From the Archives: Spring 2006 Lupus Now magazine
A Taste of Home: Head chef brings flavor of Guatemala to Washington, DC, hot spot
by Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Give Saul Herrera an avocado, and he can work miracles. At Oyamel, the Crystal City, VA, restaurant where he is the head chef, Herrera has turned avocados into guacamole, soup, granite (shaved ice), and even ice cream.
"The other cooks freak out when they see my stuff," Herrera laughs. "But then they try it and they love it."
Herrera, 31, certainly brings his creativity to the table at Oyamel, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. But he also brings a sense of tradition, which he applies to everything he creates in the kitchen. Born in Nueva Concepción, Guatemala, Herrera trained to be a pilot, but he began cooking when he was 18 and soon was hooked on the culinary arts.
His first restaurant job was on the sandwich line at Capital Brewing Company in Washington, where his mother was the head cook. He applied for the job and was hired without anyone knowing he was the son of a cook. "I arrived for work the first day, and my mother said, 'What are you doing here?'"
Herrera has worked with executive chef Jose Andres at several of his other Washington restaurants besides Oyamel, including Cafe Atlantico, Jaleo, and Zaytinya.
At Oyamel, which opened in October 2004, Herrera works with fresh fruit and vegetables to create the freshest and healthiest Mexican dishes, while keeping true to the food's roots. The cooking reflects the culinary heritage of Mexico; for example, making tortillas from scratch in the restaurant and featuring traditional Mexican foods on the menu.
"I think Washingtonians have a lot of choices for Mexican food," Herrera says. "But most restaurants are not as traditional as we are here." Although Mexican food is generally spicier than Guatemalan food, Herrera makes sure that dishes aren't going to light the diners' mouths on fire, which happens sometimes in Latin American cooking.
"If a dish is too spicy, all you taste is its hotness and you don't have a chance to appreciate the flavors and taste," he says. He can tell how spicy a pepper is just by looking at it. "If there are a lot of seeds and a big vein -- the part that holds the seeds -- I know it's spicy," he says. "The smaller the pepper and the more seeds, the spicier. All the spice is on the inside." Back home in Guatemala, Herrera says he would start with a simple dish of rice and beans and he would add peppers, onions, and cilantro to give it flavor. He continues to use those three vegetables to flavor many of his dishes.
One of Herrera's favorite appetizers is the coctel de camaron y jaiba, or the traditional shrimp and crab cocktail. "It is very refreshing, healthy, and easy to make," he says. "The secret ingredient is sugar. You don't want to add too much, but just a little complements the spiciness and the acidity of the pineapple and garlic."
Herrera loves working with pineapple in appetizers, entrees, vinaigrettes, and desserts. It ranks in his top-five list of favorite fruits to cook with, a list that also includes oranges, coconuts, pomegranates, and the red prickly pear. And of course, he never tires of avocados.