« February 2007 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Cozymel’s fish focus
New management at pan-Latin chain thinks outside the tortilla
By Joan M. Lang
February 01, 2007
Seafood stands to gain at Cozymel's. "Mexico has 5,200 miles
of coastline, and we want to bring that to the table," says
Tudie Frank-Johnson, corporate executive chef for the 12-unit,
Dallas-based Mexican grill chain, and its new sibling, Wapango,
a pan-Latin prototype that just opened in Chesterfield, Mo.
Since buying out the chain from Brinker International in
January 2004, restaurateur Jack Baum and other executives from
the new management team, who have worked together for years at
such well known Dallas concepts as Nickel City Grill and
Newport's Seafood & Steak, have been amping up Cozymel's
menu to reflect growing interest in more authentic Mexican
cuisine, including seafood, as the chain continues to expand
into and beyond its eight-state marketplace.
The management team at Cozymel's is betting that the
pan-Latin themed Wapango, which takes its name from the lively
Spanish huapango dance, could be the next chainable thing.
"The pan-Asian approach worked for P.F. Chang's; why can't
pan-Latin work for us?" posits Frank-Johnson. The first Wapango
opened in September 2006 in an upscale mall in suburban
Chesterfield, Mo., and its high-style mix of Cuban, Brazilian
and Peruvian elements is being carefully monitored and
"At Cozymel's, we still have the enchiladas and beans, but
we wanted to expand beyond typical Tex-Mex into lighter,
fresher, more healthful specialties," says Frank-Johnson, who
has worked with Baum since the early Newport's days. Seafood
plays a significant role in that new strategy.
"You have to remember that a lot of popular 'Mexican' foods,
like fajitas, were actually American inventions," notes the
chef. "We wanted to get back to the kind of food people eat in
Mexico, and that includes a lot of seafood."
Seafood is currently included or available in 21 of the
restaurant's 55 menu items, and represent a growing category
for Cozymel's, from items like Calamari Frito (fried calamari
with chipotle aioli and ranchero sauces) and shrimp and scallop
ceviche, to Baja fish tacos and Chipotle Honey Glazed
At Wapango, Frank-Johnson and her staff have wandered freely
through the Latin landscape, offering their twist on the food
of Cuba and Central and South America. Seafood specialties
include Crab Spring Rolls and Corn & Shrimp Fritters,
Shrimp and Yuca Salad and Coconut Lemongrass Ahi Tuna.
Mexican and Latin seasonings give both concepts license to
work with more flavorful seafood species such as ahi and
salmon, both of which are well-represented on the menus at
Cozymel's and Wapango. Along with shrimp, these products are
offered as options in everything from fajitas to entrée salads.
In addition, Frank-Johnson requires each location to offer at
least one daily fresh-fish special of the kitchen manager's
"This gives the staff an opportunity to watch the market and
plan items that fit within our price point," says
Frank-Johnson. "If halibut becomes available at under $10 to
$11 a pound, they can use that. There's also a lot of marlin
and sea bass, which are sturdy and flavorful enough to stand up
to pan-searing with a spice coating."
Because of their background at Newport's, Baum,
Frank-Johnson and assistant corporate chef Mario Maldonado (who
is Guatemalan) are well versed in seafood. This knowledge is
passed along to Cozymel's unit-level cooks and kitchen managers
via comprehensive training, recipe standardization and
"Our recipes are pretty technique-oriented," notes
Frank-Johnson, citing the best-selling Enchiladas Cancun. For
this specialty, shrimp and scallops are gently poached with
pico de gallo sauce, then rolled to order in corn tortillas
with fresh spinach and a lime-accented Cancun-style veloute
sauce. Like all of Cozymel's enchiladas - and many of its other
signature dishes - assembling and cooking the item to order
yields better integrity of the different flavors and textures
than holding the product cooked on a steam table. But it makes
for more complicated prep procedures.
"We do a lot of training around the menu to get it right,"
says Frank-Johnson. "There's nothing worse than overcooked or
unevenly cooked seafood. It's not a very forgiving
Frank-Johnson and Maldonado provide a lot of ongoing
support, with weekly planning meetings and consultations as
necessary on any menu-related issues.
Cozymel's also starts its least experienced personnel on the
grill, rather than in the pantry, which is more typical of
full-menu eateries. "Pantry is a difficult spot. You're doing
all the appetizers, salads, soups and desserts, and you need to
be organized and precise," says Frank-Johnson. "On the other
hand, the grill is the easiest station to learn."
From the grill, cooks might then move to sauté, which
requires additional prep and presentation skills. By the time
they move to pantry, employees have received thoroughgoing
instruction in all aspects of kitchen production. Training also
includes rigorous lessons in receiving, storing and handling
seafood. And seafood is only held for two days before it's
tossed, so forecasting and purchasing are also vital.
Unit kitchen members are taught to buy often and locally
whenever possible. "We get most of our fresh seafood deliveries
in either daily or every other day," explains Frank-Johnson.
The company's vendors include Landlock Seafood in Dallas and
Fabulous Fish in New York.
The team is also looking at seafood to be a vital part of a
new Mediterranean concept now in development, tentatively named
Red Sails. "We envision a lot of shared platters like whole
grilled fish with tapenade, as well as small plates, sides and
salads so that customers can put together their own tasting
menu," says Frank-Johnson.
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,