38-year-old Mexican-born Gilberto Cetina draws his inspiration from the traditional flavours of Mexico, with an inclination towards the southern states, in particular the Yucatan Peninsula where he was born. With no formal culinary training, he learned to cook at his family’s restaurant Chichen Itza, working alongside his father for 15 years. He took over as chef of Chichen Itza in 2010 and in 2017 opened Holbox, a seafood stand that focuses on sustainable ingredients, bold flavors and simple preparations.
At Holbox you can sit at the counter and watch your food being prepared with the highest quality seafood available in southern California, matched with the flavours of Mexico's different coastal regions. Cetina's love of seafood began in his teen years spending the summers on the coast of Yucatan, diving for conch and octopus and spearing fish with his cousins. The flavours of ceviche prepared on the boat with the catch of the moment are what he aims to recreate at Holbox.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Doing what you love, and sharing it with the people you love.
What is the purest thing you have ever tasted? Baja California Blood Clam, straight out of the water.
What is the best thing you can do with your hands? Feed people.
What was your first experience with sustainable eating? I didn’t know it at the time. Diving for conch and spearing fish with my cousins in Yucatan. Then we would eat our catch.
What do you love most about what you do? That I get to feed people, share my culture and beliefs – all in a single meal.
What do you consider the most overrated ingredient? Bluefin tuna.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever been taught? To work hard and enjoy it. I learned that from my dad.
Is there anything you don’t particularly care to eat? Flavourless, soulless, generic farmed fish.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A middle-class house dog – they have it good. (FYI, I love dogs. Shout out to Ellie and Ozzy.)
When was the last time you ate out, and where? Last week, brunch at Republic. That French Toast!
What are your favourite books or cookbooks? The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, Cocina Yucateca by Lucrecia Ruz, On Food & Cooking by Harold McGee, Modernist Cuisine by Maxime Bilet and Nathan Myhrvold. All for different reasons, but equally important to me.
What is the dish on your own menu that most engages you? The simplest one. Ceviche de Pescado. It’s a process I enjoy very much every day. Find a beautiful sustainable wild-caught or farmed fish, inspect, butcher, prepare, share the story with the customer, serve.
What do you make from scratch? Most things.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you are doing? Carpenter. I find a lot of parallels between cooking and carpentry. It’s all about the product you start with, the tools and the craft. There is also a parallel in the way we have been clear-cutting forest and over-fishing; they both need to be managed better and supplemented with sustainable farming.
How do you like to spend your day off? Chilling at home with my wife, my daughter and my dogs. We very much enjoy just chilling.
What is your current obsession, the thing you think about at 3am? None, I’m a fantastic sleeper. But seriously, what I think about the most is how to share my Mexican culinary heritage with diners, while being responsible in the products we use and being innovative in our dishes. I don’t want to cook my grandmother’s food because, well, she already did and no one can top that. The memories of the foods that we grew up with become almost legendary, you can’t top them, so we try to create new flavour memories for our customers.
What are the qualities you most admire in others? Humility, kindness, tolerance, drive, ambition, focus.
Can you tell us something we don’t know about you? I love Japanese food. Ramen, udon, sushi, yakitori, kaiseki. I admire the dedication to the craft, almost to an obsessive point.
Which three words best describe your cooking style? Simple, bold, balanced. Wow! Tooting my own horn here. At least those are the words I strive to achieve.
If you could eat only one thing today, what would it be? A meal cooked at home by my wife. She is a great cook.
What do you see when you think of the cuisine of your own country? AMAZING! I’m so glad I’m Mexican. The ingredients, the culture, the depth and the variety. Regional Mexican cooking is something that no single person will ever finish learning about, and that is an amazing thought, that you will never run out of things to learn and taste. Mexican cooking is sharing in the worldwide phenomenon of chef-driven kitchens that are exploring their heritage, their local ingredients and their regional specialties. Reinterpreting them and honouring them, through the lens of their own culinary experience. Cooks are a collection of things they have tasted, learned and been inspired by, and amazing things are a result of filtering regional cuisines through this prism.
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