In addition to running his hugely successful flagship, THE RESTAURANT, for the past decade, Chef Donnie Masterton has just opened three new restaurants in the past year and is about to open a fifth this summer. He sat down with his official biographer Daniel Kandell for THIS interview:
Did you ever imagine you would end up here?
I’ve always loved Mexico. And I pictured myself living here at some point in my life. I never thought I would become a full time resident though. I really can’t picture myself living anywhere else.
How has living in Mexico changed or influenced your cuisine?
Cooking is a constant evolution. The product you are working with is constantly changing once it’s pulled from the earth, turned from milk to cheese, slaughtered or taken off the hook. I think that influences my cooking more than where I’m cooking it. Of course my environment has a lot to do with it as well. Cooking in San Miguel has taught me to be more patient when cooking and to let the food speak for itself.
What do you think has been the major contribution of THE RESTAURANT?
I think we changed the culinary landscape and set a higher standard that was nonexistent before we opened. We raised the bar and continue to do so. We’ve always been very aware that sourcing locally and using as many organic products as possible is as important as roasting the perfect chicken. It all starts at the source. When we opened there was very little of that happening here.
What do you think sets THE RESTAURANT apart from the other restaurants in San Miguel?
Consistency, our high level of service and our menu, that continues to evolve and changes with the seasons.
Why do you put so much emphasis on the classics?
As a cook there are dishes that you just don’t need to fuck with. They have been perfected and are a thing of beauty. I have no problem recreating red wine braised short ribs with root vegetables and horseradish mashed potato. It’s important to know the classics and the technique and teach it to your cooks. When I first started cooking I learned those dishes and techniques. And when I started running my own kitchen my menu was predominantly made up of dishes I learned early in my career. Dishes that I learned from my mentors and the classics. I still pay homage to those chefs and the masters before them.
So tell me about your recent foray into fast food.
Birdie’s Burgers is a fast casual concept that came out of The Restaurant’s Burger Night which we started 9 years ago. It’s fun, we serve local grass-fed beef burger with fun toppings, fries and shakes. We also have Taco Lab, a causal taco stand serving guisados, tostadas and frozen margaritas.
Why did you decide to open up a restaurant outside of town?
There was a void (on the Dolores Hidalgo side) of town for any full service restaurants and a market. So we opened El Vergel a year ago and it’s a beautiful French bistro in a country setting with a gourmet market. Now people in that area don’t have to drive 20 minutes into Centro to dine out. And we deliver!
And I hear that you have yet another cafe and restaurant in the works?!
We are partnering with some friends to open a cafe and a Mediterranean restaurant in a 10-room boutique hotel at the end of summer. The concept will encompass all of the Mediterranean and follows The Moorish Trail. We will be making all of our flats breads and pita in-house and we are designing a special tagine stove for cooking Moroccan tagines.
With so many restaurants in so many different locations, do you worry about maintaining a level of quality in each of them?
Consistency and quality does weigh heavily on my mind and we try to maintain a high level of quality by building a team of qualified employees through constant training and education. We try to instill a sense of ownership in all of our employees. This is their livelihood as much as it is mine.
You’re no longer just a chef or a chef-owner. You’re now a restaurateur. What is your business philosophy?
KEEP IT SIMPLE!
What was it like working at the Coachella?
We did two dinners for 250 people that took place in a rose garden with a continuous table. It was really cool because I was able to bring my two daughters, Graciella and Sophia, and my niece and nephew to help me cook for the event and stay through the weekend and watch the show.
What are some of your favorite joints to eat in San Miguel and what’s your favorite thing to order at each one?
Tacos Don Felix – enchiladas verdes; Gorditas Don Ciro – any of their guidsados; Mi Vida – Pizza Night on Sundays and their lasagna; Tacos Andy – Al Pastor; Bui – their chicken for two and tuna tartare; Sirena Gorda – the artichoke, octopus carpaccio; La Parada – their braised pork with whipped potatoes.