, Eliana [Godínez]. She's always smiling and making sure everyone is okay; she never yells and that has a really positive impact on the team. She's on the pass at such a busy restaurant, but she keeps everything calm and happy and just pumps the dishes out. She took such good care of all of us. Chef Jorge [Vallejo] has so much experience – he worked at Noma, Alinea and Pujol – and you can tell. He changes the menu so often and has so many great ideas – he has his own standards, but he also knows how to have fun with them.”
3. You will discover new culinary cultures and be part of their reinvention
“Quintonil's style is heritage Mexican cuisine, but refined. The flavours are always sharp, with at least a little acid or spice. The team comes up with new dishes based on what you can get on the street, like aguachile done really well or crab tostada, but beautifully presented. At nearly every restaurant, you are served the tostada with the crab, sauces and herbs on top. But at Quintonil, they plate the crab underneath, then there is a cracker, and on the cracker they put a habanero chilli mayonnaise, radish, onions and micro-cilantro. It's a gorgeous dish.”
Lee working in Quintonil's kitchen
4. You may have to break your own rules
“At Quintonil, things are often a little bit burnt, but it’s done to perfection. The flavour of smoke and burnt can be pretty awful if not done right, but they do it right every single time. So in the kitchen, you're burning lots of things, everything turns black, and you think ‘oh my god, is this what they want?’ In any other kitchen, you'd bin it right away, but here, it's such an important component to their dishes. The habanero chilli mayo is incredible. You work the chilli into a paste, then you turn it black and mix it with some mayonnaise. The result is delicious."
5. You will try your hand at complex dishes (and won’t always succeed)
“Making Mexican tortillas is the hardest thing ever. You touch the tortilla dough and the first thing you think is to put flour on it, because it sticks and it's so humid and soft. But at Quintonil, they don't… They just put in the press and it's perfectly pressed every time, then they drop it onto the plancha where it cooks. I tried dropping it on the plancha and it always folded itself over. It's so complicated, they told me not waste my time trying to do it. They said they grow up watching their grandmas do it – it's part of their culture, you just have to grow up doing it.”
Lee, Vallejo and the Quintonil team
6. You will feel out of your comfort zone – but it will be worth it
“Sometimes, everything feels like a culture shock, but it's also fun. I would recommend to anybody to work at Quintonil. From the moment you arrive, you're already super uncomfortable, because you're not in your own kitchen – that's the best part of every stage. Then, if you’re from an English-speaking country, the team speaks another language, so you have to be patient with yourself and with other people as well. But I learnt new cooking techniques and ways of working. It really helped me grow, made me more confident and opened my eyes to the rest of the world."
7. You will build your confidence and skills
“A stage is like an away fixture in sports. You're not at home, you're not in your own kitchen that you work in and live in every day, so you have to be confident in your abilities. If you're not feeling confident, then show up with the sharpest knife, always look immaculate with the cleanest jacket and practice everything. Even if you don't really think that you live up to how great the cooks are around you, then at least you have these things that you can control. Give yourself the best chance you can and set yourself up for success – people will respect you more and they will show you everything they can.”