Mexican food is a longtime favorite in New York, but it’s only in the past couple of decades that it has found its way to the top levels of the City’s restaurant scene. Many chefs have worked to elevate the cuisine and bring its regional flavors to the fore. Cosme Aguilar, co-owner and executive chef of in Long Island City—the first Mexican restaurant in NYC to receive a Michelin star—is leading the pack.
Aguilar moved to the City to reunite with family, giving the native of Chiapas, Mexico, the opportunity to discover his passion for cooking and become a French-trained chef. After years of gaining experience and inspiration, chef Cosme and his brother, Luis Aguilar, dreamed up Casa Enrique, fueled by a devotion to treating Mexican cuisine with the respect it deserves. The restaurant, whose name is a play on Cafe Henri (the nearby French restaurant where Cosme continues to serve as executive chef), celebrates the flavors and traditions of their home country.
We stopped by to speak with chef Cosme about his love for Mexican food, his influences and his favorite Mexican restaurants in NYC.
To start, what are you most grateful for in your career?
Cosme Aguilar: The Michelin star. It’s a prize everyone honors but not everyone gets. Every day I wake up with the energy to move forward. I always give thanks to my mother. She died when I was 7. I remember the last three years with her the most. I remember her cooking and how she fed us every day.
Before receiving the star, I wasn’t very well known, but now people in the business know me and appreciate me. That’s very important to me. I can die happy because I achieved what I wanted.
What inspired you to make cooking your career?
CA: In Mexico, I was learning to become an electro-mechanical technician. I loved cars, and I thought I would pursue a career in the US, but I found it hard to get a job in that field. My older brother, Luis, worked at a French restaurant in New York City, and he got me a job as a porter in the kitchen. I saw the chefs prepare everything. That’s when I fell in love [with cooking] and realized it was for me. I began to learn how to run a kitchen.
What do you love about New York?
CA: I found my passion for food here. For me, New York is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There are many different people. I have made many friends, and built a life and career here. The only thing I don’t like is the cold!
Ceviche de pescado, Casa Enrique
How would you describe your cooking style?
CA: My mother’s cooking and the way she focused on flavor was a great influence. She exposed me to all types of regional dishes. That really inspired my style of cooking. My sister was the one who carried on with the recipes my mother cooked, and when it came time to build our menu, she became the bridge to help me recreate the food I loved.
How did Casa Enrique come to be?
CA: There was a catering business where we used to cook our food for the two restaurants I managed. When the owner wanted to sell the space, my brother and I approached the owner of Café Henri, Winston Kulok, to take it over to start a Mexican restaurant. He became our partner, and that’s how it all started.
What was your goal at the time?
CA: I wanted to open a Mexican restaurant so that Mexican people who live in New York could taste home. I wanted to bring people to Mexico without [their] having to buy an airplane ticket. To bring traditional flavors to people who really loved Mexican food—not just Americans, but anybody who knows how delicious Mexican food is.
What do you love to do when you have time away from the restaurant?
CA: I love spending time with my daughter; we make bread and crepes together. I go to the beach to open my mind. During the week, I go to other restaurants serving all types of cuisine to see what other chefs are doing and gain inspiration. One restaurant that my brother and I made our regular spot is in Williamsburg.
Iván Garcia (left) and Cosme Aguilar
What excites you about what chef Iván Garcia is doing at Mesa Coyoacan?
CA: Mesa Coyoacan was one of the top restaurants in the City even before we started Casa Enrique [it opened in 2009, three years earlier than Casa Enrique]. It gave me a taste of home. I could go there and enjoy the flavors I grew up with. I always go with my family.
Carne asada tacos, Mesa Coyoacan
(From left) Cosme Aguilar, Gerardo Zabaleta, Luis Aguilar and Iván Garcia, Mesa Coyoacan
What dish is your comfort food in the middle of the night?
CA: Our cochinito (slow-roasted pork ribs), the enchiladas Doña Blanca (roasted poblanos in cream), the tacos. Depends on my mood.
Mole de Piaxtla, Casa Enrique
What dish on your menu best represents your cooking?
CA: I think the mole, cochinito, carnitas. It’s like how many kids you have and who is your favorite. It’s hard to pick!
These are chef Cosme’s favorite Mexican spots in NYC (besides his own)