Val Cantu evolves the conversation on Mexican cuisine, interview

MASTERCHEF: Guest judge Val Cantu in the “Legends Dinner” airing Wednesday, Sept 1 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2021 FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: FOX.
MASTERCHEF: Guest judge Val Cantu in the “Legends Dinner” airing Wednesday, Sept 1 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2021 FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: FOX. /

As MasterChef Legends nears the finale, Val Cantu joins a group of culinary greats for a legendary dinner. For anyone who has dined at his impressive San Francisco restaurant Californios, Chef Cantu’s culinary approach is one that deserves to be in the spotlight. The celebrated chef gives new meaning to the humble tortilla.

Throughout MasterChef Legends, each of the chefs that have joined the culinary conversation have presented a unique point of view. Whether it is Sherry Yard and her approach to ending the meal on a sweet note to Jonathan Waxman and his sage advice on learning from mistakes, each culinary master gives the home cooks one more tool in their proverbial toolbox.

While some of the MasterChef Legends have appeared on various culinary programs, Val Cantu might not be as instantly recognizable. With a litany of culinary accolades, Cantu should be on more food television fans’ radar. From receiving a Michelin Star to the recent high praises by the San Francisco Chronicle, Cantu is a force in the culinary world.

At his restaurant, Californios, Cantu looks to elevate Mexican cuisine. To say that this approach to Mexican cuisine is unlike others is an overly simplistic turn of a phrase.

When asked about his approach to Mexican cuisine and his dishes at Californios, Cantu said, “the objective of what we want to do with the restaurant is just trying to broaden people’s perspectives on Mexican cuisine.” While that statement is expansive, it is an open invitation to the table and the start of a “little conversation.”

As Cantu further explained, “our food is not to shock people or to surprise people.” At the heart of every plate, is food that “makes people happy” while “letting them experience something that they might not have known about.”

One great example on the Californios menu is the tortilla. The corn used in those tortillas is grown by a small farm. As Cantu explained, that heirloom corn is treated utmost respect. The resulting vibrant color and flavor beyond special.

In his words, just the aroma of the corn is so enticing. The concentrated corn flavor that comes out through the cooking process is what “brings people back to the table” time and again. One bite of an artisan tortilla and people will appreciate what nuanced Mexican cuisine can be.

That attention to detail is just one element of the thoughtfulness that goes into every meal that Cantu creates. Through his tasting menu, Cantu believes that the meal is a way to “tell a story.” It is a tale that “introduces guests to delicious flavors and textures.”

Beyond the food experience, Cantu hopes that “the story shared reveals some of our passion and care in the food that we make. There is love woven into every dish.”

In many ways, that love is a part of the chef’s story. When asked about the idea of how a chef nurtures through food, Cantu spoke poignantly. He said, “giving someone nourishment is a very basic human emotion.” While he aims to make every guest happy through each meal, he feels that he shares his emotions with the guests, and, in the end, the experience leaves a lasting impression.

Still, that meal on the plate didn’t magically appear at the wave of a wand. At the core of each dish is flavor. Cantu said, “we always go for flavor first and then we think about presentation.” The goal is to make a dish that looks like “something someone would want to eat.”

In many ways, that idea is something that the MasterChef Legends home cooks need to consider. Although numerous components and additions might sound beneficial, the simplicity of a dish can often be more powerful. Instead of 15 plus items, Cantu recommends pairing it down to fewer.

That ability to edit is the sign of a confident chef. As Cantu said, “trust yourself.” If you’ve made a great sauce, it doesn’t need numerous other garnishes and textures. Be confident with the cooking and food on the plate. For the home cooks competing in MasterChef Legends, that lesson might be the most beneficial takeaway from Chef Cantu.

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Val Cantu joins MasterChef Legends, “Legends Dinner” episode. That episode airs on September 1 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

Californios is located in San Fransisco and Val Cantu has earned a Michelin Star. In addition, he has been named a Food and Wine Best New Chef.