Chef Alex Henry invites diners to explore ceviche and its flavor complexity, interview

Chef Alex Henry's ceviche on a tostada
Chef Alex Henry's ceviche on a tostada / Chef Alex Henry, Sureste and El Molino del Sureste

For some people, a refreshing, bright ceviche might be the dish enjoyed under the Mexican sun, while listening to the waves crash ashore. Although that pristine location might be a bite of food escapism, the vibrant ceviche does not have to be enjoyed just in that distant locale. For St. Louis Chef Alex Henry of Sureste and El Molino de Sureste, the classic dish is a way to push the flavor boundaries and explore the complexity that the fish dish can offer.

A highly regarded St. Louis chef, Alex Henry features a rotating ceviche menu at his restaurant. Some dishes feature classic ingredients and flavor combinations while others push the boundaries with spice or uncommon pairings. The idea is to see beyond just the citrus notes and explore a flavor journey.

Some people are familiar with the concept of a ceviche. Often served as an appetizer, the uncooked fish is marinated in a citrus and other spices. Generally, the citrus slightly cures the raw fish. Whether served with a chip or just eaten with a fork, it feels refreshing on a warm, sunny day.

Chef Alex Henry serves a more complex version which is not often seen on menus. Ceviche Negro incorporates warm spices like cinnamon and charred aromatics. In addition to chilis and cumin, the flavor is definitely less acidic but quite delicious.

On his menu, Chef Henry serves octopus in this style. When asked about his Ceviche Negro, Chef Henry commented, “Ceviche Negro isn't common on menus, even in Mexico. Our preparation even departs from other versions of the dish with the inclusion of octopus ink and recado negro (a spice paste made with burnt arbol and ancho chiles, garlic, black pepper, achiote, allspice, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, and coriander). Octopus has a potent, meaty, flavor, and octopus ink is particularly briny – the recado negro brings balance while still highlighting the flavor of the octopus itself.”

Ceviche from Chef Alex Henry of Sureste
Ceviche from Chef Alex Henry of Sureste / Chef Alex Henry

While the home cook might not feel ready to tackle this complex recipe, a simple ceviche is doable. With quality products and a understanding of the concept, anyone can create a delicious dish at home.

As Chef Henry explained, “A classic Mexican ceviche with fresh ocean fish (never freshwater fish) is a good starting point. I would recommend experimenting with a few different marinade times (anywhere from 20 minutes to overnight) to achieve desired firmness – or rawness- according to taste.”

Learning to experiment with the various dishes to discover a personal preference for texture and taste is key. Some people prefer a subtle, slightly marinaded fish while others prefer that bold punch of flavor. Depending on how and when the dish is served can influence the depth of flavor.

In addition, how the ceviche is served is important. Since it is generally an appetizer, the bite should awaken the palate to the remaining moments of the meal.

For Chef Henry, his preference is clear. “Mexican ceviche should be served with tortilla chips (or totopos, as they're known in Mexico) or on a tostada. And, yes, the type of ceviche certainly could influence when it is served during the meal. Lighter, brighter ceviche would typically be served as a starter, while more robust ceviche would often be served as a main course. That being said, there aren't exactly rules in regard to this and ceviche of any variety can be eaten as either a starter or as a meal in and of itself.”

Since there are no hard and fast rules to service, the tortilla chip can be swapped for other options. Some people might like a plantain chip for a sweeter ceviche. In addition, changing the type of tortilla chip can make a difference as well. For example, a blue corn tortilla chip can offer a totally different flavor experience.

In the end, ceviche is a delicious, complex, and varied dish that deserves to be explored. From a simple, slightly citrus marinade to a robust, hearty ceviche negro, an abundance of offerings await at the table.