Chef Iliana de la Vega stays true to her Oaxacan roots through her traditional Mexican dishes.
James Beard award-winning Chef Iliana de la Vega was born in Mexico City to an Oaxacan family. She eventually moved to Oaxaca with her husband and opened a restaurant called El Naranjo. Although their original restaurant received international acclaim, they moved to Texas due to political unrest and made Austin their new home.
Since 2012, El Naranjo has brought its patrons delicious traditional Mexican dishes inspired by de la Vega's Oaxacan heritage. Over time, the chef has expanded her focus with guided culinary trips to Mexico, consulting for other restaurants, and teaching. In 2022, she won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Texas. C&I asked Chef de la Vega about leading a family business and the ingredients that bring her back to her homeland.
C&I: How long have you been cooking?
Chef de la Vega: I’ve been cooking all my life, but [my] professional cooking started from my home teaching classes. That was, oh my goodness, maybe 1989, so a long time [ago], 30-something years.…My mom was a great cook. I started learning from her. And I learned from my aunts and everybody that I was around. I always asked them questions, because I didn't attend a professional school.
C&I: You had your original El Naranjo restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico. Then, your family moved to Austin and opened a restaurant with the same name in 2012. How did it evolve from your location in Mexico to Austin?
Chef de la Vega: Well, we were very happy. We moved from Oaxaca because of social turmoil. Eventually, we opened the restaurant in Austin on Rainey Street. And the neighborhood became a different thing than it was at the beginning. It was more bars instead of restaurants; we hoped it would be more restaurants—a different kind of life. Then in 2019, we saw the opportunity in this [current Austin] location in South Lamar and decided to take it.
C&I: You and your husband work together. Is your restaurant a family business?
Chef de la Vega: Yes, he does. I mean, we can cook everything, my husband and I, in the restaurant. We don’t cook in the restaurant every day, because it’s a lot of work and we’re getting older. It’s good for the new generations to step up. But he does the bookkeeping and all those things.
I have two daughters. One is Anna; she is the oldest. She’s also a chef and is in charge of the restaurant now. Isabel is the youngest; she is the one I do the [culinary] trips with.
With Anna, I tried to persuade her not to be a chef, knowing how much it takes from you personally and the restaurant life. I was trying to ask my daughter, “Are you sure you want to be a chef?” But she wanted to do it. So she went and started baking pastry and studied food science. Then, she came back to the restaurant and said, “This is what I want to do.” I said, “Okay, perfect, you take over.” So, she’s getting there, and now, she’s in charge of the restaurant.
C&I: These culinary immersion trips to Mexico that you offer sound fantastic. How did you come up with the idea?
Chef de la Vega: I was doing those kinds of tours already and designing them for different companies, like hotels, restaurants, or groups—like Avocados from Mexico. So, my daughter asked, “Why don’t we do it on our own?” I didn’t even know how to start to promote it. But we put a little ad on Facebook and another one in the restaurant. We started like that, very simple. It has grown quite a bit, so it’s a good thing.
C&I: How do the trips work? Do the people get to cook at all?
Chef de la Vega: Oh, we cook! The trips are about understanding how we cook in Mexico. I choose the ingredients from the region and recipes from the area, and then we all cook together and eat together.
We go to the market and start from scratch, with no plan in mind. I buy the things that are in season or are available. Then I purchase and prepare the items. Mostly, I like to focus on the vegetables and ingredients that people are not that familiar with. My goal is to introduce people to unfamiliar ingredients and teach them how to use them. And obviously, the use of chilis and, and all that. We create a meal, although it’s more like a feast, and we usually make a mole for the main course from the region. It depends on where we are, tamales, or… you name it. And then we eat together. The trip is about the cultural experience of the food.
We have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. … A lot of cultural things happen in between each mealtime. You have to be hungry for the next meal. So we do a lot of cultural activities or shopping, it depends on the case and where we are.
C&I: How do you approach the tremendous amount of care and passion that goes into your food with the routine and consistency required of a restaurant?
Chef de la Vega: Well, what we do in the restaurant is to recreate the food we eat at home in Mexico. And consistency is one key thing. We always follow recipes, which has always been successful. We can make it happen. I serve the food I ate at home growing up, paired with those kinds of significant memories. Sometimes, we create new dishes, but consistency is vital. Having the best ingredients we can get is another critical thing. There are ingredients that we need to import from Mexico, so let’s say, the corn to make the tortillas or certain beans or chilies. That is also key. But ingredients and following recipes are essential for a restaurant and [consistency].
C&I: What are some of your favorite dishes to make?
Chef de la Vega: One of my favorite things to make, and recreate, is the mole negro. It takes three days. So it’s a commitment. It’s a labor of love. It’s complicated and painstaking, because it’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it, and people love it. So when we decided to put it on the menu, it was a big commitment because we knew there would be no way back. But once we had it, we always had to have it.
To try out some of Chef de la Vega's famous recipes, click here.
Photography: courtesy of El Naranjo