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From Chef Pedro’s Mother’s Comal to Valle
A Tortilla’s Journey from Oaxaca, Mexico to Venice, CA
Interview with Chef Pedro Aquino
By Shelley Kleyn Armistead
One of the greatest privileges of working with the community that we do, is the ability to travel to their home state of Oaxaca. A state filled with thousands of years of tradition. 8000 years of growing corn, 4000 years of making ceramics, and so much more. Each trip I get an insight to just the teeniest part of this world. It’s been years of slowly building trust, of being allowed a snapshot into the culture and history that shaped the humans that form our company. I have a curiosity for the people who participated in who they have become. And for me a connection to their mothers. Pedro’s mother is one of those humans. I have two sons, and I can only hope that one day they speak about me, the way our team speaks about their mothers.
Shelley Kleyn Armistead: What are your earliest memories of cooking?
Chef Pedro Aquino: Since I can remember, ever since I was a kid going to school, my mom would always have coffee ready and we would sit by the fire pit that she built every morning. Just having coffee and making tortillas.
And that's the fire pit at the back of your house?
Yes. You’ve been there — the kitchen next to the bathroom, that’s where she used to cook back in the day. It was actually part of an old Adobe house that we originally grew up in on the right of the property. She had all three of us in that one room. An uncle's grandmother was her midwife. Now she has a kitchen on the other side. Where the house that they now live in on the property is, that used to be a beautiful nopal garden, I have never seen anything like it again. She would go and cut the nopales for our meals. My uncle, Valentin’s father, who lived behind us had a huge Guaje tree [Valentin has worked in the kitchen at Gjelina since the beginning, and sometimes works in the pastry department at Gjusta]. The property was divided into 4 between 4 brothers, so I have uncles and family living on all sides.
So can I ask you something out of curiosity? Because it's not something I know about. When you say coffee, do kids drink coffee too?
From what age? Do you remember that?
Since I can remember. I mean, I was like, probably seven, eight years old.
Do you give your kids coffee?
Yes, we drink coffee. Sometimes it's chocolate. And then we’ll just dip a tortilla into the coffee or chocolate.
And it's always flour tortilla or corn tortilla?
Ok, so corn tortilla into the chocolate and the coffee. And that was like your morning ritual?
That was my breakfast before going to school.
And you went to school in San Marcos Tlapazola?
Yes, from kindergarten to sixth grade.
And in sixth grade you came here?
No, after sixth grade/ seventh grade to ninth grade I went to Tlacolula, which is the city.
And then you came here?
After ninth grade, I was fifteen years old then.
And that's when you went to Venice High?
Yes, that's when I went to Venice High for six months. Because when I came here, my mentality was just working, helping my mom and my dad. I wasn't planning on going back to school. I remember my dad was like, “You're going to school,” and I was like, “No, it's not what I came here for.”
It's funny, Juan said the same thing. He was like, the only mentality was to get in and make money to send back home.
Exactly, that really was the mentality.
But then how did you hear about Venice High?
Oh, my dad — you know, I had a cousin that was living here and he went to Venice High. We were living on San Juan Street. And then my dad was like, “No, you're going to school, at least to learn some basic English so you can have better opportunities, and not just be washing dishes like me.” And I was like, “Okay, but I'm telling you, I'm working.” So yeah. And he took me to his job and I got to know his friends.
Where did he work here?
The place was called Something’s Fishy. It was by Topanga Canyon, like right next to the beach.
It's not the Reel Inn that's there now?
No, that's a little further, like another four minutes walking down the street. The restaurant is no longer there. I worked there for 6-9 months, I wasn’t going to school. I used to catch the bus at Santa Monica Pier everyday to work. Eventually the authorities spoke to me to say that they saw me at the bus stop everyday, and that if I didn’t go to school they would put me in jail.
What was your first position?
Dishwasher. I used to wash dishes with my very best friend from Oaxaca. He came around the same time, and I brought him there like a week or two weeks after I started. So we both were working there at night. He and I are both the same age, and we both used to enjoy it a lot.
