La Boca Loca
I remember trying nachos for the first time and it blowing my mind. I was so excited as a young child at this exotic dish and even more excited when mum leaned over and in a hushed tone declared "we can easily make this at home you know". And we did, most weeks and not long after Old El Paso swaggered into town and the nz perception of Mexican food was liberally smothered with sour cream and cheese.
But the internet changed that (the internet changed EVERYTHING), and along with cheaper flights to Mexico and the US, we are starting to realise what real Mexican food looks, smells and tastes like. We were a bit slow on the uptake, which is why Lucas Putnam (an ex California resident) and Marianne Elliott took matters into their own hands and opened La Boca Loca. They aren't inclined to label themselves authentic Mexican, but it is a damn sight better than those nachos I ate in the 90s. At the helm in the kitchen is Will Michell, a perfect example of what Eat & Greet was started for. A straight talking guy, who is passionate about food, ingredients and the people he interacts with; he'll shove a goat taco into your hand at the City Market at 8am for breakfast and he does his utmost to blow your head off with his habanero salsa.
We sat down over coffee and he explained how a wise crack from Bristol ended up cooking Mexican in New Zealand...
How did you end up living in New Zealand?
I grew up in Bristol, went to cook in London when I was 19 where I worked in a cool cocktail bar Lonsdale in Notting Hill. I had lots of fun and partied a lot. Then worked at Providores, Peter Gordon’s restaurant, where I met my girlfriend, who is a kiwi. Her visa ran out so we moved to Australia, my visa ran out so we moved here, this is the only place we can live together!
How did you come to work at La Boca Loca?
We were down in Christchurch for two years. I was just about to start a cool new project in a really old heritage building. In fact, I was just going out the door to sign the contract when the earthquake struck. The building came down, so I was unemployed and there is only so long you can hang around with no income at all. So I called the one person I knew in Wellington, a friend I had worked with in London, and ended up helping them set up a new restaurant called La Boca Loca and then I just took over from there.
Had you cooked Mexican food before?
Nup. It is funny I suppose. But I like doing new and interesting things. I couldn’t open a classic English pub, I wouldn’t know where to start. If you grow up in the UK it is so multicultural, there is so much access to different types of food. So that has influenced my cooking.
Who else influenced your cooking style?
Peter Gordon’s food was fusion and there were no rules. Also working with Christine Manfield at her restaurant Universal in Sydney. She is one of the most amazing chefs I’ve ever worked with. I learnt a lot there about Asian flavours and balancing spices. That is why I was so interested in Mexican, as it was a challenge and it would be boring to do the same thing every night. It is also nice to take an outside look on a cuisine.
What challenges do you have finding the right ingredients?
Winter is hard, try and get 75 ripe avocados 7 days a week, it’s impossible. We have to take guacamole off the menu in winter and there is an outcry! People go crazy. But this summer was amazing, we had massive crops of chillies. We also work with the growers. So for the tomatillos, you can grow them in NZ really well, but growers never knew there was a market for it. So the first year we got a couple of kilos, last year we got 30 kilos, I ended up saying to our grower, if you plant it, we will buy them. So this year we took about a ton! But in the winter you have to be smart about your ingredients and make the most of those when they are in season. So we took a lot of those tomatillos, pickled them or made puree and froze itt. We also import a few key ingredients. We work with a great company Rancho Gordo, they are setup to work with really small producers in Mexico. The chocolate we sell is made by one woman by hand. We are third in the chain in getting it. I want to know exactly where my food has come from and who has touched it. Food is all about the people really.
What made you decide to be a chef?
I like eating and I can’t spell. I think if you ask most chefs around the world they will give that answer.
What do you love about the industry?
Food is always about people – from the producers, right to the people eating it and the process in between. When I have a bad day at the restaurant, I’ll always go home and cook for friends or my girlfriend. It is really pleasurable - opening a bottle of wine, sit around and have a chat. It is that interaction. I loved that about our Wellington on a Plate event last year. It was so funny, standing on the kitchen side watching people come in – it was like an awkward wedding at first, but put a few jugs of margaritas in front of people and then after a while the conversation starts flowing. (Beth: There are still tickets available for this years' event, I went last year and it was such a great event - http://www.wellingtononaplate.com/events/fiesta-de-la-familia/)
Who taught you everything you know?
