In his Ottawa restaurant, Navarra, chef Ren Rodriguez serves up dishes that draw on Mexican, Spanish and Latin American cuisine. However, his first job in the restaurant industry involved an entirely different sort of cuisine – Italian.
“My uncle opened a pizzeria [in Mexico] when I was 12, 13, and I was just fascinated by pizza. I decided to go work with him, just learn how to make the dough, how the pizza was cooked in the oven, chopping onions, you know,” says Rodriguez. The experience gave him a taste of what the industry was like, though his age meant that his salary was in pizza rather than pesos. Another huge culinary influence on Rodriguez in his earlier years was his mother, who he says is an incredible cook. At 18, Rodriguez moved back to his birthplace of Ottawa and began establishing a reputation for himself, including a win on season four of the popular Top Chef Canada.
He first met Edgar Gutierrez, Chris Sills, and Dani Braun – the three carnales behind Tres Carnales and Rostizado – at an event they did together in Edmonton. The quartet hit it off, and discussed Rodriguez returning to Edmonton at some point for a collaboration dinner. “It’s been almost six months in the making, going back and forth through e-mail and text messaging. Finally we decided, let’s do it February 21,” says Rodriguez.
It was Gutierrez’ passion for Mexican cuisine that first sparked Rodriguez’ interest, as well as perhaps a hint of nostalgia from those years of mom’s home cooking. “What draws me to this kind of food that Edgar does is, I lived in Mexico for 15 years, so I see that they [Tres Carnales/Rostizado] do food that is very reminiscent of what I used to eat when I was very young,” says Rodriguez. “It just triggers that memory and you want to associate with it again.”
While Edmontonian food lovers recognize the tremendous impact that both Tres Carnales and Rostizado have had in introducing authentic Mexican cuisine to diners here, Rodriguez says it’s a phenomenon that’s happening across Canada. “I think for the longest time Mexican food has been bastardized, for the lack of a better word, in a sense that people would think Mexican food is chopped lettuce, rice and beans and overcooked ground beef, but there’s more to it, more layers, more flavor, more freshness,” says Rodriguez. “I think people here and across Canada are finally beginning to realize that Mexican food isn’t just ground beef and yellow cheese.”