Chef Mateo Granados knows everything about the delicious food he serves at Mateo’s Cocina Latina in Healdsburg, Calif. He forms close relationships with the Sonoma farmers that supply his ingredients. When they ask him what vegetables he needs, he tells them to grow what their soil best produces – he’ll plan his dishes around that. He knows the lineage of the meat he buys, what they’re fed, and how they live. When the time comes, he sometimes slaughters the animal himself and he always butchers it personally.
“He butchers everything. Poultry, seafood, pork, lamb, beef,” said Celina Zuniga, catering director at Mateo’s Cocina Latina and Chef Mateo’s personal assistant. “Everyday there is an animal of some sort hanging in (the walk-in freezer). All the fish is brought whole, which he also butchers. … Tuesdays we are closed and instead of him being off and with his family, he is here, butchering whichever animal is next.”
Chef Mateo calls himself an activist. He uses his platform as a respected chef to educate people about the importance of using ingredients thoughtfully and combatting the industrialization of food in the U.S.
But he’s not preaching from a soapbox. Chef Mateo’s ideas about how food should be grown and prepared are practiced in every aspect of his business. Meat is particularly important to him because of the way animals are treated and feasted on in the mainstream American food system. In contrast, he uses the whole animal and when he runs out of a certain cut, that’s it.
“This is why we only have a limited number of filet mignon, that is usually only served for chef’s tasting menu or on the weekends until we run out. This is also why we only have a limited number of hamburgers every week. Same with doing the rotation of different animal ribs. We have ribs on the menu but those change depending on what we have and what we have used, they can be pork, beef, lamb, goat. It just depends on what we have going on with the butchering,” Zuniga said.
When customers question why he’s out of burgers or filet mignon, he takes the time to explain. He believes deeply in knowing and sharing where food comes from because he’s concerned that people don’t realize the damage an industrialized food system does to the health of people, animals, and the planet.
“We’re being poisoned. Mass produced meat pumped full of hormones – it’s making us sick,” he said.
He developed a strong professional ethic naturally. Raised in the Yucatán in a family of farmers and butchers, he grew up around yummy food and sustainable practices. He was later educated in the French style of cooking. He combined this history when he opened his restaurant, where he infuses his local food with flavors from the Yucatán. And this is where the education starts for many of his guests.
“Yucatán isn’t really Mexican food,” Chef Mateo joked. He often makes time to explain this to customers who visit for the first time. “It’s Mateo’s food. It’s nobody else’s food.
“I only serve what I would eat. You have to have an ethic. … No chefs do what I do. I bring in a whole animal and butcher it in the back of the kitchen.”
Organic Authority interviewed Chef Mateo to learn more about his unique and passionate use of sustainable practices in his cooking. The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.
What, or who, inspired you to cook?
When I came to America in ‘89, I was lucky to be working at a professional restaurant called Masas. That’s how I got inspired to cook because I got right into the professional field. … I come from a butcher and agricultural family in the Yucatán. My mom is an amazing cook. We always had the highest quality – everything was sustainable, no pesticides.
What do you love most about cooking?
When I can be creative and I can create foods that help people (to realize) how you can prepare your food and know exactly what you’re eating.
I would not be in this business if I didn’t love what I love. I tell my two kids, if you love what you do and you’re a creator, go ahead. We don’t try to make nature do what it doesn’t do. We follow nature. Nature’s a greater creator.
What’s your favorite simple recipe to make at home?
3 Yellow squash
1 Medium yellow onion
2 Cloves of garlic
2 Bell peppers – 1 red, 1 green
5 Tbsp olive oil
10 Black olives, pitted
10 Green olives, pitted
2 Tbsp capers
20 Whole cherry tomatoes
Cut the squash and zucchinis in 3-inch cubes, the onion and bell peppers in 2-inch cubes.
