Here's a posting of transcripts from an interview I gave last year for Mike Lee's soon to be released documentary ... If you're interested in a behind the scenes look at Tucos, you might enjoy reading this. The interview is posted at http://www.onlyatfarmersmarkets.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=234&Itemid=140 I've also copied it for you below..
Pru Mendez started Tucos Restaurant in 2004 after a career in technology and desire to start something new and exciting. He has created a food establishment with an outstanding regional reputation and has plans for expanding to Southern California. Pru's comments are heard throughout the recently completed documentary Farmers' Markets: Love at First Bite. The entire transcript of the interview follows, recorded October 25, 2010.
I'm Pru Mendez, chef and owner here of a little place called Tucos in Davis California, in downtown. Welcome.
Q: Davis California- this is the 3rd time I've been here and every time I come here I feel this place has something special.
Oh, cool. Well I picked this place out of a long 2-3 year search while I was living in Florida and I wanted to move my kids to kind of get raised a little closer to the rest of the family. Um needed to be close to an airport. Needed to be close to a fly-way of birds - migratory birds that I love. Needed to be a small town but it needed to be close to big cities. Davis California. Ten minutes away from Sacramento. 40 minutes I'm in Berkeley. An hour I'm in downtown San Francisco. And yet it's got this small town feel. And the university we've got some really really cool people that come in and out of here. It's a lot of fun.
Q: So tell me about your restaurant.
Q: It is 6 years old. It's been - it's my life's work. It's an idea to eventually retire from my technology work. I had this idea that I could take some money out of the stock market, build this little place, be a frequent customer without anyone knowing that I owned it. Its first mission was to present new wines to the public. And then a little bit of food to go along with it. And almost nothing of that original concept exists. Couple of years into it I got forced into cooking. 4-5 chefs into it, middle of dinner service, had the last one walk out. We were well into dinner service. And I put an apron on. Had never even sold one French fry and told my staff, tell the customers it's going to be slow but it's going to be really good. And that took the pressure off of me to really try to whip it all out. And it was good! And I turned to my dishwashers at the end of the night and I told them if I'm going to learn to cook, you're going to learn to cook. Wow. What a wonderful, wonderful, horribly wonderful tremendous thing that happened. Scary. But at the same time I never knew that I had it in me. The menu has blown way up. We're doing some really really fun things. Getting wonderful recognition in the region, outside the region. I didn't know what was inside of me. Actually it took something like that to really test that and say hey, you know what, you could really do something with this. I've always been creative and now I get to be creative on the food front. And my cooks what I've found out is the ones that follow directions, and that do what I'm asking them to do are able to produce things as I like them each time. And I tried hiring lots of people - people with lots of credentials. And they would keep trying to take my food program in a different way. And it just didn't work. And it just didn't work. And I learned that too. With that, the community has embraced it. It's just become a really really fun place to hang out. Small. Everyone complains it's too small. I love it small like that. It's intimate. Look there are still tables where there's nobody seated. It's obviously not too small. It's empty. So people just need to learn how to come a little more staggered is my view. No but that said it's part of the feel. You have a nice meal. Try something different, something new, something fresh prepared here. Nothing out of bags frozen or deep fried. This is all made from scratch like grandma would do. So that is what I would compare it to - maybe our grandparents back when we visited them on the holidays.
Q: Talk about your menu. It changes throughout the season?
