It’s challenging enough to sustain one kitchen. To open two restaurants is a beast. When a young up-and-comer successfully launches two completely different concepts and earns rave reviews for both, it’s a remarkable feat.
Jose Alarcon is the chef behind Mexican restaurants Centro and Popol Vuh and Eater Twin Cities’ Chef of the Year 2018. Located in a former adhesives factory in Northeast, the side-by-side concepts pair a bright and breezy taco shop with a fine-dining Mayan restaurant with soft colors and low lights.
Alarcon has been flying under the culinary radar for some time. Co-owner/general manager Jami Olson, who met the chef when they both worked at Lyn65, knew he was ready for the daunting task of taking on the dual openings. “Besides being kind, humble and amazing, he is one of the most talented chefs I’ve ever worked with,” Olson says. “He had a story to tell through his food, and we wanted to help him tell it.”
Alarcon, 34, grew up in Moreles, Mexico. For his close-knit family, food was the centerpiece of gatherings, with his mother and grandmother whipping up feasts for both special occasions and daily meals. “My mom would cook lunch and dinner every day, and we would sit together and eat,” Alarcon says. “Then there were special occasions, like Christmas. My grandma would cook for like, 20 of us.” When Alarcon was 15, his dad passed away, and as the eldest son (he has two younger siblings), he felt a responsibility to help his family financially. He started to dream of options. “My best friend at the time had spent a summer in Minnesota, and he came back and started talking about it. I thought, ‘it sounds amazing.’” When he turned 18, he traveled to Minnesota with the plan to work, earn money for his family, attend school part-time, and then return to Mexico.
Alarcon began working construction jobs, then moved into the restaurant industry as a part-time dishwasher. From there, he ascended the restaurant ranks through tenacity. He would ask his bosses if there was anything else he could do, any way to get more hours, which resulted in everything from cleaning the dining room after hours to shifts as a server assistant to working in the prep kitchen. One day, a cook walked out on his shift, and Alarcon leaped at the opportunity. “I knew it was a full-time job, so I told [the chef], ‘I can do that.’ He gave me a chance.”
While his new kitchen role provided a hands-on training, Alarcon studied food in other ways, too. He roamed the aisles of Barnes & Noble, flipping through magazines and cookbooks, devouring information about flavors, ingredients, techniques, and history.
He learned as much as possible. After 10 years at Cafe Ena, he sought out restaurants where he could increase his skill set, working at Travail, Brasserie Zentral and Lyn65. He turned that education inward. “I love making pastas, but I don’t see myself opening a pasta restaurant,” he says. “I have to remember where I come from.” He read about Mexican food, then experimented with his mom and grandmother’s recipes, using traditional flavors and textures but incorporating ingredients and modern techniques.
The thrilling results are on the menus at Centro and the ever-evolving Popol Vuh. A nopales salad made its debut on the menu with the cactus cured in salt. He kept playing with the preparation, refining the texture. It’s now sous vide for 20 minutes, then grilled, resulting in a more steak-like texture with richer flavor.
According to Alarcon, the idea of constant improvement is central to his partnership with Olson. “The communication we have, giving constructive feedback about everything. It’s very important.” It also allows for greater creative freedom for Alarcon.
“To do what you want with the ingredients you have, that’s the best part,” he says. “In order to have that freedom we make mistakes, but we learn from them and keep trying to move forward.”
“His way of teaching his kitchen staff how to cook and create is something that is magical to watch,” says Olson. “They look at him with such respect and take so much pride in their dishes and work.”
Despite the demands of running two restaurants, family still comes first for Alarcon. He and his wife have two kids, 8 and 5, and he travels back to Mexico when he can to visit his mom and siblings. Though, when there, he hardly has a chance to show off his skills, instead digging into creations from the original family chef. “I always ask my mom, ‘Can you cook this?’” He laughs. He also visits the abundant Mexican markets, where he tries as much food as possible and finds inspiration.
As for the future, even as his star is on the rise, he’s planted very clearly in the present. “I’m very happy with what we’re doing,” he says. “Right now I try to take it one day at a time.”