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An accomplished chef talks about the woman who taught him to taste.
It’s been 25 years since chef Fidel Lopez left the small town where he was raised in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, but the influence of his upbringing—especially his mother’s cooking—can still be felt at Centro Cocina Mexicana, the Sacramento restaurant where he has served as head chef for the past six years.
“My mother was a wonderful cook. She and my sisters would prepare all the meals and make tortillas by hand twice a day. One of my favorite dishes of hers was mole de olla, which is a seasonal soup containing pork, fresh corn and cactus,” recalls Lopez. “She was the one who inspired me to cook.”
Lopez moved to the United States, where he landed his first restaurant job: washing dishes at 33rd Street Bistro. The assignment proved life changing. “I was always watching the chef, Fred Haines, do everything. I wanted to know how he created different dishes, like panini or pasta or burgers. Eventually, Fred gave me the opportunity to move into the kitchen, and he trained me how to do beautiful dishes. I really enjoyed it.”
Before long, Lopez found himself in high demand as a chef. He bounced around to different kitchens as new opportunities arose, but there was always one establishment where he dreamed of cooking: Centro. “I used to come eat here years ago,” says Lopez. “I remember trying the salsas. They were like the salsas my mom used to make. The chile relleno was made from scratch. I thought this place was very unique. No other restaurant was cooking Mexican food like that.”
In 2012, Lopez’s dream came true when executive chef Kurt Spataro called to offer him the head chef position at Centro. The affirmation from Spartaro was an ego boost, but it took a visit from Lopez’s No. 1 critic—his mother—to prove he had really made it. “When my mom and dad came here five years ago, I served them myself. When they tasted the food, my mom said, ‘Son, this is good.’ She is very proud of me.”
Over the years, Lopez has traveled extensively around Mexico, picking up new menu ideas from every mercado, fonda and street vendor he visits. When he needs advice, he still calls his mother, who taught him to cook with all his senses. “My mother and grandmother never used recipes, but their dishes were consistently good. They taught me to taste everything as I go.”
Lopez takes pleasure in introducing diners to the regional cuisines of Mexico. “I feel so proud of myself when people say the food is delicious, then ask me what part of Mexico I’m from,” he says. “We serve all of the dishes with love and care and passion.” Mom wouldn’t have it any other way.