Well it's gone through lots of changes regularly - every week. The menu's been one of my favorite parts of this part of the business. The first part of the menu I've got to really feel and identify with that menu at that point in time. So there are things that I have done that are very successful that I'm just not feeling it right now. And I just feel not genuine serving that right now. And there's not really good reason for it except that I just don't feel it. I like it to be something heartfelt. That said, the menu has gone through lots of different thought processes. I used to change it all the time like Chez Panaise - they're kind of my North Pole if you will. And then I started just like upsetting customers because they wanted to come back for some of the things they enjoyed. So then I started thinking ideally my menu would be composed of absolute home runs. All these homeruns that are basically untouchable that I would never want to change because they were just perfection. So that's kind of a little bit - -there are several home runs on here that I'm very very happy with. My customers are - if I take them off they get very upset. And that said, there's a seasonal component. Butternut squashes are starting to come in. My peaches are starting to phase out and get very difficult. So those are forcing - they force me to have to re-think my rabbit dish, for instance. My rabbit dish with peaches on pasta - delicious. I don't want to take the rabbit dish off. People were really enjoying it. So we're going to find a new fruit for it. Right now it's a persimmon. It's working. Not as good as the peaches but its working. And each item you know is it time for you to move on or is it not time for you to move on? So there's a kind of a balance. That said, there's a Latin component, there's a creative component. Some things that we just do that are kind of off the wall. We pop a salad on top of a pizza. We twice cook our raviolis like they were a Chinese pot sticker. Absolutely delicious. You know little things like that. There's some real comfort foodie things. Lately I've been on a thing in how to help folks eat less calories - eat better. And so I'm revisiting fiber. Fiber's not a sexy thing to talk about. It actually suppresses appetite and makes you feel full and so you don't have to eat less calories to though just literally hear "no I want that but I can't have it". No, if you eat a lot of fiber you don't have that urge to want to eat so much. So I'm creating things - the fun fiber things. Someone - the split pea soup. One of you might have had it. Wonderfully high in fiber. Great protein in it and yet it's still fun and creative. It's got butternut squash and split pea - so split pea minestrone. So a little bit of a twist. The black bean soup is new because of the fiber and protein in it. Someone ordered sweet potato nachos. That is entirely a fiber focus. You have the fiber for an entire day in that dish. And the trick is just helping you feel full and happy throughout your day. So there's a lot of those kinds of things that are right now that I'm feeling. The fiber focus will not leave. I'm a big believer in that.
Q: Why is the health of your customers so important?
That's what this is all about. I can't think of a more intimate thing that we do on a daily basis than put something inside of us that feeds every cell in our body. That's a tremendous responsibility on my part and I take that very seriously. That's the way I eat. I don't have a double standard. But you know eating healthy, eating good food should not mean you're sacrificing, you're dumbing down your palette. That's my challenge. That's my value add. We need to make that really excitingly interesting and I love doing that. It's fun.
Q: So what part does fresh and local play in your menu ideas and your customer satisfaction?
The fresh and local part is a really important component. I never did it to be trendy. It's becoming trendy. Thank goodness. I'm a big believer in that. So first of all I enjoy going as far back to the root of something as possible whether it's making my own mayonnaise which is solely here, making my own cheese. If I could raise my own animals I could have my own farm which is going to be tough in my little spot here but I obsess over that. I enjoy that. It's like a hobby. Even if it was not a business case. I enjoy that. So the fresh component has just always been an orientation of mine. But also I think it's why my food -even though it may be simple. There may be 4 moving parts and all. But it's fresh, it's well sourced. I'll go to one place for a peach. I'll go to another place for my olive oil, I'll go to another place for lettuce. Each individual component - I'll make the effort, it's a no brainer to make the effort for each component. It is trendy now but what I think is we're just going back to the way humanity was not too long ago before we became too modern. And that's what I'm passionate about. And guess what? Everybody gets excited about it. That's what they're getting excited about. I'm just taking all of the new stuff off and giving you back basically to visiting grandma.
Q: Where do you get your fresh and local?
My fresh and local comes from all connections. My main source has been the farmers' market. Now through the farmers' market I connect directly with my farmers which then we might just start working directly together because it just makes sense. My salad takes me for them to box it and prepare it at the table and have me take it off the table. So they've got already my ten pounds already off on the side. It'll just depend on what the ingredient is and what's strong. Ramone - I think some of you participated with me - Ramone has dark walnuts which are not very marketable. People want the clear white walnuts. The dark walnuts have all the flavor. They're just wonderful. And he literally just cracks them ahead of time so they're fresh walnuts all year long. So I go to him for my fresh walnuts and I will always go to him for my walnuts. And if he leaves the farmers' market I will follow him for those walnuts. It just depends. I found some really wonderful Bison. It's organic, grass fed - fully grass fed. They happen to be in Ashland Oregon. They happen to not deliver. I buy it from them. I FedEx it to myself. Oysters. I buy my west coast oysters from a producer called Hog Island. I used to buy from my fish distributor. All these oysters from all over all the way up to Canada. Hog Island's were the best. And then they stopped selling except for direct. So I buy from them every week and I ship it to myself. Each individual component, it just depends what is the ingredient and what am I going to do for that ingredient. My butternuts right now. Basically I'm getting them from a local producer - River Dog. Nice heavy proud buttenuts. They're not ridiculously priced. That's the other part. I can't just buy a $5 tomato and make a business out of it. So the economics do play an important part so that I can keep my business afloat. So I would say from a seasonal produce point of view, most of it is from right around here and I say that might take me into Stockton for onions or some of the less sexy kind of produce. Some of it is organic. Some of it isn't necessarily organic. But when I have a chance and the prices aren't too different I buy directly from the farmer. I want my money to go directly into that farmer's pocket, feed their business, keep it going.
