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In the Kitchen: Gaytan goes seafood

Via Real executive chef returns to Mexican roots with creative seafood menu additions

By Joan M. Lang
September 01, 2007

Tex-Mex food is not known for seafood. Felipe Gaytan no longer serves Tex-Mex food. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that. When Via Real owner Fran Lively Manners asked Gaytan to take over as executive chef eight years ago, it was precisely because she wanted to take the venerable Irving, Texas, restaurant in an entirely new direction. Gaytan has helped bring the 20-year-old Via Real into a national spotlight by specializing in creative and contemporary Nuevo Latino food, including such specialties as Macadamia-nut Crusted Diver Scallops with Mango Basil Sauce, and the signature Pecan Crusted Chilean Sea Bass with Jalapeno-Pineapple Sauce.

Born and raised in northeastern Mexico, on the coast near Tampico, Gaytan grew up with seafood. "And now, if it comes from the sea, it is my specialty," says Gaytan.

He first came to the United States in 1984, enjoying spring break on South Padre Island in the time-honored fashion of students everywhere (he started out studying law). But his mother owned a restaurant in Mexico, and despite her insistence that the work was too hard for her own children, Gaytan took a job as an apprentice cook at the Sheraton South Padre Island Beach Hotel & Condominiums.

"I loved it," he says. "I'd start work at five in the morning and before I realized it, my shift would be over. I'd beg my chef to let me stay."

Wanting to see more of Texas, Gaytan moved to San Antonio, landing a job at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, where he eventually became executive sous chef. From there, Gaytan went to the top-rated Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, where he cooked a "chef's choice" meal for Manners and her husband in 1999. She persuaded Gaytan to come and consult at Via Real for two months, and it was there that he found his calling.

"Cooking is one thing, but when you can cook from the inside-out, from the heart, then you can find your true passion," says Gaytan.

His goal at Via Real was to perfect a new kind of cooking, one that relied upon the finest-quality ingredients like beef and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, and an array of piquant chiles to create specialties that would push beyond the boundaries of the standard Tex-Mex- and Southwestern-style menu.

His first task was to find new seafood purveyors.

"I ordered the best products I could get from everyone, and then decided what I would work with based on the quality," he says. Gaytan's loyalty is such that he selected a single seafood supplier: Seafood Supply Co. in Dallas.

"They will get me what I want, whatever it is, and always the best possible quality," he says.

The other big challenge was the kitchen. With no desire to simply fire the current team, he had to set about training them to an entirely new skill level. For example, he was bringing in only whole fish - "nothing comes into the kitchen unless it is the whole fish," insists Gaytan - and the staff was resistant. They would tell him, "'Chef, this is too hard. We don't know how to do this,'" he recalls.

Gaytan rolled up his sleeves and showed the staff how to cut fish, working and learning with them.

"It is the only way to know what they are capable of," he says. "And you must show that you respect them."

It's telling that Gaytan speaks of the training process as one in which he, too, learns. "Be with them, learn with them, get to know them," he says. "It's the only way to get what you truly want."

The Via Real kitchen staff's expertise is bolstered by its longevity: eight of the 21 kitchen employees have been there for 14 years or more. And today it is a point of pride that Gaytan was able to promote one of the veterans, Joel Amador, to the position of sous chef.

To create new dishes, however, Gaytan must be alone, working with the product, trying new ideas until he has something good enough to perfect with the rest of the staff.

Via Real's most popular dish is Chilean sea bass, rolled in pecans (an East Texas specialty) and served with cilantro mashed potatoes and a hot-sweet sauce of roasted pineapple and jalapenos. The dish is a frequent special, selling 200-plus orders a week on a wide-ranging menu that offers more than 20 different entrées plus additional nightly features.

Another favorite is the Coconut Shrimp, accounting for more than 160 orders, and Shrimp Adobo, wild Mexican shrimp made with two kinds of chiles, fruit anchos and smoky chipotles, with roasted onions and tomatoes to add sweetness and acidity.

In fact, this balance of sweetness, acid and heat is characteristic of Gaytan's cooking, and he is particularly fond of using fruit, even in seafood dishes where its presence 
is unfamiliar.

"You can get a great balance using fresh fruit and chiles; the fruit tempers the heat," he explains.

A recent special is a case in point: Striped Bass in an Orange and Lobster Butter Sauce over Risotto with a "Texas vegetable" side dish of haricots verts (small string beans) red peppers, and poblanos cooked with whole pecans and a bit of maple syrup. Copper River salmon also takes well to sweet and heat. The fish is sear-sautéed and served with a complex roasted chipotle and raspberry chutney.

"Although many people are most familiar with seafood that is grilled or prepared very simply, I find that you can use quite a bit of imagination with it," says Gaytan.

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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