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INTERVIEW: Chef Danny Mena Talks His New Cookbook, "Made In Mexico," And La Loncheria In Brooklyn

Sydney A. Braat

Chef Danny Mena. (Courtesy Photo)

At the heart of New York's vibrant lifestyle are unique eateries like Chef Danny Mena's La Loncheria located in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Mena just launched his book Made in Mexico: The Cookbook which features recipes focused on Mexico City's local cuisine and culture.

The book will transport you to the streets of Mexico City featuring the very best breakfast, "antojitos"/snacks, salads, ceviches, main dishes, and desserts. It's not a Tex-Mex cuisine, rather authentic regional cuisine, rooted in tradition with Mena's unwavering creativity and innovation.

We had a chance to sit down with Chef Danny Mena in his restaurant La Loncherie or "The Lunch Box" which is tucked away in a quaint Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by trendy vintage stores and other shops. It's a true neighborhood place and exhibits an old-school diner meets Mexico vibe. Mena admitted that's exactly what he was going for after he decided to pursue this second restaurant.

It was immediately evident throughout our conversation that Mena doesn't cook to merely feed hungry patrons. He cooks to take his customers on a trip to his home country of Mexico, to inspire, and educate. Mena could hardly contain his excitement for his several passion projects, including his cookbook, restaurant, and two mezcal companies.

Let's go back to the beginning. How did you get started with cooking and when did you decide this was something you wanted to do professionally?

DM: I got started with cooking in college. I'm the antithesis of the typical chef story. My family wasn't into the restaurant scene. I didn't stand in the kitchen and stir the sauce with Grandma...I was actually really good at math. I was born and raised in Mexico and then went to school in the United States at Virginia Tech. Because I was good at math it seemed like the next logical step to take.

Halfway through college is when I started doing dinners and cooking basic Mexican food. After three or four years in college I decided I wanted to stop engineering and pursue cooking, but the school didn't have that. After speaking with my Dad, I decided to finish my engineering degree. After school I moved back to Mexico City and then a few friends of mine lived in New York. At twenty-five I was single and had some money saved up, so I moved there. I worked at big and small companies as an engineer but I didn't really like it.

I decided to change paths, apply for a loan, and apply to culinary school at twenty-six. I worked in the day and then would go to class at night, but it was by far the best time of my life.

So you went from engineering to culinary school. That's quite the shift.

DM: It is, but it isn't. In restaurants you need to understand inventory and labor and several other things that I learned in engineering school. I learned industrial engineering specifically which has a focus on processes.

You launched a book in September 2019. It's been described as a "delicious love letter." How did you pick what recipes were put in the book and how you wanted to portray yourself?

DM: I wanted to do a cookbook after my first restaurant Hecho en Dumbo, which was all about food that I grew up with and loved. New York had some good Mexican food but a lot of it fell with super high end or had crappy ingredients. There was no middle ground where you could get good food at a pleasant setting. When it came to the book, I didn't want to include basic recipes because those things have already been covered a thousand times. At the same time I didn't want to do modern Mexican food. I wanted to give a food tour around Mexico City. When this idea came to fruition about five years ago, the Mexico City scene was booming. Now it's at a really high point.

You have your restaurant, cookbook, and mezcal. What do you want people to know about your work and everything you've done?

DM: When we first opened Hecho en Dumbo we did everything ourselves. I cooked and cleaned everything. Someone told us, "We can tell you cooked this with love." And that was the highest compliment you could ever receive. When you go to a restaurant, you never think of the chef that put thought and love into that dish. Everything I do at the end of the day is for love.

La Loncheria is located at 41 Wilson Avenue Brooklyn. For more information on Chef Danny Mena's book Made in Mexico, visit www.amazon.com.

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