Q: Talk about eating seasonally.
Eating seasonally. That's a wonderful way to think of things. You know there's a part to seasonality. It's just getting excited about something that's finally arrived again. Cherries arrive and people get really excited here in May and June when the cherries start and I have some wonderful things to celebrate them. It does give you something to look forward to. People get very disappointed when I take the cherry gazpacho off the menu. I don't follow them all the way up to Washington. But if I had cherry gazpacho all year long, it just wouldn't make sense to me. That said, I have onion soup on all year long. Black bean soup will be on all year long. There are things that are just not particular to this region and they don't feel as bad if it's a winner to keep in on - full on. It's a balance. There's a little bit of seasonality. My pot roast is so good that I leave it on all year long. I used to keep it on only during the cold weather. But I feel really bad taking it off the menu. And it's grass fed and it's delicious. And it's a no brainer. So there some seasonality in it but then there's some good old fashioned... I have that decision to make on my fish and chips. So I don't know - I don't want to take it off. But maybe I do need to take it off, make room for something hot and steamy.
Q: What do you think would happen if the Davis farmers' market were to close?
If the Davis Farmers' Market closed in this town, it would be like a significant amount of lights coming off in a room. Like it just went dim. Maybe not totally dim. I think the university's another big important energy here. But I definitely think from a consumer retail point of view it's the single the most exciting thing to happen in Davis and probably one of the few most exciting things to happen in the entire Sacramento region. It's so beautiful. It's so fun. It's such a treat. It's not contrived and artificial. Not like going to an amusement park. It's the real deal. I'm hoping that the cameras captured some of that. It would be a shame.
Q: Walking through the market, what goes through your head.
Well when I walk through the market, - there are different times. Right now my menu is - it's got soft skin right now. Soft shell. We're transitioning into new produce. I got 5 or 7 different items on my menu that I'm feeling very vulnerable on. Zucchini's are not at their best right now. Some of the things I got I need to find replacement for. And I won't put something on unless I really feel it. I need to start feeling something pretty soon. So right now on the visit that I just made, I had some purchasing to do but more than anything I'm waiting for some produce to come talk to me and to tell me where I'm going to go next on something. A little bit of that happened. A little bit of that happened with rutabagas that I'm a big fan of. So rutabagas are coming on the menu on that visit. But I have a lot more work to do. So there are times when the farmers market - Katy Sigfried and her dates. She'll show up in the market - she's gone now for the rest of the season. But it was such a big deal this year when she came back. Her farm was burned down in the Chico fires last year. And she went through such trauma. She got paid pennies on the dollar on her insurance. She cries when she tells the story. I got to see her again. Gave her a big hug. Put her picture on my blog welcoming her back. You can't - where would be get to do that? (bit of a tear) Where would we get to do that if it weren't for the farmers market? My friend from the market - Steve who sells me my apples. If it weren't for that - he's got such a wonderful energy. I wouldn't get the chance to say hi and to see him. So there are parts to that farmers' market - that social part. We're bringing some cool important people. Important they are growing our foods and they're fun to talk to and they're right here free of charge for anyone to just talk and hang out with. And guess what, he'd be so excited to see you over at his orchard if you're ever swinging through the area. These are things how I use the farmers' market. I stay connected to my friends. We've grown up together. They've supported me from our inception. And we grew up together. So ya I would say that. My coffee that I'm so proud of - lotto coffee. I found that at the Ferry Building farmers market many years ago. Blue wattle is a big deal now in the Bay area. They just opened a little kiosk in New York - Manhattan I think. We're wholesale account #3 for them. We grew up together. The founders of that place came out and installed my espresso machine. Traded me beyond my means and I'm just so delighted that we've grown up together. And so proud to serve their coffee. These are things to do at the farmers' market.
So tell me about your future. You're developing another restaurant?
