For Best New Chef Val Cantu, Less is More

An ingredient-focused, seasonal philosophy means the food at Cantu’s San Francisco hotspot is greater than the sum of its parts.

Val Cantu, chef-owner at Californios in San Francisco’s Mission District, has a simple goal for his restaurant: “We just try to make food that we think is super, super delicious.”

For him, that looks like a clean, creative menu that is part Mexican, part Californian and totally seasonal. For Californios guests, including Food & Wine Executive Food Editor Kate Heddings, “the food is so thoughtful, and so well-executed, and”—as per Cantu’s credo—“so delicious.”

“When I was growing up, we had a small Mexican restaurant in a really small town,” says Cantu. “I guess something with that stuck with me.” After graduating from UT Austin—English and business degree in hand, with no idea what to do next—he traveled through Europe and Mexico on an adventure that would further inform his culinary sensibilities.

After staging and cooking stints at world-class restaurants—including Mexico City’s Pujol, widely considered one of the best restaurants on the planet, and Michelin-starred SF institutions Saison and Sons & Daughters—Cantu and family opened Californios in 2015. Carolyn, Californios co-owner and Cantu’s wife, acts as the Maitre D’; her sister Charlotte Randolph, also a co-owner, is the Beverage Director.

Each course on the 24-seat restaurant’s extensive tasting menu is focused on the best produce available. Says Cantu, “the tricky thing with what we do with Mexican food is that we try not to cook outside of the seasons.” How do they do it? “We’re constantly going to the markets, constantly getting updates from our farmers...we always look forward to the summer with watermelon, and all the berries and tomatoes.”

To highlight the seasonal bounty, Cantu makes sure things stay simple, keeping the ingredients list short and eschewing unnecessary garnishes. Part of that is endemic to the NorCal aesthetic—“I try not to put more than five things on a plate,” says the chef. “Let’s not use that tuille or chip or something that’s going to take away from this beautiful product. I think that’s what California cuisine is.”

But it’s also a reflection of Cantu’s development as a cook and tastemaker in Mexican cuisine. “As I’ve matured as a cook, as a chef, [I] return and enjoy simpler things,” he says. “A perfectly cooked piece of meat with a beautiful sauce...what else do you need?”

For more on our latest class of BNCs, check out the rest of the Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2017.

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