The New York Restaurant Celebrating Back-of-House Labor and Creativity
Juan Velazco hasn't seen his mom in 14 years, not since he moved to New York City from the Puebla region of Mexico. Still, he feels connected to her through tlacoyo-puffy, stuffed, oval-shaped masa cakes. When he was growing up, Velazco would pick avocado leaves to season beans for the dish. On rainy days, especially, his mom would make tlacoyo on a comal set over a wood fire, and they would eat them alongside steaming cups of sweet café de olla.
Velazco's tlacoyo -- filled with refried beans and requesón cheese and topped with salsa, crema, lettuce, and a fried egg -- is now served at Kuxé in New York's Greenwich Village. Opened in March by veteran chef and restaurateur Julian Medina, the restaurant is named after the indigenous Totonac word for corn, and its menu focuses on home-cooking, mostly from Puebla but with dishes from Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Mexico City, too.
While the food is traditional, the menu format is not. Below each item appears the name of the cook who developed it, along with a quote that shares their personal history with the dish. That's how diners know that the mole poblano has roots in Alfredo Salazar's family celebrations, and the enfrijoladas, redolent with hoja santa, were inspired by a version Victor Lopez's mom made back home. Dishes from Ramon Barreto, Emma Morales, Felipe Moso, Yuliani Palafox, Fidel Rodriguez, and Moises Rodriguez round out the menu.
Many restaurants run on the hierarchical, military-inspired brigade system that's designed to showcase ingredients, dishes, and a singular talent -- the chef -- not workers' collective labor or creative contributions. In that context, Kuxé's menu is quietly revolutionary, and it debuted at a time when the restaurant industry is grappling with bigger issues of accountability, equity, and fair labor practices.
Last summer, former cooks at Sqirl in Los Angeles, accused Chef Jessica Koslow of taking their recipes and claiming them as her own. Other call-outs from restaurant workers followed, and it was a warning shot to the brigade system and its failure to credit cooks. But while lots of folks in the food world agreed that recipe attribution matters, few imagined what it should look like.
Kuxé is one possible answer.
Medina also owns Toloache, Coppelia, Tacuba Mexican Cantina, La Chula, and TQS. In late fall, after New York City briefly brought back indoor dining and then quickly banned it again, he closed the Thompson Street location of Toloache, which was underperforming before the pandemic. Slow business meant that his cooks would lose shifts and pay in a year when they had already been out of work for three months. As Medina began to think about reconcepting the space, he wanted his team to take centerstage.
"It occurred to me to make a concept where we could involve chefs from all our restaurants, and they could pick up an extra shift by working here," says Medina. "Why not create a restaurant where the chefs make their own recipes -- what I like to cook, what I used to eat, dishes my parents fed me, or that my grandmother and grandfather cooked at home. What do I remember that brings joy to me and my family?"
Medina asked nine of his cooks to submit five ideas, but they each turned in 15 to 20. He built out the menu from there, selecting a few items from each cook and filling in gaps with dishes he ate as a kid in Mexico City and on family trips to Acapulco. Because so many of the dishes centered on masa, Medina partnered with Masienda to source blue and white organic corn from Oaxaca. "That's how we named the place. In Mexico, when you eat anything, you eat it with tortillas. Kuxé is life," says Medina.
Kuxé, the restaurant, is also a gesture of appreciation. "Last year, everyone was so down and devastated. I wanted to pump up the team and make them feel part of something. Seeing their names on the menu, it's exciting for everyone."
Before moving to New York in 2007, Fidel Rodriguez helped his mother and brother run a kiosk taqueria in Puebla. After working for Medina for 14 years, Rodriguez is now chef de cuisine of Toloache, and his family's al pastor (cooked on a proper gyro machine) and carnitas (drip-drip-drip-dripping with pork juice) are stars of Kuxé's taco menu. He also contributed crispy, beefy, cheesy tacos de birria with consommé for dunking, a dish his mom made for big gatherings.
While Rodriguez had developed specials for Toloache, he also had bigger ambitions simmering. "I've been waiting for a concept like this for a couple of years, or a chance to put my name on a menu," he says. "I'm making dishes with passion for this concept."
Felipe Moso is grateful about the opportunity to share food from Guerrero, where he says cooks appreciate the nuance of beans grown in different soils and plots of land. Mosco learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, who ran a food business from their home, and the family's chorizo-laced, chicharrón-topped frijoles puercos made Kuxé's final menu, as did his chile relleno. "My favorite food was always chile relleno, because at Christmas, all our family would gather together and make it," he says.
Filtered through such a talented group of chefs, all that heart and pride translates into inviting, delicious, and technically brilliant food, and Medina thinks that the menu process they're developing at Kuxé will influence dish creation at his other restaurants. "We get excited because the food is so delicious. Why not put food from someone's family back in Mexico into other Mexican restaurants?" he says.The format also conveys a heightened sense of intentionality. There's not a chicken sandwich on the menu to compete with other restaurants. Kuxé serves cemitas (Puebla's chicken milanesa on a sesame bun) because it was the meal Velazco requested each year for his birthday. "When I was a little kid, we didn't have money for meat and fish," Velazco says. "My mom would get a slice of chicken and fry it with breadcrumbs. It was fantastic. It was special."