Chef On The Run

ILIANA DE LA VEGA HAS BEEN MAKING TRADITIONAL MEXICAN CUISINE FOR MORE THAN 25 YEARS AND WHILE SHE’S APPRECIATIVE OF THE SUDDEN RECOGNITION, IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT THE WORK

by Anne Bruno
Published on May 1, 2019 via tribeza.com
Photo by Claire Schaper.

Chef Iliana de la Vega is a woman in constant motion. On the morning we meet in her East Austin home, she’s working on a menu for a Cinco de Mayo celebration to take place on the campus of Stanford University. As one of only three consulting chefs there, her work in the dining halls and concept cafés of the prestigious institution brings a food-centric perspective on cultural learning.


As soon as our conversation ends, the Mexico City native will be on her laptop emailing contacts in Oaxaca about a private tour she’s leading in April, and then it’s out the door to El Naranjo, the restaurant she and her husband, Ernesto Torrealba opened in 2012, where she is executive chef.


Photo by Claire Schaper.

While de la Vega travels to Mexico and Stanford’s campus several times a year, as well as other locations to consult with clients, most of the work she does outside of the restaurant takes place via laptop and cellphone in the unassuming chef’s home office, otherwise known as her kitchen table.


The semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest is low-key by nature. It’s apparent that although she’s deeply appreciative of the attention such recognition brings, for de la Vega, it’s all about the work. She conveys that accolades are nice, but she’s not doing anything now that she hasn’t been doing for more than 25 years; she has always been steadfast in meeting her own standards, which are typically higher than anyone else’s.


Widely recognized as an expert on traditional Mexican cuisine, for years de la Vega has been lauded by the likes of The New York Timesand Bon Appetít for her hands-on skills and historical knowledge. To hear her speak on the seemingly endless varieties of Mexican chiles is a short-form master class encompassing millennia of her home country’s heritage. A quick YouTube search reveals cooking demonstrations, conference presentations and media interviews in both English and Spanish.

Photo by Claire Schaper.

De la Vega’s first restaurant and subsequent cooking school were located in Oaxaca, her mother’s hometown. She and Torrealba, an architect by training, moved there shortly after getting married and opened Restaurante El Naranjo in centuries-old colonial building. For almost 10 years, de la Vega created dishes that highlighted a balance of flavors using only fresh, handpicked ingredients, conspicuously omitting lard. “It was a bit radical to the people there, and many of the locals didn’t like it,” de la Vega explains. “But what I was doing was going back to the real roots, and that’s not lard. Lard came with the Spaniards. It wasn’t there before. Chiles, tomatoes, corn, beans — fresh and where you can experience all the flavors. And I like lard, just not when I’m cooking a mole.”


In 2006 the region was engulfed in political unrest, and in a matter of days, de la Vega and Torrealba made the wrenching decision to leave Oaxaca with their two teenage daughters for the United States. The family started in New Mexico but soon moved to Texas when the Culinary Institute of America’s newly established San Antonio campus came calling, asking de la Vega to initiate a Latin Cuisine program, which she led for five years. “When we first came to the U.S., it was very difficult,” she says. “And after I started at the CIA and was commuting from Austin to San Antonio, a lot of time alone in the car, I realized I was mourning what we left. I really missed it.”

Photo by Claire Schaper.

After a successful trial run with a food trailer, de la Vega and Torrealba opened El Naranjo at 85 Rainey Street. The restaurant’s reputation has gained even greater attention for its chef and piqued an interest in the places from which she draws inspiration. Three and a half years ago, de la Vega and her daughter Isabel Torrealba, a journalist and anthropologist, started Mexican Culinary Traditions. The guided tours and cooking classes they lead in Oaxaca and Mexico City are another thing on the busy chef’s plate, but they feed her passion for sharing everything she loves about Mexico.



A Typical Workday


Chef de la Vega’s workweek starts on Tuesday morning and winds down after the final brunch service late Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening is downtime, and Monday is her official day off. That doesn’t mean that Monday is without work, but the goal is a somewhat slower pace, doing what didn’t get done the week before and preparing for the one ahead.


TUESDAY – SATURDAY


8:30 a.m. De la Vega and Torrealba have breakfast together. She checks emails and works on recipes for the restaurant and her consulting clients, including Stanford University and other public and private organizations. The chef and her husband head to the restaurant in separate cars.

Photo by Claire Schaper.

10:30 a.m. At the restaurant, prep for the day’s meals are underway as the kitchen buzzes with activity. “I have a good team. I expedite things, but my team is reliable, very professional. That let’s me breathe.”


1:30 p.m. De la Vega and Torrealba eat lunch together befor