an interview with chef TJ Steele, from Claro
There is so many reasons for my love of Mexican food. From tacos, tostadas, and chilaquilles, to basic arroz con pollos, the authenticity of the cuisine is full of vibrant flavors and fresh ingredients.
The bottom line is, Mexican cuisine is a comfort food that’s never boring or plain.
In most Mexican dishes, corn (or known as maize) is the main ingredient. Corn is used to make masa (or maize dough) for tortillas.
The quality of masa determines the freshness and the flavor of tortillas.
Talking about freshly made tortillas, I reached out to chef TJ Steele.
He is the chef/owner of Claro, a Michelin starred restaurant in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The restaurant delivers authentic Mexican food with Oaxacan influences. In Claro, their tortillas, chorizos, cheeses, and moles are made by hands.
Chef TJ has spent more than a decade traveling between Oaxaca (pronounce: wah-haak-kah) and New York learning about Oaxacan cuisine. His love story for the culture, food, and people of Oaxaca brought him to open Claro in 2017. He’s also worked with Mezcaleros and opened his mezcal company, El-Buho. The heirloom corn used in the restaurant is from his farm in Oaxaca.
I can’t help but want to learn more about the richness of Oaxacan Cuisine and to see how to make tortillas in a way I’ve never seen before.
S: Hi chef TJ, can you explain how you chose to open an Oaxacan influenced restaurant in New York City?
TJ: I visited Oaxaca about 15 years ago when I was traveling across Mexico. During the course of my travel, I developed a real interest in the culture, food, and people. I noticed the food in Oaxaca was different than other parts of Mexico. I love their homestyle cooking and flavor. It resonates with me because it feels to me like the food grandma is cooking. Then I started working for a family there learning more about the food and how its being prepared.
It’s just like a love story, I started going back and forth between Oaxaca and New York and developed a stronger connection and relationship with its culture and people.
S: What makes food from Oaxaca different from other parts of Mexico?
TJ: Oaxaca is the southern part of Mexico. Just like southern food here in America, Oaxacan food is comforting, rich, and flavorful, containing many different kinds of spices and ingredients. They’re known for 7 different moles that each family has passed on from person to person and each mole is particular to their own family.
S: What is the most common food people eat in Oaxaca?
TJ: I’d say corn is the backbone of their diet. Without corn, they would not have survived. They use corn to make tacos, tetelas (a triangle shaped tortillas), tlayudas (a large, thin, grilled tortillas), memelas (English muffins like tortillas), and they even use corn to thicken drinks, like chocolate beverages.
S: Could you explain how you make your tortillas?
TJ: Sure, and I’ll show you how!
How to make tortilla with chef TJ:
- Soak heirloom dry corn with Calcium Hydroxide (cal) over night. Cal is an alkaline agent used in the nixtamalization process.
Nixtamalization describes the process to remove the starch from corn.
This process provides several nutritional benefits including making the corn more digestible and more nutritious. It helps to release niacin (also known as vitamin B3) which is a vital nutrient for the body.
- The next day, chef TJ drains the nixtamalized corn, rinses it, and rubs off some of outer layer of the kernels.
- With a thin stream of water added to the miller, he pours corn into the miller to grind them. The ground corn now becomes masa (the dough used to make tortillas).
- Adding salt to the dough, chef TJ kneads the masa to make sure it’s not dry and that it has a silky texture before going into the tortilla press machine.
- After the dough is flattened by tortilla press, he uses a flat top stove to grill the tortillas.
It is by far the best tortillas I’ve ever had!