Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15 and celebrates the cultures and contributions of both Hispanic and Latinx Americans. We caught up with Chef L. Fernando Mojica, CEC, to hear his story and all about his favorite Mexican dish.
Chef Mojica was born in Mexico City and grew up in a small town in the State of Guerrero in Southern Mexico along the Pacific Coast. He moved with his family to Chicago in the 5th grade. Now, the 2019 Columbus Chapter’s Chef of the Year serves as the executive chef of Degrees Restaurant at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio.
Chef Mojica credits his chef father and ACF for his movement up the restaurant ladder. “My dad got me a job at age 14 as a dishwasher on the Northwest Side where he was working at a restaurant called Mecca Supper Club,” Chef Mojica says.
“I enrolled in the culinary program at Elgin Community College and that’s when I found out about ACF,” he says. Chef Mojica’s first jobs as a cook was in the sports and entertainment field, and he worked his way up from cook to supervisor to sous chef at various arenas and stadiums. “I found a lot of value as a student by becoming very involved in ACF, and I met a lot of people over the years who have become great mentors. I tell people that I had a pretty good career going before ACF, but my career really took off after that. Every job I had was because of someone from the ACF.”
As Chef Mojica’s career expanded, he started working in top Chicago steakhouses and in country clubs around the country. He also worked for two Certified Master Chefs — Chefs Steve Jilleba and Joachim Buchner — and he remained active as a member of the ACF Chicago Chefs chapter. Later, Chef Mojica went on to serve as an apprentice for ACF Chef John Reed when he was trying out for Culinary Team USA and took an interest in competitions thereafter.
Though Chef Mojica is classically trained, he still enjoys cooking the dishes that he grew up eating. “Hispanic culture is so rooted in culinary — not only do you have national cuisines from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, but you’ll also find a lot of culture within the regions of those countries,” he says. “For example, everyone in Mexico is familiar with tamales, but my family grew up eating chicken tamales, and down the road, others make them with pork.” In some parts of Mexico, like in and around Mexico City, tamales are made with masa flour and steamed in corn husks; in other areas, such as in the Yucatan peninsula, they’re made with a slightly different type of dough and steamed in banana leaves.
One of Chef Mojica’s favorite, most nostalgic dish is posole. “We grew up eating posole for significant events like birthdays, holidays, and anytime we are celebrating something,” he says. “It’s still my favorite thing to eat when I go back home.”
The way Chef Mojica’s mother made posole is to start with really good chicken stock and then rely mostly on various types of chile peppers that are soaked and rehydrated into the stock. “Some people just use water, but I think the trick is to start with a flavorful broth.” After the chicken, bones and all, have simmered and the meat is tender, the peppers are added and later, the shredded chicken and hominy. “We garnish our posole with shredded lettuce, avocados, Mexican oregano and thin sliced radishes,” Chef Mojica says.
“For whatever reason, the big majority of those who work in the culinary industry are Hispanic or of Latino descent, and that adds a lot of food culture to the United States,” he says. “Even at multi-star French restaurants, you’ll find that those who are Hispanic working there add a little bit of flare to those traditional dishes. That creates all kinds of possibilities when it comes to new blends of ingredients, techniques and flavors.”