From Mexico, With Love
Martha Leahy has prepared food for retail, in corporate catering, in fast casual and in fine dining both in the North East, Italy and Mexico. She’s also had a career in finance.
But since 2008, Leahy has been the executive chef of Margaritas, a 23-unit restaurant chain with locations through New England. How does her diverse career help her and the chain thrive today?
Leahy talks to Rmgt:
What led to you being interested in food and restaurants?
All through high school and college I worked in restaurants. I intended to pursue another career but I went into finance and I did that for almost eight years.
I had an epiphany and while I was working in finance I applied to law school and realized it wasn’t in my heart and that food was. I followed my passion for great food and dropped the idea of law school and applied to culinary school. I realized that by following a passion and doing something you love, everything else falls into place. Happiness brings success.
I’d had a career in finance and then went back to kitchens for $10 an hour and started building my career back up.
How did you train to be a chef?
I went to Johnson and Wales at the weekends while I was working full-time
As I was finishing up at Johnson & Wales, it was highly recommended that I go overseas to get my chops and really be respected in this field. So I looked into different programs and I went to Italy for almost two years—the program was about six months then I went from restaurant to restaurant (five restaurants) after that as a cook, and as a chef.
What did that time teach you?
I learned some hard-core line skills and I also learned about the breadth of ingredients and how Italians have a real respect for ingredients and that’s what leads their food. It’s more about food than technique but for the French it’s more about technique. Italians respect ingredients and work with them for the perfect end result.
Mexico is similar—both Mexico and Italy have slow cooking methods and respect for ingredients. The slow food movement started in Italy but is very prominent in Mexico.
How have your skills from your finance career helped you?
Skills such as management, project management and finance have helped me as a chef but that doesn’t make you a better prep cook or line cook. You have to work hard, build it up and pay your dues.
Can you work with people and lead people, can you control costs and drive change; can you sell your ideas to the people around you? Those are all skills you need as an executive chef although it’s cooking first and foremost.
What do you love about the restaurant industry?
I love the buzz and the urgency and camaraderie in a restaurant.
I get a kick out of developing other people and teaching them and taking them to a different place. My position allows that. I create a recipe then teach it to people and hopefully get them excited about it.
How do you keep up your Mexican inspiration?
I have been to Mexico six or seven times since I’ve worked here. To educate myself, to eat, to get a feel for the culture. I had a real connection to Mexican food so when this opportunity came, it was exciting to build on my love of this cuisine and culture and I love this food even more as I’ve dug into it. Mexican food is very unique and has a lot of potential. They way they use chilies and dried chilies is phenomenal.
What cooking techniques have you learned in Mexico?
We slow cook our sauces and let them simmer for hours. We have also added a side sauce called rajas—peppers and onions sautéed with crema.
We’ve stolen some of the ideas like hacienda sauce (avocado, cilantro and garlic, which is more pourable than a guacamole). We’ve introduced the Chicken Tinga, something you’ll find all over Mexico. We slow roast chicken thighs with chipotle peppers, tomato sauce, and tomatoes. We braise that for one to two hours and the chicken is fork tender and has some heat from the peppers. It goes into tacos, quesadillas, etc.
And we’ve revised our chili relleno. I was sitting in a market in Guadalajara watching the women make them for over an hour and adapted it to the way they were making it. Before, we would float some egg batter in oil then place the poblano pepper stuffed with cheese on it and float it on top.
Now we roast a chili, peel it, dress it, put cheese in it, then fold it closed and dip it in the batter and fry it, and that’s a more traditional way. It’s more pepper forward and there’s more pepper to batter ratio so it’s more flavorful.
I’ve also brought back some drink development—we’ve added prickly cactus, blood orange, and wildberry to our fruit margaritas, as well as a spicy margarita which is something you see over there. We made a lemon and lime mix with habañeros and added that to the tequila for the drink. The rim had a spicy rim—chipotle pepper, salt, and sugar.
What is the cornerstone of Margarita’s food?
What we do with our food is we take traditional and authentic flavors to present to our guests in New England. It’s important that it’s tied to Mexico and is flavorful and we have authentic flavors and techniques but we want to make sure our guests in New England dig it. Some things are just too foreign.
By Amanda Baltazar