I met Jose (who eventually became our head bread baker at Gjusta), he was my first mentor. He felt so much older than me at the time, but when we came to work together at Gjelina I realized that he was only 2 years older than me. I asked Jose to come and work at Gjelina about 6 months after I started and became a sous chef. He was still working with my dad, but now at an Italian restaurant on Windward Circle, and we needed a pizza cook. Later he became involved in our bread program, but more about that later - Shelley
I also met Hiroshi at Something’s Fishy, who called me brother because I was Ignacio’s son, who he called dad. A Japanese guy who spoke to me in both Japanese and Spanish. He wanted to teach me how to make sushi, and at the end of his shift he always gave me the coins at the bottom of the tip bucket.
I then worked at Taco Bell during school, but I didn’t feel aligned with their food preparation and I lasted 4 months. They did have a program for people in high school.
I then worked at 72 Market Street in Venice for 3 months as a dishwasher before it closed, then at Capri part time across the street from Wabi Sabi until that opened. I really wanted a full time job and so asked at Wabi Sabi when it opened. There I worked under another Hiroshi, who taught me everything about fileting fish and sushi. Everyone who knows Pedro knows what accomplished knife skills he has - Shelley
I also brought my cousin Valentin, who grew up in the house behind mine with the Gjuaje tree, and who had arrived in LA, married at 15, and was also living with me in the San Juan house.
Where is your best friend from Oaxaca that you started as a dishwasher with?
He lives in Las Vegas.
Are you still in touch?
Yeah, we're still in touch. And that's how we started.
So you never went back to school?
I did. After another year and a half.
And that's when you started running track?
That's when I started running track and field, cross country.
It took me a while to find another job because everyone was just like, “You're so young.” That was another reason I went back to school because I needed some paperwork from school to get a job.
Were you running when you were in Oaxaca? Or was that something you found at Venice High?
I used to, but not as a sport. We used to run to get to Juan's town because we knew that they played basketball there in the evening. So we would run - like seven or eight of us. We'd run there and then play basketball, and they'd bet a case of soda so whoever won, won the case of soda.
Wait, but if you ran from some San Marcos Tlapazola to San Bartolo... that's like eight miles?
No, like eight kilometers, probably.
That's around four miles.
Yeah, four miles.
You're running double that now on your morning runs! So, did you know Juan?
No, we didn't know each other. Maybe we saw each other and we played.
What kind of soda was it that you could win?
Coca Cola, Pepsi, you know those sodas. We'd have so much fun.
That's so cool. Does a specific meal ingredient or ritual come to mind from your childhood?
A bunch. Because from when I was maybe like eight years old until I came here, my dad had bulls. I mean, he was here, but we had like two or four bulls and I used to take care of them. So after school that was my job, to take them out in the fields so they could eat. And then like during rainy times, we were gathering a lot of wild herbs so my mom could make mole, or herbs, or stew like the famous sopa de guía de calabaza and chepil.
Oh yes, the pumpkin flower soup — that's super famous. I eat that every time I go.
We'd get wood so they could cook beans. There are a lot of meals that people don't know about these days that come to my mind, you know?
That you think came directly from your participation going out into the fields with your family? Or a lot of your meals from actually trading with people like at Tlacolula?
Yeah, both of those.
I remember Juan saying that to me as well. I asked him, "What's your earliest memory of food?" And he said picking tomatoes with his uncle.
Yeah, they're known for that there.
And picking corn as well. Like those two things: the act of actually going and picking the food, and then eating it, was the strongest memory.
And when you say that, I remember going with my mom to Juan's town. My mom still makes the comales and ollas de barro rojo (red clay) - that's what my town is known for: the red clay. So we'll go there and walk in, and they will trade, you know, they will get some tortillas de garbanzos, avocados, tomatoes…
And trade it for the clay. That was something I found so beautiful when I was in Tlacolula. For me, obviously I'm a cash buyer so I go and buy with cash, but you watched families exchange ingredients for, like, a live turkey or for a chicken. It's like a swap system, bartering system. It's beautiful.
If I'm not mistaken, I think it's called a trueque. There's a word for that.
The barter system.
Yeah, the trade system.
We'd love to hear the story of your mother and sister's tortillas. What are your ries of them making the tortillas? Did they have a special technique? Where would they get the ingredients to make them? And what would they serve them with?
My mom has been making tortillas since she was probably like 12 years old. She lost her parents, my grandparents, very early - I think she was eight years old, her father passed away when she was 12. And then she learned quickly because it was just her and her grandmother.
Video courtesy of Shelley Kleyn Armistead
So when your grandparents passed away, your great-grandmother took her in?
