Cuevas will open the 220-seat 3Dog Cantina in Hollywood next month
Efrain Cuevas never attended culinary school, but he started throwing underground dinner parties in the San Francisco Bay area when he was working as a civil engineer in Berkeley, Calif.
He enjoyed doing them so much that when he moved to Chicago he continued them as Clandestino, a dinner-party series focused on sourcing local ingredients and collaborating with area chefs and artists.
Cuevas also worked at a charter elementary school in Chicago, cooking food from scratch for kindergarten through fourth grade students.
Now Cuevas has shifted gears and is getting ready for his firstde cuisine job at 3Dog Cantina, a 6,000-square-foot, 220-seat restaurant slated to open in Hollywood, Calif., on Sept. 16.
Tell me about the job you just left.
I was in Chicago cooking at an elementary school — the only school in Chicago where everything was cooked from scratch. It’s called The Academy for Global Citizenship, and it’s in a Latino neighborhood. One of the issues they were having when I was hired was that there was a lot of food waste, and I was able to turn that around.
How did you do that?
When I came in, I knew all the recipes weren’t working, and I started trying different Mexican dishes that I thought they might like. I had to work with really strict USDA requirements for lunches and. The kids all became foodies by the end of the semester, and I was talking to all of them about what they liked and didn’t like, and I was able to tweak the menu. The parents loved it, too, because the kids actually ate.
You were also doing underground dinner parties in Chicago?
I started that back in 2007. It was very experimental. I wasn’t trained in a culinary school. It was all on me to do the research and the trials and experimentation. I knew I wanted to make cooking a career for myself. So I got involved in butchering; I got involved in pastry; I visited meat processing plants, slaughterhouses, farms, tofu factories. I went to vegetable farms, cattle farms, apple orchards. I was really focused on being that extreme about farm-to-table.
In December a few years ago I did a dinner using only ingredients that were produced within 150 miles of Chicago. We had watermelon radish, potatoes, beets. The amount of vegetables available was really surprising and showed how resourceful the farmers had become with hoop houses and green houses and things like that. Chicago has become this huge farm-to-table [community] — everyone’s got a garden, everyone’s got chickens in their backyard.
Is 3Dog Cantina going to be a farm-to-table restaurant?
Actually, it’s not. It’s a 220-seat Mexican restaurant, and for a restaurant that size to do all organic would cost 50 percent more — and it just wouldn’t work. We’d have to have a 30- to 50-seat restaurant, because we’d be at the mercy of the farmers, the seasons, the weather.
Once everything at the restaurant’s sort of flowing, I want to start organizing Monday night dinners created on the fly from food at the Hollywood farmer’s market.
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What average per-person check do you anticipate at 3Dog Cantina?
$15 for lunch; for dinner, $20-25.
And how much will the Monday night farm-to-table dinners be?
For your regular menu, is there a particular region in Mexico you’ll be highlighting?
Both of my parents are from Jalisco, and I’ve been visiting my grandparents there since I was eight years old. My grandmother’s neighbor in Guadalajara was a taquero. He’d set up his cart and sell tacos until 2 in the afternoon, and I just thought it was fun to hang out with him. So I’ll be making tacos, tortas, a goat stew called birria from Jalisco. We’ll make al pastor [spit-roasted pork], which is more from Mexico City. We’ll have ceviches from the East Coast, where they use a lot of shrimp, and from the West, where they use a lot of fish. We’ll also have flour tortillas, which are used in the North where the Europeans introduced wheat.
Will it all be authentic?
No, we have a shrimp and pork belly taco with kimchi on it, and a steak-and-potato taco. But it should all taste homemade, and it should blow up your mouth with flavor. I’m coming at it from the angle that every dish has to be exciting; every dish has to be fresh.
This is your first chef de cuisine job and it’s at a 220-seat restaurant. How big is your kitchen staff?
We’re going to have 25 core people for all the shifts.
Do you think you’re ready to manage such a big restaurant?
Yeah. I cooked for 400 people — students and staff, breakfast and lunch [at The Academy for Global Citizenship]. And I’d never done that before.