Luis Millan of Canteen Modern Tequila Bar
Hannah E Williams
Luis Millan, the chef at the new Canteen Modern Tequila Bar, moved to Tucson from Cananea, Sonora, the small Mexican copper-mining town he called home, at age 18 for college. When he started working at a restaurant on the side, he found a different calling.
"I didn't like the front of the house at all," Millan says of his first bussing job. "I didn't have any social skills. I was a little nervous, coming to the States with a different language and all, so I asked the owner for a back of house job as a cook. He put me washing dishes, and I started going into the cooking line just for the fun of it. Ten years later, here I am: Cooking for a living."
Today, Millan talks tacos, jellyfish, and fried egg sandwiches. Plus he explains why he pretends he's cooking for his mom all the time and how his dad got him hooked on ceviche.
From where do you draw your inspiration? Actually a lot from street food. I try to fuse the flavor that I find from a simple taco shop in Mexico - when it's like four in the morning, and you just have that taste in your palette - and you try to recreate it for somebody. Obviously you're not going to serve them a sloppy taco, so you go from there.
What's in your perfect taco? Roasted pork, serrano salsa, fresh red onions, and a squeeze of lime juice. Nothing else. Simple.
Were you a picky eater? Anything you refused to eat? Yeah. When I was growing up I couldn't even stand tomatoes. I loved the color and the look of them, but I couldn't get them through my stomach. Now, it's one of my favorite fruits to cook with. Other than that, I'll eat pretty much everything, except for jellyfish, which is pretty out there. Have you tried it? Yeah, at a Vietnamese restaurant, and it was ewww. I'm not disrespectful against food and people who eat it, but that was just really... I don't know. Really odd.
Any dishes you were always asking your mom to make? Oh yeah. She's a big influence in my life being a cook. She was a great cook growing up: A Mexican mom. You guys have heard this story, right? Mexican ladies can make a mean stew. Any stew she would make was pretty much the best thing.
What's one of your favorite things to eat when you go back to Mexico? I love seafood, prepared the Mexican way, like ceviche. My dad is a pretty good cook. Both of my parents are. But my dad is from the coast of Mexico, he taught me to cook all the shellfish. Taught me how to open oysters and eat them with a squirt of lime and some hot sauce. That was pretty cool, growing up he took me to dig from clams.
Favorite dish to make growing up? Breakfast. On the weekends, when I had the time, I would make breakfast. Anything from French toast to fried egg sandwiches. It's the simple stuff that makes it so good.
Is there a trick to making simple food that tastes good? Just putting all your heart into it, nothing else. I had a chef that told me once: "cook every dish like you're cooking for your mom." Even though you're tired, it doesn't mean the client has to suffer. Cook everything like you would want to eat it or somebody you love would want to eat it.
Check back tomorrow when Millan spills the details of his travels abroad, his favorite places to get Greek food, and his pizza-making dreams. And on Thursday, Millan shares his recipe for pork shank tacos.
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