Coquette sous chef Ana Castro was named a finalist for the Rising Star Chef of the Year award from the James Beard Foundation. The award honors up-and-coming culinary talent aged 30 and younger. The winner will be announced May 6 in Chicago.
Castro was born in Texas and raised in Mexico City. She will be co-sous chef at Thalia, which is set to open in the Lower Garden District this spring. Castro talked to Gambit about her work.
Gambit: What was your reaction to being named a finalist for the James Beard award?
Castro: I had absolutely no clue that I was up for the (award). When (Coquette co-owner Kristen Essig) told me, I was in total shock. I am humbled and there’s also a sense of reassurance that what I’m doing is right, and that I’m walking the right path.
Donald Link, Brigtsen's and JoAnn Clevenger and others nominated for awards
G: Who were some of your mentors and what did they teach you?
C: I don’t come from a family of professional chefs. I was raised in Mexico City, mostly by my paternal grandmother. She basically was like, “You have to pick a chore,” so I picked cooking. My grandmother, my dad, my aunties — they were always feeding my curiosities.
In New York, I doubled down on fine dining and worked at Betony. There, this team of sous chefs — Stephan Ilnyckyj and Kenneth Foong — really shaped who I became. To this day I remain very close with both of them.
In the daily struggle of things, chef Stephan was adamant in teaching me how to work efficiently and fast. He’s an incredibly disciplined man. He taught me that discipline is important, because once you have discipline you can achieve consistency and once you’re consistent, you create a craving. Once you create a craving, people come back. This is the hardest thing to achieve in a restaurant. He was a disciplinarian, and instead of fighting it, I embraced it, and now I myself am a very disciplined person.
With chef Kenneth, who used to be in the Singaporean army, it was more like crisis management. Every time something would go wrong and I would start getting frazzled or upset, he would tell me, “You’ve got to simmer down. You have all of this energy that is being wasted on being angry or vocal and you’ve got to rein it in to find a solution.” If you just project your anger, the only thing you are telling people is that you are insecure and that you’re nervous, and that is contagious.
When I got to Coquette, it just felt right, something clicked. I work well with Mike (Stoltzfus) and Kristen and they were super excited to bring me on board.
Kristen has been my mentor with showing me how this is a platform to help other people, and how to be a positive influence on your community and how to give back. It’s amazing to be able to inspire people and support people.
G: What can you tell us about Thalia?
C: It’s such a small operation that everyone is going to have to pitch in. We are trying to let the neighborhood speak to us. We want it to be very affable and a reflection of the neighborhood around it — a place where you can go and have a cocktail and snacks and a place where you can go have a dinner when you don’t feel like doing the dishes without breaking the bank. It’s got 37 seats and the menu will change seasonally.
I love this city and how the industry is very small here, as opposed to New York, which is a beast. Everyone is friends and celebrates each other’s success. I’m so happy to be a part of it. At Coquette, I found a home. — HELEN FREUND