Ditch the Shopping List, & Live a Little
Meditations on the produce aisle with Chef Eddie Ruiz.
November 7, 2018 ● 3 min read
By Priya Krishna | Illustration by Zoe Van Dijk
THIS ARTICLE BROUGHT TO YOU IN PARTNERSHIP WITH PACIFIC SALES.
Eddie Ruiz has fond recollections of childhood summers spent away from his Los Angeles home with his grandparents in Tecate, Mexico. He remembers helping his grandfather prepare big batches of sopes and barbacoa, and selling them after the local church services to make money for the parish. He remembers his grandmother putting him and his cousins to work stuffing masa inside corn husks and tying the ends up tight for tamales.
Soon enough, Ruiz was serving up dishes like carnitas terrine with Coca-Cola gelée and chocolate cake with chipotle custard at his trailblazing restaurant, Corazon y Miel, where he helped define the now widespread genre of “modern Mexican” cooking, earning loads of acclaim in the process.
Before that, Ruiz was just a kid in L.A. watching Emeril Lagasse on television and trying to sort out how he could apply Lagasse’s baked ribs technique to his grandparents’ adobo. “I always felt like I wanted to do something with food,” he says, though his path to the kitchen wasn’t so direct. He went to business school, and after working at Bank of America, realized that he hated the desk life. “There was no creativity to it,” he says.
He put all the money he had earned toward culinary school, graduated at the top of his class, and quickly landed some high-profile stages: with the ubiquitous Patina restaurant group and the meat-centric Animal, run by famed L.A. restaurateurs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. Then, he decided to return to Mexico — but not to Tecate. He wanted to go where chefs were pushing the bounds of Mexican cooking and earning international acclaim for it: Valle de Guadalupe, the site of restaurants like the French-meets-Mexican Laja and the sourcing-obsessed Deckman’s en el Mogor. Ruiz worked for Diego Hernández at Corazón de Tierra, an inventive spot set on a picturesque winery. “I was cooking American-style food professionally up until that point,” he says, but after his stint in Mexico, “I knew I wanted to do Latin-American food.”
Ruiz came out of the gates swinging with Corazon y Miel, opened in 2012, where he and partners Travis Hoffacker and Robin Chopra served the aforementioned carnitas terrine and other contemporary takes on Ruiz’s childhood fare. The restaurant was located in Bell, California, a city with a predominantly Hispanic population — but the local community didn’t respond well to the place. “They didn’t want a modern restaurant,” Ruiz says. “They were accustomed to Mexican restaurants giving free chips and salsa, tortillas with every dish, and having combo number five with rice and beans.”
Ruiz had a choice to make — either continue to push the envelope or streamline the food to fit the tastes of the Bell community. He chose the former, and sure enough, soon after rolling out an ambitious new menu, the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold paid a visit and crowned the restaurant one of the 101 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles in 2013.
Despite successfully becoming a destination restaurant, Corazon y Miel failed to sustain a loyal following and closed in 2016. Ruiz says he learned the importance of building a community around a restaurant, but if he could go back and do it all over, he wouldn’t change a thing.
Ruiz completely switched gears for a time: briefly working in hotel development, owning a beer and wine shop in Long Beach, partnering with Chris Blanchard, a brand marketer by training, to help expand his fast-casual taco spot, Chicas Tacos, throughout the West Coast.
Now, he’s in the process of reopening Corazon y Miel — not in Bell, but in Los Angeles, where the restaurant can have the flexibility and audience to be even bolder than the original. He’ll finally be able to serve sweetbreads and foie gras without fear that they won’t sell, he says.
It's clear amidst all of his business dealings, his heart is in his restaurant. “If it has been done before I don’t like to do it,” he says of his style. “I want to create a new ecosystem within my restaurant that feeds the creative part of my cooking.” Ruiz sees himself as part of a new generation of cooks redefining L.A. dining — people like Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos or Nakul and Arjun Mahendro of Badmaash — children of immigrants fusing the foods of their heritage with their bountiful California setting.
Sure, there are plenty of critics of his style of cooking — people who say foie gras doesn’t belong in a taco and that Mexican dishes should be served with rice and beans. “Purists get really angry at me,” he says, with a laugh. But he doesn’t mind a bit.
Why? Because, he says: he knows that he’s crafting the next generation of American tastes.