Christine Manfield, who I mentioned earlier. She taught me a lot. I worked there for almost a year. She is an amazing woman. Her attitude to food is very similar to mine. It is moulded by her travel. She had Universal in Sydney for 10 years, then had a restaurant in London for a few years and after that closed down it took her two years to get back to Australia. She travelled along the way and wrote a cookbook about it - Fire. In the book there are sections on every country she went to. She goes and meets the people and eats the food and has that “anything goes” attitude. That shapes you as a chef, you have to get out and experience different food.
Who do you admire in the industry?
I admire what Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall does back home. He is based in the West Country, so he uses all the ingredients I grew up with and all the producers we had access to. But his attitude to sustainability is something that really speaks to me because it’s the way we should all eat. There isn’t enough food to feed us all so you have to eat locally and sustainably as possible. You go to a supermarket now and everything is in packets – sliced up apples in a bag, onions already diced. It is almost not the consumers’ fault, it is forced upon them.
Paul from Nikau was amazing to me and my girlfriend after the earthquake. I had met him for about a week and after the earthquake he was the first person to call and offered us somewhere to work.
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
The Goat Enmolada, because it is a bit different, people get weird about goat. But I love it, it is way better than lamb. It is also the dish I came up with after doing loads of reading and research, I took all the ingredients we had and just went for it. It’s not something you would see in Mexico, but we are in NZ and we take our own inspiration from there. That dish represents that more than anything.
Do you have a signature dish?
Based on sales it is the beef burrito. I mean it is a bloody good dish. When you make it every single day you get a bit bored of it, but I actually ate it the other day for my lunch, and I thought “shit this is good, no wonder we sell so many of them, it is tasty”.
Where do you like to eat in Wellington?
Ti Kouka. I know Shep quite well, I think he does interesting stuff. He is classically trained but not set in his ways. I like Duke’s. It is always really good. I went to Ombra the other day, it is excellent.
What do you make for yourself on a long day?
A lot of Thai food, really fresh spicy salads. I’m a bit of chilli fiend, which is why I was drawn to Mexican food too. I have a very high tolerance so I have to check my chilli levels sometimes. When I make a spicy dish at the restaurant I have to get someone to check it. If I find it too spicy then it’s way too spicy to serve at the restaurant.
But now the weather is turning, I love slow braising meats, filling the house with nice slow cooked meat smells.
What do you love about Mexican food?
The relaxedness, is that a word? It’s lets-whack-some-stuff-in-a-tortilla-and-get-it-down-ya sort of food. For example a sopes is a little masa pastry case, if you go to all the different regions in Mexico and the sopes means something completely different, take this corn thing and use what ever it is around you. There aren’t many rules. I hate cooking French food for that reason. Can I put something into this crème brule? NO because then it’s not a crème brulee. It is what it is.
What is your biggest challenge in the restaurant?
Trying to keep a balance between traditional dishes and the ingredients we have around us. We have the commitment to be organic, sustainable and as local as possible but obviously cooking Mexican food in NZ has drawbacks in that area.
What ingredient can you not live with out?
What would you have for your last supper?
My Nan’s shepherd pie
Do you have a vivid childhood memory around food?
I was an audacious little shit when I was about eight. We went on a family holiday to France. I remember stubbornly ordering a dozen oysters and the precocious little shit that I was, I ate one spat it out and my mum had to eat the rest of them. I guess that shows my willingness to try new things I suppose.
What is your favourite cookbook?
Fire – Christine Mansfield. It is a beautiful cookbook. It has a velvet cover, it is really tactile, it’s gorgeous.
What food would you like to try but haven’t yet?
I’ve eaten a lot of North African food but I really want to try more central African food. There was this amazing Ethiopian restaurant in London that I went to a few times, but that is a type of food that I don’t know a lot about.
What is happening in the future for La Boca Loca?
Bringing in organic tequilas and small batch mezcal. Tequila has a bad reputation, everyone has had a bad experience, but there is so much good stuff out there and you can’t get it here. There are lots of small distilleries making excellent tequila that you can sit there and sip, it is really tasty. Mezcal is the next big thing – all tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is a place in Mexico so it needs to come from there and made with blue agave, but Mezcal can be made with all the many other agave varieties. We want to educate NZ on tequila, we have over 40 different types, so Lucas is running some classes and tastings.
I convinced Will to come and join us at the City Market for one of the Eat & Greet classes. He suggested we delve deeper into the mysterious world of mole - savoury chocolate? Woah, what? More information here - http://holymolewill.eventbrite.co.nz/
La Boca Loca, 19 Park Road, Miramar, Wellington.
(04) 388 2451
Open for brunch, lunch and dinner Wednesday till Monday (closed Tuesdays).