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Friday, August 29, 2014

Who Says Women Aren’t Cooking in SF?

Nicole (left) and Alica (right) under the El Pato painting at Valencia Street.

Nicole (left) and Alica (right) under the El Pato painting at Valencia Street.

Everyone loves a fresh-faced wunderkind, especially one that has a way with a knife. Forbes does a 30 Under 30 chef feature, as does Eater.

To these lists, I say pffft! How about something seriously impressive—something like “Two Kitchen Bad Asses Under 24.” And let’s make them female. (Maybe we’ll call it “Goddesses of Food.” Take that Time magazine.)

For this, Joe and I would like to nominate our company’s own chefs: Alica Huerta, 23, our sous chef at Tacolicious in the Mission, and Nicole Marin, 22, our chef at Tacolicious North Beach. These dynamos run our kitchens with a kind of adult-like grace that is remarkable. They also happen to have a few things in common: They attended the CCA and they both have deep roots in Mexico.

In an attempt to steal some of their youth, I made them meet up with me for a little Q&A.

Where were you raised? Any chefs in the house?
Alica: Central California, 45 minutes outside of Fresno in a town called Visalia. My parents are both Mexican American. My mom has been a day care provider for 25 years. She’s an alien—I don’t know how she does it. And my dad is in telecommunications.
Nicole: I was born and raised in Mexicali. My dad is a plastic surgeon and my mom is a part-time lawyer.

Memorable food from growing up?
Nicole: I have a big Mexican family. Every Wednesday we had lunch at 3 pm at my grandma’s house. Her house isn’t big and we were like 20 people. She makes an awesome soup with chunks of potatoes, and tomatoes, pasilla peppers, and onions. She puts a thick Mexican queso fresco on it that melts. It’s so simple, but it’s just so good!
Alica: My mom can throw down. Her posole is it. She grew up eating it every day as a kid. It has the actual foot of the pig in it, and you get that piece in your bowl and you gotta eat it.

[Nicole points at our Paul Madonna painting of cans El Pato.]
Every time I see that, I think about chilaquiles. You can’t get El Pato chilies in Mexico so we’d go and sneak them in from the Walmart in the bordering town in Calexico. My mom always used them and it just became a part of what I think of when it comes to chilaquiles.

How did you decide to become a chef?
Alica: [Laughs.] I was at SF State and my friends and I were really stoned—I guess you can go ahead and put that. I had made quesadillas and my friend said, “You know what? You love cooking, you should go to culinary school. And I went right then to the CCA site and filled out a form. The next day this woman called and said, “How about you come in to the school tomorrow at 10 am?” I had my biology final, but I missed it. I thought, I guess I’m going to go to culinary school now. That was 2011.

Nicole: I’d throw dinner parties for my friends and if I was doing Asian food, I’d decorate the whole house Asian. So when I graduated from high school, all my friends went to Paris to just chill. And I wanted to go and attend the Cordon Bleu there. My mom was like, “Hell, no. I’m not spending that money for you to go there.” So I decided on San Francisco. I got here when I was 18 and in one day I was living in an apartment by myself.

Dreams for the future?
Nicole: My dream is to have a place that’s not fine dining, but it’s an experience of modern Mexico. Somewhere in Valle de Guadalupe which two hours south of San Diego. It’s like Mexican wine country and there are a lot of amazing restaurants.

Do you speak more Spanish or English in the kitchen?
Alica: Spanish. But I wish that my staff spoke English sometimes because when I’m frustrated it would be helpful. I can be sassier in English.

How many people do you oversee in the kitchen at Valencia?
Alica: About 10. The hardest part of my job is dealing with all these people. You have to cater to their personality. Everyone is different. Some people take criticism well and some don’t, so you’ve got to word it in the right way.

What’s the toughest part of the job at North Beach?
Nicole: I’ve come to understand that running a restaurant isn’t just about making good food. It’s about labor, numbers, comps, food costs, inventory and more.

Favorite part of the job?
Alica: I love expediting.
Nicole: Me too.
Alica: You’re dealing with all the tickets and making sure all the orders are complete. It’s kind of like you’re conducting …
Nicole: An orchestra.
Alica: Yeah—a little symphony.