Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2021: Fermín Núñez
You can smell Suerte from a block away. East Sixth Street is one of Austin's busiest and most energetic thoroughfares, but follow your nose—nostrils inflating to inhale the air thick with the unmistakable smell of toasted corn—and you will find yourself standing in front of chef Fermín Núñez's altar to all things masa. It's one of a growing number of restaurants in the country devoted to the art of nixtamalization, a process that prepares dried corn kernels to be ground into the fresh dough used to make tortillas and tostadas so redolent with flavor that they will make you ask if you've ever truly tasted corn before.
You will not find a single packaged tortilla at Suerte. The restaurant goes through, on average, 100 to 150 pounds of dried corn every single night. That translates into nearly 300 pounds of masa. The busiest station in the kitchen is the tortilla station, which produces between 2,500 and 3,000 from-scratch tortillas each shift. It is typically operated by one person. This dedication to masa is part of Núñez's determination to offer an alternative definition of Tex-Mex cooking beyond piles of gooey nachos, sizzling fajitas platters, and jugs of frozen margaritas so large they could be mistaken for kiddie pools.
Núñez partners with Barton Springs Mill, which works with local farmers around Texas, to source the highest-quality corn possible. "Rather than flying corn from Mexico, which is outstanding, we wanted to take corn that was grown here in Texas and treat it like you would corn in Mexico," explains Núñez. He is extremely proud of the result. "Our tortillas, they're not like Mexican tortillas," he says. "But they are inspired by Mexico, and they taste to me like Mexico."
Ultimately, his goal with the food at Suerte is to give it a real sense of place, while honoring his roots as a Mexican immigrant. "Suerte is its own little Mexico, but in Austin," explains Núñez. "Its first language is English, but it's very fluent in Spanish." It's a philosophy he has expanded to other parts of the menu.
Take the tender suadero tacos that you can inevitably find on every table: Núñez and his team cook brisket low and slow for about five hours before mixing the meat with what he calls "black magic oil," an enticing mixture of toasted garlic, morita chiles, and black sesame seeds. Or how he plays around with local, nontraditional ingredients. "Fennel grows like crazy here in Austin throughout the earlier part of the year," says Núñez. "Why not make a fennel salsa with green tomatillos?"
It's also evident in the way he cooks seafood. The menu at Suerte features a rotating selection of crudos, aguachiles, and ceviches (served with the restaurant's excellent tostadas). Fresh fish is seasoned with Mexican ingredients like hibiscus and avocado, but also white soy, kombu, and black sesame seeds—all of which nod to his time working in the kitchen at Uchiko, chef Tyson Cole's beloved Japanese-inspired Austin institution.
Núñez, who was raised in the northern Mexican town of Torreón, figured out pretty quickly that he was meant to be in the kitchen. He spent a year in college in San Antonio but found that he was less interested in school and more interested in meeting people and being an 18-year-old living away from home for the first time. It was during that year that he happened upon Anthony Bourdain's influential book, Kitchen Confidential. "I would find myself driving to Barnes & Noble just to read a chapter or two at a time." The book convinced him that cooking could be a career—though Núñez is quick to point out that he is drawn to the work and not to the partying culture Bourdain's book glorified.
At the age of 19, Núñez entered culinary school and he suddenly knew where he belonged. "For the first time in my life, I was doing very well in school because it didn't feel like 'school' to me," he recalls. He found that tasks like making the perfect broth and deboning chickens came naturally to him.
Though he did not miss being at a traditional university, he was envious of his friends' spring break trips, so he planned one of his own, to Europe, sleeping on the couch in a friend's living room in San Antonio to save up money. The experience opened Núñez's mind to what food could be—and forced him to eat humble pie. "I thought I was God's gift to cooking, but I quickly realized that when you go to Europe and you go to Italy, you would see people in hostels that are making pasta better than any restaurant in the U.S.," he says with a laugh.
Núñez returned to Texas, where he worked at celebrated Austin restaurant La Condesa and staged at Barley Swine, eventually becoming the chef de cuisine at Launderette. He was making plans to cook in New York when his now–business partner Sam Hellman-Mass approached him about opening Núñez's dream restaurant, one centered on masa. "Mexican food, to me, was always something that I was very passionate about because it meant something to me, and a tortilla—it's the canvas of Mexican cooking," he says. "I was immediately passionate about the concept."
Núñez, who had just turned 28, initially felt like he might be too young to run such a project, but he gave himself until the age 30 for it to work out. "I've always been of the mindset that if I'm going to gamble on something, it might as well be on myself," he says. Safe to say, the gamble has paid off. Núñez recently celebrated his 33rd birthday, and Suerte is busier than ever with Núñez spreading the gospel of good tortillas to everyone who walks through the doors.
Photos by Cedric Angeles