I hear about Mateo Granados from a few people before I actually get to talk to him myself. David and Ondine mention him when they find out I’m looking for interesting perspectives. And I crosscheck the reference with Julie, my winemaker-foodie friend. She nods her head. Yes. Definitely.
And when I’m talking to Evie at the Tierra Vegetables Farm Stand, she says: “Oh. You HAVE to talk to Mateo.” And she calls him right there and leaves a message with my phone number.
Mateo calls me the next day. I’m driving home and don’t really get a chance to explain myself, but we agree to meet the following Wednesday, at 9:00 am at the Palette Art Café.
I arrive early to sort myself out before he arrives. He rushes in a few minutes late, dripping and sheepish. He’s been at his kitchen making tamales since 6:00 am. He wanted to shower and clean up before he met me. We order coffee and sit down to chat.
He’s animated. He’s not only explaining himself with words. He uses his face, his hands. He gestures. He just starts explaining.
“What I’m doing,” he says, “Is reproducing the food I grew up eating—but with the bounty of Sonoma County growers.” He smiles and nods his head, “Modern Yucatan Cuisine.”
He explains a bit about the Nuevo Latino cuisine movement and states: “But we’re taking it further. We’re making it regional: Flavors of the Yucatan—with Sonoma County flair.”
“I grew up in the breadbasket of Mexico. My father was a butcher and my mother—an artist. This is what I know. This is what I love. This”—he motions to the table in front of us as if there were a grandiose spread right there, “This is just what I do.”
I ask him to explain more of his past. How did he come to Sonoma County? Believe it or not, he came to the US as a professional soccer player. It wasn’t long though, before he injured himself too much to continue to play. “My housemate at the time was Michael Bonaccorsi. We would spend all of our time together tasting. Tasting food. Tasting wine. And expressing ourselves. That is how I learned English: talking about food and wine with Michael Bonaccorsi.”
Michael went on to become one of the first twenty master sommeliers in the United States. Mateo went on to work his way up through some of the Bay Area’s top restaurants and is now a pedigree chef. He’s held positions such as Executive Sous Chef at Masa’s in San Francisco and Executive chef at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen here in Healdsburg.
LOCAL FINE DINING
Now, Mateo’s goal is to start his own fine dining experience. He aims to bring his refined Mayan recipes to the same level as respected French, Italian, and Spanish cuisine.
He started small. In fact, he went back to square one. In 2004 he started selling his handmade tamales in the Farmer’s Markets all over Sonoma County. His philosophy: “Grow local. Know local. Buy local.”
His commitment to his customers is 100% locally grown and produced. He buys his ingredients from over 30 growers in Sonoma County. “If you love what you do, you have to do it right.” He’s a passionate proponent of not only knowing where his food comes from, but knowing the grower and how it was grown. The Local Harvest website defines community supported agriculture as “putting the farmers’ face on food.”
Mateo certainly puts a face on every ingredient he uses. He describes every dish with a list of identities. It wasn’t just queso fresco. It was Bodega Bay Queso Fresco. Black Sheep bacon. Pug’s Leap Goat Cheese. Black Beans from Tierra Vegetables. And so many more. I couldn’t keep track.
“You can’t beat it. The flavors. The smells. The textures. I get vegetables from Tierra—there’s still earth on them. And roots!” He cups his hands as if he’s holding a bulb of garlic or something and brings them towards his face. I can tell he can smell the earth.
The idea of fresh, local produce is to keep it alive until you use it to cook. He tells me: “Enjoy it while you can. Because the fresher it is, the more alive it is on your plate. The more flavor explodes in your mouth.”
Another part of Mateo’s philosophy is: Respect. Respect the land. Respect the food. Respect the growers. Respect the producers. He knows how much energy, time, and labor it takes to grow a tomato, an onion, a carrot, a pig. Because he knows his suppliers, he doesn’t waste. He creates his signature dishes around what’s available in the season and finds a use for everything. Everything. He doesn’t waste anything because he doesn’t want anything to go to waste. He’s very aware of what he’s throwing away.
He tells me all of this and I take notes. Finally, he takes a moment to sip his coffee and looks at me expectantly: “Do you have any questions?”
“Well,” I say thoughtfully, “Is it possible to have an experience?” He looks at me and thinks for a second and says: “Ok. You want an experience? Let’s go to my kitchen.”
FRESH FAST FABULOUS
We drive to the kitchen where he prepares his tamales. As we get out of his car, he points to two big trucks and adds with a grin: “Those. Those are complete mobile kitchens. I am so committed to local ingredients and the idea of fresh. I bring everything to your site and prepare it right there.”
He shows me around the kitchen and introduces me to his workers who are preparing tamales for his Farmer’s Markets. He makes me taste some of his garnishes: olives from Lou Preston, beets and cabbage cured with bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and cloves.
I realize what he means by keeping the produce alive until it’s on your plate (or in this case—in my mouth). (A few weeks later as I’m writing this article and thinking about his cured beets and cabbage, I’m still salivating from the memory).
“OK,” he pulls a cast iron fry pan from the cupboard, “Let’s make a quesadilla.” He asks his helper to clean some cactus.
“Come over here,” he motions and makes me smell the olive oil. “Can you beat that?” He pours a dollop to the fry pan and turns up the heat. He adds the cactus pads for a few seconds on each side then removes them to a cutting board. Then, he goes into the other room to get out his knives and comes back sharpening one: “To make good food, you have to have good knives.” He’s cheeky.
He slices some onion and crystallizes it in the pan. Then dices the cactus pads, slices a bit of Pug’s Leap Cambremer goat cheese, and layers it all together on a soft tortilla. All of which, he now puts it back in the fry pan, fast. Both sides. Just enough to grill the tortilla and soften the cheese.
He whisks it out onto a cutting board, quarters the quesadilla and decorates the top with tomatilla salsa and his cured cabbage condiments. He tops it all off with a handful of sliced green onion. All the while, he’s lecturing about not wasting anything in his kitchen.
How can you beat that? 10 minutes or less. Fresh. Fast. Fabulous.
He smiles:“Pair it with a crisp Rose and you have yourself a succulent, fine-dining, regional experience.”
MORE ON MATEO
PS: You can taste more than his tamales at the Healdsburg Farmer’s Markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays. You can also find a Mateo Granados menu at the Santa Rosa Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and in Sebastopol on Sundays.