Oh. We're having our best year ever. (eyes light up) And the wonderful thing is I think the economy forced us to have our best year ever. We had to react and respond to many things that were challenges. The business is so fundamentally different. Whether it's wine. Whether it's food. All of our business has been touched by this. And we responded and I'm very happy with what we've done. We create menus differently. We buy differently. Buy different wines differently. I think I've got something to share with other communities. If this thing is working so well in this economy in this tiny little community, and I see people from all over - they visit the university and they get so excited when they find us. I think we're going to do something somewhere else. I want to try a large Metropolitan area. It will probably be Los Angeles. It'll probably be Venice because I like Venice a lot. And Venice seem to be just like - seems to have this vibe. And so yah I've made like three trips down. E-mail went out today to more merchants on a specific street that we're targeting where we would like our business to be. And we're going to be patient and wait for the right spot. And there are other concepts that are on the horizon that I don't know when we're going to be rolling them out. This is more "relax and enjoy your time with whomever you're with". I also there are times I need to eat fast and I want to eat healthy. So I like his cafeteria thing where you got a little tray and you know what's in front of you and you can pick how much of one thing or another you put on a plate. Maybe weigh it and move on out. There's a little concept I saw actually in LA. It's called The Grove. A little Brazilian shedescadeara (Portuguese) that's got wonderful healthy vegetables right there ready to go, starches that aren't too bad and then roasted meats over a fire that they'll slice off for you and put on a plate. And in five minutes I'm eating mainly fiber and a little protein - wood fired. I want to do that. I believe in that. That sounds like fun. So that's another one that's out there. We'll just see what one comes up first.
Q: What does taste have to do with your menu decisions?
When I build something for my menu it's a little bit like an architect might do. I look at what am I trying to achieve. Right now I'm putting more nutrition, more fiber in front of my customers without them necessarily knowing it. I don't want you to make a decision "I want fiber" and find a fiber thing. I hope you buy it - the sweet potato nachos just because they sound yummy and I'll reward you by giving you a whole day's supply of fiber. But once I've kind of come up with OK, I need this kind of thing, it's either going to be a nourishment or I want you to feel a little bit of romance. I might have had a meal at a place recent - a year ago perhaps. I had their caviar - $45 I think. Oh, they were delicious. And the economy was horrible. So, when I went to Absinthe - it was a rainy day. It was very full. We're at the bar with this really fun crowd. And I have these caviar Bellini - like $45 bucks. And I just want to bring that romance back to Tucos. The economy is not doing well last year and I was just not going to put a $45 appetizer on the menu. So I think about it. There's the need - I want this romance in there. And as I thought about what I liked so much about that it was the Bellini, it was the chopped fresh, it was the eggs. The caviar was almost incidental. I said I wonder if I take the same caviar they use on the California rolls in Sushi making, the Tabico - and what happens? Sure enough absolutely delicious. And I can put on an $8 dish with all the romance of a Russian caviar. And the thing got created. So there are different needs as I do create but as I do create, I do recognize one thing. There needs to be a textural experience. I love what happens when like when I'm starting to think about what I want I think about I want crunchy, I want chewy. I want these things to happen while it's in my mouth. And then I start peeling backwards from there. There needs to be flavors, there needs to be nutrition in there. But first and foremost, there needs to be texture. And when you think about it, it does make sense. Take the finest meal at the finest restaurant, put it in an Osterizer, blend it and you have the exact meal. But you just screwed up the whole texture. So texture is really, really important. And we obsess over it and often times that will be the start. And there will be experiments and experiments and experiments to try to get that texture that I want. And then we work from there. And then the flavors. We work with a lot of acid - fresh lemon juice to get crisp bright flavors. Not a whole lot of flavor things going on. There'll be two or three components. It's a little bit our signature. It's a little bit like you might have at grandma's house. We're not trying to make a real statement with the dish. We want to present it - fresh, well made, balanced, thought out with a texture.
Q: Talk a little bit about the delicious goat cheese.
For instance on the goat cheese crostini. This is something where we just go with the flow. It started out a little arbitrary garlic toast with some goat cheese we purchased at the supermarket and then blend in some herbs and put it on our market salad. And we kept getting requests for an extra one. So I said let's go ahead and make a dish out of this - an appetizer dish. Very successful. We happen to be blessed in Davis with a really passionate cheese maker that wants to share her knowledge with the community. And I was lucky enough to find her really early on. Saw her walking around the farmers market with the big old jugs of goat milk. And I said excuse me, excuse me. Come here. And she said "Oh What"? She said "What's going on?" I said "all that goat milk. Do you happen to be making cheese"? She said "How do you know"? "I'm just guessing but I don't know what someone is doing walking around with so much goat milk." And so we've started a relationship and ya she's helped us learn about cheese making and how simple it is and we're just really excited about it. Yah.
