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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 adjusted.

"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 Salmon.

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 choosing.

"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 stringent specifications.

"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 product."

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, Maine


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