The Escoffier Questionnaire: CHEF OMAR HUERTA PLAYA MILL VALLEY
Growing up in Encarnación de Díaz, a town about the size of Novato in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Chef Omar Huerta spent his weekends and afternoons after school at the restaurant owned by his family. From a young age, he worked jobs in both the front and back of the house. “Restaurant time was family time,” he fondly remembers.
At 16, Chef Huerta moved to Richmond, California, with a plan to join up with some family members to spend a year abroad, improving his English skills to give him an edge in college admissions.
Soon after his arrival, circumstances shifted and he found himself completely alone, a high school student in a foreign country with no resources or allies. Unwilling to go home a failure, he kept his isolation a secret, struggling to pass his classes and keep his job as a janitor, which he relied on for his survival.
Fortunately, an “angel,” as Huerta recalls her, helped him out. A school counselor recognized that he was suffering and found him a gopher job in a hotel kitchen, working under a chef who had initially been hired as a dishwasher in the hotel 20 years earlier, on the recommendation of that same guidance counselor.
“My father always taught me to do my best, whether I was a dishwasher or chef,” the chef reminisces. And so he did. Within a few years, he worked his way up to being a professional cook.
Today, Huerta, 38, is the executive chef at Mill Valley’s Playa, a modern Mexican restaurant that opened in the summer of 2016. The bustling restaurant has received consistently high marks from patrons and professional reviewers ever since, in no small part due to Chef Huerta’s heartfelt takes on traditional Mexican flavors.
“For years, when I would make something special or remember a flavor from my childhood, I would file it away.” At Playa he has brought those memories to delicious fruition.
Huerta is a veteran of many highly regarded Bay Area restaurants, including Presidio Social Club, Credo, Comal, Terrapin Crossroads and Zero- Zero, to list only a few. He also staged at Boyes Hot Springs’ El Molino Central to learn the secrets of their moles and freshly ground masa.
It seems that Chef Huerta’s success at Playa is rooted in a profound readiness for this position, and this restaurant. Much of his current kitchen staff has worked with him for a decade or more, echoing the warmth he remembers of happy childhood days spent in his family’s restaurant.
The ownership team at Playa, Mill Valley residents Bill and Vanessa Higgins and Peter Schumacher, were already fans of Chef Huerta when they brought him on board to open the restaurant, and they have given him the perfect setting in which to shine. Playa’s cuisine is a travelogue of Mexican flavors, skillfully presented through the lens of a chef who is experienced and confident enough to bring Mediterranean and Asian technique impeccably to bear on traditional Mexican ingredients.
Though Chef Huerta’s father never got the chance to eat at Playa before he passed away, the chef says that he sees him everywhere in the elegant, soaring space. “He always dreamed of having a restaurant with a tequila bar like this. Every month we would go on picnics with big groups of friends to taste the regional specialties at different agave plantations.”
A true California-bred chef, Chef Huerta has found his own singular voice, guided by the traditions of his homeland, as well as his experience in some of the best kitchens in his chosen home of 22 years.
EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY: What was the first meal you made that you were proud of?
Omar Huerta: When I was about 11, I made an omelet with onions for my friends.
What was your favorite food as a kid?
Giblet soup. My dad used to make it and I would always serve myself all of the offal and leave the rest of the soup with only vegetables for the others.
What food do you wish you loved?
Black truffles. I know they are super yummy, but they’re not for me.
What food do you love unreasonably much?
Tacos: al pastor, lengua, asada and barbacoa. My dad taught me to appreciate them.
What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
Braising is the most difficult. I learned to do it well from Chris Hernandez, when I worked for him at Piatti in Mill Valley.
What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
I’m exploring the authentic traditional flavors of Mexico, which I grew up cooking with my parents in our family restaurant.
What nonculinary influence inspires you?
The love for family that my parents and grandparents taught me. The best family memories are all of celebrations, filled with traditional dishes.
What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
Healthy grains and vegetables, which are simple, colorful and tasty.
What is your favorite ingredient?
What is your favorite hangover meal?
There’s nothing better than menudo.
What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
I would love to try not only one, but two or three: The French Laundry in Yountville, Alinea in Chicago and Manresa in Los Gatos.
What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
Whom do you most like to cook for?
If you could do one other job, what would it be?
What is your favorite midnight snack?
What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
Al pastor, asada and lengua tacos
What’s your favorite place to go for …
… a splurge meal?
Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley
Blackberry Bistro in Oakland
Maria’s Gourmet Pastries in El Sobrante
… a late night/after work meal?
Sol Food in Mill Valley
… a cup of coffee?
Catahoula Coffee in Richmond
Sprouts Farmers’ Market in Albany
… kitchen equipment?
TriMark Restaurant Supply in San Francisco
… ice cream?
Three Twins for their Horchata and Mexican Chocolate flavors
Ghirardelli, especially their caramel, mint and raspberry flavors
And lastly but not leastly … what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
I love Berryessa Brewing Company’s brews, A. Rafanelli’s Zinfandel and Martin Ray Chardonnay.