Preheat oven to 375º. Place a 12” sauté pan on medium heat, add olive oil. When hot, add onion and bell peppers until they caramelize. In the middle of the caramelization process, add the garlic. When the caramelization is complete, add zucchini and squash. Stir together and put in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
Once time is up, pull pan from the oven and add olives, capers, and cherry tomatoes. Stir all together, taste for seasoning and add if needed. Return to oven for an additional 10 minutes. Pull out of oven and put in a serving dish.
Frijol con puerco
1 Pound pork belly
2 Pounds pork shanks
1 Pound black beans
Salt to taste
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Place all ingredients in a 16-quart pot. Add cold water to cover all ingredients plus an additional 2 inches more. Add salt to taste.
Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium heat and simmer for 4 hours. Clean impurities from top as it simmers. Halfway through cooking, check seasoning. If needed, add salt. Remove from heat and let it sit for half an hour. Stir for meat to fall apart.
Serve in serving bowl. Add garnish. Enjoy!
What is your favorite, simple, at-home, cooking technique that helps you quickly get dinner on the table?
I love Italian food. We make a little pasta – cook it al dente. I go to my home garden, get cherry tomatoes, garlic, onions – sauté those together and toss it together. Open a bottle of wine and eat. You mix it together and in less than 10 minutes, it’s done.
We just moved and we’re we’re building a new garden. We had no idea how much money we were saving. When you grow it at home, you can cut what you need. We don’t know how to live without the garden, now. You spend so much money buying herbs and vegetables in bunches.
How do you keep your cooking, ingredients, and establishment sustainable?
I’ve worked with 55 different farmers for the last 14 years. Sustainability for me is … I always compare it to when Indians would hunt for deer and would keep every single part of that deer. We buy the productions and we have our inventories. We finish the whole animal. I do it that way because I’m an activist. I believe when you do that, it’s a revolution. It’s against industrialization. That’s one of the things that’s killing the world.
This is how I grew up. It’s a revolution. It’s an activist restaurant, and it takes a lot of pride. To me, it’s more about ethic – about what you do professionally.
We (me and my producers) talk to each other a lot. We’ve worked the last 14 years together – that’s a long time to work together. It’s a good relationship because they understand and support it and are willing to do what needs to be done. I execute the food that they do the best. People say a cucumber is a cucumber. No. To me, a carrot is not just a carrot. The soil, the water, everything makes a difference. When you have the right tomatoes, the right acidity, you don’t need to add anything beyond pressed oil and salt.
I was 9 years old when I started butchering and I learned from my dad. I am proud to cook this animal because this animal gave its life and we have to respect it. We don’t serve meat if it’s medium well or medium – it’s got to be medium rare. We know exactly where it comes from and what it’s been fed. Pork should be pink (for the same reason). We go to these ranches, we see the whole entire life of these animals. …
(Sustainable practices extend to the kitchen.) We make sure the rack is full, that way you’re not wasting water. We have a recycle system. We’re not using garbage bags. It’s fun. It makes me wake up every morning happy to know I’m going on another journey to maximize sustainability.
How do you communicate sourcing – and your relationship with farmers, etc. – to your customers?
It’s a new restaurant. We’re working a lot with people as they come. The manager and I go to the table. … We give tours of the kitchen. It’s important to me to keep alive the kind of food we used to do because it’s disappearing. … We tell people we have to keep this alive. We can fight global warming by practicing these things.
What are the biggest challenges our food system faces in the immediate future?
Industrialization is the biggest problem. People don’t know where their food comes from.
I ask them, “Do you want to come to the walk in and see where the filet mignon comes from?” They say, “No, I never want to know where my food comes from.”
That is one of the challenges. People don’t want to know where it comes from. People are afraid of it. Industrialization also leads to food waste – 40 percent of food in America is thrown away. People need education. … If you ask people what’s a GMO, they have no idea.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for eating local and eating organic?
People don’t really understand prices. To them, it’s expensive. But the money is going back to the farmer. People don’t know how to shop. That’s how I see it. There’s no such thing as cheap organic. … It may be organic, but it was raised in a greenhouse. Tomatoes should grow outside and have the flavor of a tomato. That costs money.
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Photos courtesy of Mateo’s Cocina Latina