Lately, buzz about Los Angeles’ culinary scene and the state of Mexican cuisine are two of the regular topics on food talk rotation. Just this month, Bourdain dedicated a show to these ideas, while the The New York Times hailed the diversity of the city’s many leading young chefs, and separately traced the evolution of modern Mexican cuisine, which is now finding an important global voice. Diego Hernández, Baja native, best known for his Valle de Guadalupe restaurant Corazón de Tierra, which sits at #39 on the Latin America 50 Best Restaurant List, straddles the intersection of these two movements: he’s a Mexican chef making a name for himself in Los Angeles with the opening of his first stateside restaurant, Verlaine.
Born and raised in Ensenada, a port city in Baja California, Hernández was trained by the top chefs in the country. His education began in 2001 at Ensenada mainstay Manzanilla, a fine dining spot that put Baja on the map by approaching Mexican food through the use of local ingredients mixed with chef Benito Molina’s wild creativity. He then went on to further his skills within two vastly different, but equally influential, kitchens: Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain’s Pangea in Monterrey and Enrique Olvera’s Pujol in Mexico City. Coming back to Ensenada in 2008, with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for the bounty of Baja, he attended Tijuana Culinary Art School, while taking a crack at opening his first restaurant, Uno. A few years later, he was running his now-renowned Corazón de Tierra, in partnership with Eileen and Phil Gregory, proprietors of La Villa del Valle, a Guadalupe Valley inn, and Vena Cava winery, both part of the same property on which Corazón resides.
A low-key observer with striking green eyes, Hernández’ approach to food has relied on three tenets — organic, sustainable, local — and he brings that philosophy to Verlaine. He is obsessive in his understanding of ingredients and spends time getting to know the ways in which the earth informs the flavors of his plates. His Baja restaurant relies on its garden for herbs, fruits, and vegetables, olive oils and honey. In Los Angeles, the mission is similar; Hernández spent much of the pre-opening phase developing relationships with farmers and producers throughout California. As he explains, “There is a French word, very common in winemaking, terroir, usually used as a way of saying soil or land, but another meaning could be ‘the application of human culture to nature.’ In my understanding, what ‘cuisine from terroir’ could mean includes human character working with the nature of its surroundings. That is why both Corazon and Verlaine use seafood from the Pacific and, while Corazon grows much of its food because it is in the countryside, Verlaine works with different farms.” His favorite, so far, has been Windrose Farms. “I think [owner] Barbara’s soil practices are very similar to those in Corazon. I can almost guess her soil has the same pH because some of the flavors in our vegetables are so alike.”
The parallels between his two restaurants’ home are obvious, be it the temperate sea air, the reliance on local produce and vegetables, or the interior mountains, so when asked about the decision to open his first U.S. restaurant in Los Angeles, Hernández is clear. “I always thought that LA is the city that makes the most sense for me. It’s so close to Baja, with a great food scene. It’s a city I’ve been coming since I was a kid, and it’s closer to me than going to Mexico City, for example. We share the Pacific Ocean, which I feel very attached to.” (The chef had opened Mexico City’s Conchita Cocina concept in 2015, but removed himself to commit to Verlaine.) From early word, it seems to make sense to critics and diners, as well.
Verlaine, housed in the old Dominick’s of West Hollywood, is an iconic 69-year old space that has been revamped with a modern eye. It’s very LA, swank in parts, comfortable in others. It photographs well. The main bar area, which evokes the original Dominick’s space, is now flanked by marble cocktail tables. The rear patio, which serves as the dining room, is particularly striking with black and white tiled floor, pinstriped banquettes, and black marble and brass accents. Exposed brick walls are offset by lush vegetation and an open rooftop that lets in copious amounts of sunlight. It seems the perfect LA counterpoint to Corazón de Tierra, which also feels modern and light, but true to the surrounding Guadalupe Valley, is set among vineyards and gardens. Another photogenic beauty.
But for the young chef, it’s more about what’s on the plate. “I come from a region with no tradition but overwhelming culture,” Hernández explains when asked about translating Baja California to a Los Angeles crowd. Expressing culture on both of his menus can be a rigorous creative exercise. His saving grace often comes in the form of his chefs. “My chefs understand Baja like no others – Juan [Jose Santos] in Corazón and Esteban [Lluis] in Verlaine. Their way of doing things and how they lead the kitchens often adds the final touch on our concepts.”
When pressed about how Lluis was chosen to lead Verlaine, Hernández is effusive. “Esteban is a long time friend, one of the best chefs in Baja. I admire him so much and the restaurant that he used to have in Mexicali [Ambar] was one of my favorites. Life put us in the situation that we ended up working together at Corazón, and he is the perfect person for this position. He is amazing; I am no better chef than he is, only different.”
Now settled into a rhythm with Los Angeles, Lluis and Verlaine, we caught up with Chef Diego Hernández for just a few more questions.
What do you love about LA? What do you hate?
I love the food scene. I love that LA is this cool city that has people from all over the world, it’s multicultural, and you can have access to anything. Of course, I hate the traffic. And that sometimes, in different situations, I’ve felt that what is trendy is more valuable than what is real and steals attention.
Describe Verlaine in your own words.
Verlaine is a restaurant that expresses the actual moment of the Los Angeles restaurant scene — the design, the food, the cocktail menu, the patio, and the wild beast (inside bar). Modern Mexican cuisine is in the spotlight everywhere, but especially here, with the work of chefs like Carlos Salgado, Wes Avila, Ray Garcia, Eddie Ruiz, and Danny Godinez. It makes total sense that a chef from Mexico would want to come and test his food on a bigger audience here.
How it is different from Corazón de Tierra? What does it share?
Corazón is a place that totally depends on its surroundings; Verlaine is the same. By sharing the same philosophical idea both places get to different conclusions. Nature doesn’t care about political borders. We share the same weather, the same ocean and a very similar geography. We get influence from one to the other in both ways. We are the same.
How are Alta and Baja California similar in terms of ingredients? How are they different?
To me we are the same in many ways; I guess the only difference is the infrastructure. When you have as many options as you have in LA, it’s easy to get confused on what is real and what is a product of marketing. On the other hand, when you have so little infrastructure as we have in Baja, people struggle in a different way, but it’s easier to spot what is good. It’s easier to put your hand on the best product you have seen, when you have less options.
Are there any ingredients you can’t get in LA that you use regularly on your Baja menus?
I can’t live without Baja olive oil. I’m very close to having it here.
What are the challenges in working in Los Angeles?
Not spending as much time as I want in Ensenada, which to me is the best place on Earth. Dealing with different rules on how to run a business is a challenge at the moment, but will get over that soon.
How do cocktails figure into Verlaine?
We love mezcal — which is definitely the thing to try in Verlaine.
What is your signature dish at Verlaine?
A lot of people ask for the tamal, which I think is delicious, but also I think the fact that is a well-known technique made in a different way, makes it more familiar to people. But personally, I love our oysters. They are from the Pacific Ocean, from Laguna Manuela in Vizcayno Bay, in the Biosphere Reserve. They are the cleanest, most natural, organic oysters you can get. The flavor is briny, as you would expect oysters from the Pacific to be. Salty, and that is exactly the reason why we love them. To me, that is the signature dish. I get them sent directly from the producer. So if you don’t like briny, Pacific oysters, I suggest you stay away.