Q: So what's the secret?
It's really goat cheese - really fresh with really good milk and pretty much my trio of fresh garlic, my sweet onions and my chives - blended in, served on my garlic toast with my favorite bread with my favorite butter - Clover butter, my favorite bread - Acme Bread. Each little layer when it works right - how can it be so simple and delicious and hard to recreate. It's because it's the right bread, with the right butter with the right goat milk. When it's hung - when we make the cheese it's hung to a certain sour and hung to a certain viscosity if you will - thickness.
Q: If you had one thing to say to America about shopping at farmers markets, what would you say?
If I had something to say to America about shopping at farmers' markets I'd say you're missing out if you're not. First of all, it just a treat - a mini-vacation in our busy work week. You're missing out so. You're missing the LIFE that's coming from that. It's a celebration of food! If you go to a supermarket - even the best supermarkets, I don't think the food is singing and celebrating and alive like there is at this farmers market. And to have it with the grower who planted it and pulled it out of its soil, it's 3D. It's watching a movie versus seeing a pencil drawing. That's the difference. And it doesn't mean you have to shop obsessively at a farmers market. It means take a stroll with the family. Make a morning out of it. Have a little something to eat. Maybe you'll find something interesting. You can browse the web, find a recipe what to do with it or maybe somebody will give you a tip. Often times people will have a meal here and say oh I want to try - where do you get your and they go to the farmers' market and Katy Sigfried says Pru a lot of people come asking for my dates because they had your bacon wrapped dates over at Tucos. You're missing out. It's a tiny little mini-vacation in your week. It will just help you sync up. So that's what I'd like to say about farmers markets to Americans.
Q: You expressed some concern about what you didn't want to say.
Ya. What's happening is that farmers' market is becoming a show - a bit of a show. I think the price points are getting a little bit hard for me to make a business out of. When I can find organic figs at Trader Joe's at half the price I can find directly from a producer at farmers' market, there's a problem there. I don't understand why there should be such a big price difference. And if that's an organic fig and the other a non-organic fig, I really don't understand it. And then I would say each farmers' market has their own - I would say the Ferry Building is so beautiful. So beautiful. But the price points are - it's almost a beauty box. You just kind of look and enjoy it. You couldn't run a business buying from them on that. Um. The Chico farmers' market if you haven't been. That's a really special one. They're real hippies up there. I really was impressed with the diversity. With the proteins. There's a lot of good proteins up there - grass fed proteins with the producer there. There's a lot of organics not just a little organics. And there's a lot of value added products - soaps, there's a spice person there. There's lots of really - in a small space so the diversity and I didn't find myself reluctant to fork out you know the prices seemed decent. The Sacramento one - really ugly under the freeway. It's a little gloomy. Actually it took me a few years to warm up to that because of the placement. But when you look there's a lot of really good prices. I mean you could run a business off of that farmers' market. So those are some of the things I would say that are a little bit controversial.
Q: All markets are different. They are community meeting places.
I wouldn't say that about Sacramento. I don't think it is a community gathering place, it's so big and impersonal. You called it a business the other day. Ya, it's a business. The Chico one I went once. I was so excited about it I tweeted about it right there. How excited I was. Real hippies. Cool thing - there was a Spanish Tapas thing there too. It's really cool. If you haven't been, you should make the effort. I would love to have your job. Can we trade? I would love to go visit some farmers' markets. (laugh out loud). I know a lot of growers get bumped because I'm only allowed to come in during this season because I compete with another and not all markets are the same this way. But I'd want them to be for everyone. I wouldn't want them to be an elite endeavor. And eventually - when I went to Italy with the Slow Food Conference was in Turin, when I went to the central plaza - it's every day. It's a big giant building that people come to - lots of energy like an every day farmers' market. You had everything - baked, you can eat there, protein. Everything was there. And it's so much fun. And it wasn't expensive. It's for everybody. It's for a poor person; it's for a rich person. And I think we'll get there. All these endeavors start out kind of intellectual and kind of more privileged. And with a little bit of time, with efforts like I'm seeing here we're going to bring it out to where everybody can enjoy that. And maybe those figs won't be $5 - a little basket eventually. 'Cause they'll be priced right and then we'll all be able to enjoy a fig which is wonderfully high in fiber and I try to put more figs on my menu because of that.
Pru Mendez was interviewed October 25, 2010 by Mike Lee.