DUBAI: As Rene Manzanilla tells it, cooking has been a lifelong passion. The story of his initial inspiration is a conventional one: A love inspired by his mother and grandmother. The story of his ‘Eureka’ moment — the one that shifted him away from becoming a lawyer like so many of his family before him — is slightly more unusual.
“I went to a careers fair in my town in Mexico and I saw a guy doing fruit carving. One of my big passions when I was a kid was origami, so when I saw this guy I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ So I got all the information, then went back and told my mom, ‘I want to be a chef,’” he explains. “So far, I still haven’t learned how to carve fruit, but… I’m here.”
“Here” is head chef at Dubai’s Rumba Cuban Bar & Kitchen, which serves Latin American cuisine influenced by Mexican, Cuban and Peruvian fare.
“The thing I love most about the job is the chemistry you can build in a kitchen,” he says. “Obviously, I love to cook, but I love being around everyone. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that, as a head chef, the only thing the people working with you need from you is leadership. I like to be cooking with them. If you lead by example, they’ll respond well. The environment of a kitchen is always hot, it’s always noisy. I want them to understand that we’re all in it together.”
Here, Manzanilla gives some tips for amateur chefs, spills the beans on annoying customers, and offers a simple, delicious recipe for guacamole.
Q: What’s the best advice you can give to amateur cooks?
A: In the kitchen, we call it ‘mise en place.’ It’s all about the process — the visualization of everything you’re going to be doing; getting everything in place before you start to cook. You can’t just head to the kitchen and grab stuff from the chiller. You need to organize yourself. The mindset is the most important thing for a chef.
What single ingredient can improve any dish?
I really love lemon zest. Or lime zest — I’m from Mexico, so we have a lot of lime around. It improves the aroma, it improves the flavor and it improves the visuals. It gives freshness and crispness. Even on sweets — in a caramel, or a toffee sauce. You add a little bit of lime juice and it balances the sweetness.
When you go out to eat. What’s your favorite cuisine?
Something I really appreciate — in any cuisine — is the dessert menu. I used to be a pastry chef and that really taught me discipline in the kitchen. With pastry, you can’t play with the timing; you’ve got to be really organized. Each dessert is like a main course; you have five elements: The crispiness, the cake side, the sauce, the garnish and the decoration. I’m a big dessert lover.
What customer behavior most frustrates you?
When they try to tell you that a dish isn’t how it’s ‘supposed to be’ because it’s not the way their mom or their grandmother did it. It’s a recipe I’ve crafted with my team, and we love it, so now we want you to try it and love it. If it doesn’t meet your expectations because you have a different version in mind, I’ll understand, but I can’t make it the same as you have it in your mind.
I guess people don’t really get that you’ve spent years building these dishes.
Exactly. They’ll ask you to remove one ingredient, because they don’t like it. But by removing one ingredient, the entire recipe can be lost.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Pozole. It’s a corn soup. It’s super-basic — you can make it with any meat really. You make a stock with some roasted garlic, bay leaves, pepper, salt. When the meat is tender you add the half-cooked corn. You’ll have a couple of sauces on the side and a lot of garnishes: Onion, garlic, lettuce, cheese. You put all that out on the table and people will add them in. It’s a big, beautiful, messy dish. It’s very traditional — a delicious, colorful dish to be shared at family gatherings. I would make it for my mom on her birthday.
Chef Rene’s classic guacamole
Ingredients: 250g avocado; 50g chopped tomato; 30g chopped onion; 10g chopped coriander; 2 limes; 10ml olive oil
Instructions: Peel the avocado, then mash it with a fork to the desired consistency. Put it in a bowl and mix in all the other ingredients, folding them in to integrate the sauce’s emulsion. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.