This chef is making waves from a railway car in San Antonio

Photo: contributed

I met chef Diego Galicia once - years ago, in an airport somewhere - both passing the time drinking while on layovers, en route to our respective destinations. I couldn't tell you where that was, but I can recall a lot about our conversation, and why we easily became friends.

What ensued is a 10 year long friendship that's endured divorce, moves, and the opening of Diego's wildly successful restaurant with partner Rico Torres, Mixtli in San Antonio, Texas.

Diego epitomizes the clichéd notion of “chef” - fiery, passionate, offensive. But beneath this oft exterior, is a kind and loyal friend, a man who cares deeply for those lucky enough to be welcomed into his circle.

Photo: contributed

A proud Mexican native - Toluca, specifically - though he now calls the US home. I’ve had endless conversations with Diego on his dreams, always centred on owning a restaurant. But when we spoke recently, he shared that cooking was never really his plan. “I intended to go to college after high school to study psychology as a last resort since I had no earthly idea what I was going to do with my life. I fell into cooking out of necessity. I needed a job pretty badly and since I wasn’t good at anything, I walked into a diner and asked for a job doing whatever. Fast forward 12 years and here we are.”

Diego is ruthlessly honest - speak with him for a short period and that becomes clear. I’ve had the privilege of seeing his career skyrocket from fledgling cook to Food and Wine Magazine’s 2017 chef of the year, James Beard Award nominee and Eater Travel's "38 Essential Restaurants of Texas". Yet with each accolade, Diego only becomes more humble. I ask him what he attributes to his success, and the answer is simple. “Consistency. If you do something very well day in and day out, you can only thrive.”

Photo: contributed

I’ll never forget our phone call when Diego giddily romanced the name and concept of his restaurant 6 years ago. “Mixtli” - Nahuatl, the Aztec language for cloud. “The ethos of the restaurant is that every 45 days we move from region to region in Mexico. We have 31 states in the country so we develop a tasting menu based on that one specific part of the country. Mexico is very old and an important cuisine in the world. We have thousands of unique dishes from all over the country. The main idea is to get the guests to learn that Mexico is more than tacos and nachos.”

Mixtli is operated entirely out of a railway car that seats a mere 12 people. “We don’t have gas, we have a bathroom, and that’s about it. We’ve garnered a ton of different awards and it’s incredibly inspiring to be able to do what we love out of this metal box. It’s a total of six chefs in the kitchen so it does get crowded sometimes.”

And what do a chef and wine writer talk about if not food and wine pairings? Though it’s yet to happen, the idea of collaboration has always been a goal for us. Wine is integral to the experience at Mixtli, and someday we hope for Canadian producers to appear on his menu. “I think the wine on any given dish amplifies the resolution in the painting we create. It broadens the spectrum when it comes to flavor, like a magnifying glass. It makes everything pop, and the dishes brighter.”

Photo: contributed

Mixtli works with Fabien Jacob for their wine program, arguably the top sommelier in San Antonio. “Fabien is from Lyon and it’s as though wine was embedded in his brain since birth. He is incredibly knowledgeable and a tremendous guy. Although I don’t follow sommeliers as much as I geek out on chefs, I’m pretty lucky to work in a time where such talented people are making waves.”

We end our chat with Diego sharing the greatest lesson he's learned since embarking on this path. “Success has a way of making your circle smaller and smaller. People often want all the recognition and awards for work they haven’t done.”

You can follow Diego @atthediegoshow and Mixtli @mixtlicloud

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