Exactly. And then her sister moved to Oaxaca, her brother got married, and then basically it was just my mom, so she learned at a very early age. She thinks she only went to first grade for school. Since I can remember, I'd always see my mom every day preparing the tortillas.
Is there a particular sound that was made that you're like, "Oh, mom's making tortillas or dad's moving the bulls out?" I find it so often that I don't even have to think about it in our home - like there's a particular sound that tells me what everyone is actually doing.
For me, it's more visual. Everything they're making is with the same corn that we'd be cultivating and growing. We'd grow the corn every season, then we'd pick it, and they'd keep it in our room, and then we stripped all the leaves and all of that - my sister and I would help with preparing it. We were not happy to do that - that was a whole job, you know. Now I see my kids - when I ask them to do something, they react like that too. We just wanted to go play. But yeah, we'd learn it. We'd see my mom doing it and we'd help, and she'd go and do her thing making the nixtamal and saving some of the ash from burning the wood - saving that because she was either making nixtamal to make tortillas or to make tejate. So for me, it is more visual because it was ongoing everyday.
I'm curious, where you were harvesting your corn, was that like a shared land with other families? Or was that your own piece of property that your dad used to take his bulls to?
It's our own piece of land. When my dad was here, he bought a piece of land. How the house was built, we had a room to sleep in, but most of it was used to store the corn.
Were you sleeping upstairs?
I was sleeping on the bottom floor. I made the upstairs myself now that I have kids and I send them to Oaxaca, but the initial purpose was to store corn, and nothing else.
Wow. I've got a beautiful photo of you in your mom's original kitchen. It feels like a confirmation photograph?
So what would you and your sister serve with the tortillas?
Right out of the comal, my mom would just crack an egg and then she'd make some leftover beans or amarillo — we used to eat a lot of mole amarillo. She would make empanadas or Oaxacan string cheese, stuff like that. Or literally sometimes just taking the tortillas right off the comal and sprinkling some salt on it, and just rolling it and making a taco just like that.
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It's my favorite meal. My favorite experience ever eating that way was exactly what you speak to, but even at Juan's aunt's house, when I first went to see her, she had a fire on the floor, but the next time I went to see her, she made it in a wheelbarrow with bricks up beside it. So like every time we bought stuff from her, she had added things to her kitchen. But just making that and getting and cracking the egg, and then it had a little bit of queso. So good.
A little salsa de molcajete. You don't need anything else. That's the meal right there.
Nothing else. Your mom and sister's tortillas have made their way to Valle and hopefully Gjusta Grocer in the future. Can you share the story of how this idea unfolded? And what steps have been involved in bringing the tortillas to Venice?
It all started with the Valle project and then just looking for ways to bring in the memories that would make it more authentic, more real to me and to Juan, you know. We wish we could make them here, but with Valle everything happens so quickly, so we had to find a source. But it all comes back to helping out families in Oaxaca.
I love the idea that when somebody gets a tlayuda at Valle that the plate they're eating off of comes from the earth of Oaxaca, and that the base of the tlayuda comes from the corn of Oaxaca. You're actually eating the true experience.
What does it take to get them here? So you call up your sister, you're like, “Okay, I need tortillas.” And then she makes it, but then where does she have to go? Who does she get it to to get it here?
There's actually someone here that runs the business of transporting things from Oaxaca to here. So they go every Monday and they pick it up. So I'll call my sister on Friday, and she'll have it ready by Monday in the afternoon so they can pick it up.
So the business goes to San Marcos Tlapazola to pick up at your mom's house? Your family doesn't have to go drop it off in Tlacolula? That's so cool.
No, they drive and they pick it up and take it from there, and we'll have it by Friday.
And where do you pick it up from here?
They have a location in Mid-City, so I pick it up there.
That's amazing. Muchas gracias, Chef.
Chef Pedro Aquino grew up in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola just outside Oaxaca City — he graduated from Venice High, Venice, CA where he has lived half of his life. Pedro started working as a prep chef in the kitchen of Gjelina in 2008, became a sous chef in 2009, opened MTN as head chef in 2017, and opened Valle as head chef and partner in May of 2020. What started out as a pandemic take-out pop-up became a fully developed dine-in and to-go operation. Pedro and his other Valle partner, Juan, have taken over the lease at 174 Kinney Street in Santa Monica for a future Valle opening. You can find both of them in NYC late summer as they lead our opening of Gjelina, on 45 Bond Street.