Chef Oscar Moreno uses historic cooking implements in the kitchen — such as a metate, a lava rock surface for grinding corn, and a molcajete, a mortar used to make salsa. Photo by Michael Buck
Oscar Moreno was working at Serafina’s, a now-closed Italian restaurant in Holland, when he received a phone call that led to the opportunity of his dreams.
Peter Krupp, managing partner of Grand Rapids restaurant group CDKI Holdings, had heard from multiple customers about Moreno’s talent as a chef, so he called him up one day and invited him to meet in downtown Grand Rapids at a vacant bookstore.
As the two walked through the former Brian’s Books at 114 E. Fulton St., Krupp revealed he had purchased it and wanted Moreno to join him in creating a Mexican restaurant at which Moreno would be the executive chef.
The restaurant, called MeXo, opened this past spring.
Since coming to the United States years ago, Moreno was waiting for this opportunity.
He got his start cooking for hotels in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he learned a wide range of international culinary styles.
But his region’s Aztec heritage called to him.
“I always was intrigued by my own culture and by my own cuisine, and then I asked myself, ‘How did they do it back then?’” Moreno said.
“Then, when I came to the United States, I saw that (Mexican) cuisine was going in a different direction, it was going more toward Tex-Mex. People perceived our cuisine as very second-class — not as healthy, giant portions, not with the punch of flavors that real Mexican food has and the freshness — and I saw that as my mission, that I wanted to show my own culture and how it’s getting it done in Mexico.”
Moreno said the call from Krupp was perfect timing.
“I was looking for other opportunities that would be more of a challenge for myself,” he said.
Dubbing Krupp a “foodie” who travels all over the world eating at the best restaurants, Moreno said the two committed to bringing a fresh concept to Grand Rapids’ culinary scene — right down to the name.
“The reason I call it MeXo is the ‘Me,’ that is from Mesoamerica, and the ‘Xo,’ that is after the Spaniards, they called it Mexico with an ‘s’ sound,” Moreno said. “That represents exactly the concept we want to do — from the Mesoamerican food to the modern Mexican food. We aren’t focused per region of Mexico; we are focused more on the history of Mexico.”
He said he prefers the term “pre-Hispanic” instead of “authentic” Mexican restaurant.
“I don’t really like the word ‘authentic,’ because it’s overused,” Moreno said. “But I’m proud of my culture because every time I go back in history (to reflect on) my ancestors, what they did, they did it best. How the Aztecs ground the corn, how they did the agriculture back then.
“I think we have to show that part of what they did in the pre-Hispanic times. And that’s part of my mission, to show it in this restaurant.”
Moreno uses historic cooking implements in the kitchen — such as a metate, a lava rock surface for grinding corn; a molcajete, a mortar used to make salsa; and a molino, a mill with stone plates for making masa dough out of ground corn.
And then there are the cooking processes, including caldo de piedra — making seafood soup with hot rocks — and nixtamal, in which corn is cooked with calcium hydroxide and water and soaked overnight, breaking down enzymes and creating amino acids to make the grain more nutritious.
“That’s why they said back then the tortilla from fresh corn and masa had almost the same nutrients as the chicken and the same content of protein,” Moreno said. “So back then, a full meal was tortilla, rice and beans, and then they had their nutrients for the day.”
The food he makes in the restaurant is mainly gluten- and dairy-free, as the Aztec people did not have wheat or cows — although some of the more modern food has dairy, such as the cheese plate featuring selections from Mexico.
Moreno teaches his 14 cooks — many of whom are Grand Rapids Community College culinary school honor students — how to use the cookery and follow the appropriate processes.
“They have the opportunity to learn another cuisine, something different,” Moreno said — just like he did as a youth in Puerto Vallarta.
Moreno also trains the wait staff to tell the story of the food and answer questions. At the time of the Business Journal’s visit, the servers were in the middle of a three-day training session to be followed by a test.
“For them, it’s like learning another language because it’s learning about another culture,” Moreno said.
“If I notice they are not explaining a dish correctly or having trouble with one of the ingredients in the dish, I make the dish again, and I gather the servers to myself. Then I make them try to sell me the dish, so that way, I can help them when they are saying the ingredients and how to pronounce it and how important are the ingredients in that dish, what makes the dish unique.
“Whatever we’re doing back there in the kitchen, we wanted the service translated out here to our guests.”
He said diners often are caught off guard by the higher-end prices and the food.
“A lot of people are focused on the pricing, but the pricing I think is partly because we import (many of) the vegetables from Mexico, and we grow some of our herbs in-house. We have those greenhouses downstairs,” Moreno said.
“It is not that we are trying to bring Chicago or New York here, we are just trying to bring a better quality Mexican food to town. I know it’s going to take time because a lot of people have the mindsets and different expectations.”
Geoff Gaskin, president of CDKI, said Moreno’s focus on education helps prepare patrons for the experience.
“I thought we might battle a little bit of people coming in and going, ‘All right, where’s the enchilada, where’s the taco, where’s the quesadilla?’ But to quote him, ‘We’re serving and creating memories.’ We’re taking people back and educating them on the style of cooking,” he said.
Moreno credits his focus on service to the training of his mentor, Chef Donato Garcia, who gave him his first kitchen job and paid for his culinary training.
“Donato always pointed out to me if I was going to be a chef, I had to start with service first. ‘Your dishes don’t end on the window of the kitchen.’ You have to think when you create a dish, how will the guests perceive the plates, the dishes?” Moreno said.
“Until this day, I walk in the dining room and get the guest feedback straight from the guests and (see) if I need to adjust something.”
Moreno is paying his success forward as a volunteer mentor with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s “Feeding Minds, Mouths and Pockets” training program for food entrepreneurs.
The program has 21 participants from 11 restaurants who are learning finance and management principles. Moreno said he gleaned those skills while working in chain restaurants.
“As a chef, it’s also important to learn the other side of the business,” he said. “I think chains and corporations, they do studies and have it down to a science of how they make money. For an independent restaurant, it’s good to know that part.”
Moreno said his restaurant is planning to get more connected in the community by offering cultural experiences such as a Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebratory dinner in October.
He also would like to teach classes on cooking on a budget for Grand Rapids senior citizens, like he has done at Holland churches in the past.
“Bigger still, I want to show Mexican cuisine, that it’s not just about, like Geoff said, enchiladas, burritos and full of cheese,” Moreno said.
“There’s a lot more we need to show, and I think it’s fair for our guests to know where it came from and how Mexican food has been for so long.”