Juan Carlos Negrete Lopez was the odd one out as the only vegan in his culinary school. He studied culinary arts and gastronomy in Puebla, Mexico, where being a vegan chef was viewed as a limitation by his peers.
But Lopez saw it as an opportunity to explore the potential of sustainable cooking through the lens of Mexican cuisine. A passion for permaculture and farming led him to Australia, where he learned the ropes of rearing animals before he entered the kitchens of venues including Three Blue Ducks.
Now, he’s running his own show. The chef opened Maiz Mexican Street Food with his family in late 2020 with the goal of changing the perceptions of Mexican cuisine and advocating conscious cooking.
Lopez talks to Hospitality about his beginnings in Mexico, making the move to Australia, taking up farming and opening a restaurant during adverse times. Juan Carlos Negrete Lopez travelled while studying, working in various parts of Mexico before heading to the US.
Navigating university was a challenge for the budding chef, who was often hit with lines of questioning about his vegan diet. “Everyone was asking me, ‘What are you doing? you’re studying to become a chef with all these airy-fairy hippie ideas, what the f**k is going on with you?’ˮ says Lopez. “I really wanted to prove veganism could be at the same high standard as the [food the] rest of the chefs around me were striving for.”
Despite criticism, Lopez was determined to prove vegan cuisine had a place in an advanced culinary setting. “I went to New York to work at a restaurant called Candle 79 on Lexington Street,” he says. “It was the restaurant to go to for vegan food. Celebrities like Paul McCartney, Natalie Portman and Alicia Silverstone used to go there.”
At the time, the now-closed Manhattan venue was considered an institution when veganism was becoming a hot topic, and Lopez was part of the action. “It was kind of like this whole vegan movement and everyone was talking about it,” he says.
After the chef finished his studies in the States, he found himself back in Mexico, where he started an organic catering service with a friend. The venture revolved around a farm-to-table approach with a few vegan dishes added into the mix, which led to a growing interest in permaculture.
“I pursued growing our own food and getting into sustainable food production,” says Lopez. “I started doing a little bit of permaculture in Mexico and decided to keep a bit of [that] knowledge going.”
Lopez became fascinated by the idea of growing his own produce and soon enough, it was time to make another move. “I came to Australia to study permaculture further because Australia was where permaculture was born; in Tasmania,” he says.
As a chef, knowing the right producers is invaluable, but for Lopez, it felt natural to cut out the middleman and become one himself. “I was very surprised at how little permaculture was known,” he says. “I thought it was a big thing in Australia, but apparently, it wasn’t. When I told people I was a chef, they said, ‘Why are you doing farming?’’’ and I was like, ‘Isn’t it obvious that cooking and farming is intrinsic?’ For me at least, I look at them as one thing.
Lopez was a vegan for five years before touching down in Australia where his perspective changed. “I stopped being vegan when I did my course in sustainable food production and lived on a farm raising my own pigs and lambs, harvesting honey and growing my own veggies,” says Lopez. “I was taught how sustainable food production systems or ecosystems could only be possible with the aid of animals.”
Permaculture was a valuable skill that helped him find a middle ground and gave him a unique skillset when stepping into his role as a head chef with Three Blue Ducks. “Working five years for the same company really helped broaden my knowledge of food and my skills,” says Lopez.
The fluid menu at Three Blue Ducks exposed Lopez to a range of different cuisines, providing plenty of room for growth and new learnings. “I grew a lot as a chef through them and they have influenced how I cook today,” says Lopez. “Their style is more oriented to Asian, South-East Asian and Italian.
Somehow, I’ve taken that approach of letting the food speak for itself and applied it with my cultural knowledge of Mexican food, which I grew up with.”
An opportunity arose for Lopez to focus on Mexican cooking, but he noticed the options in Australia were largely limited. “I worked at a few Mexican restaurants after Three Blue Ducks and everyone was focused on tacos and margaritas,” he says. “Hardly anyone was actually exploring other types of Mexican food, and that’s where I saw a huge gap in the market.”
Lopez opened Maiz Mexican Street Food in December last year to show diners what true Mexican cooking really is. “As a Mexican and as a Mexican chef, I could never go to a Mexican restaurant, and go, ‘I feel like I’m eating like home’,” he says. “I think that was due to a lack of Mexican immigration to Australia, especially Mexican chef immigration.”
decision to demonstrate everyday dishes. “I think it was a risky move, but it was a risky move that is actually working to our benefit because a lot of Australians have travelled to Mexico,” says Lopez. “Now, with a boom in mezcal, a lot of people are travelling to Oaxaca, Puebla and Mexico City; not just Cancun, which is like an American paradise.”
The rewards have outweighed the risks as Maiz not only expands the options for Mexican cuisine for diners, but also represents a community that has been underrepresented in the local culinary landscape.
“Merivale went to Mexico and brought back a ridiculous amount of Mexican chefs to work in their restaurants,” says Lopez. “So many Mexican chefs are living in Sydney now that we don’t know of, but they’re slowly starting to emerge.”
Representation is important to Lopez and is woven throughout every aspect of his venue and its food. “The name Maiz, which is the Spanish word for corn, is the foundation of Mexican cooking,” says the chef. “It was a statement to ground ourselves into doing something with corn and to show that it’s not just a tortilla for tacos, but that there are different preparations embedded in our culture.”
The success of Maiz Street Food has proven to be a worthwhile endeavour for Lopez, and he believes challenges are inevitable, especially during a global pandemic. “Pre COVID-19 times, there were a lot of backpackers filling the hospitality industry, everyone was just coming and going and nobody really cared,” he says.
“You were just there to do the job and I feel like the pandemic has helped shift the perception of business; hospitality operators [are now really looking] around at who they have.”
Staffing has been a challenge, but plans were put in place to ensure Maiz didn’t lose its employees. “We’re very lucky to have staff from the beginning and we’ve been looking after them now more than ever,” says Lopez. “Giving them empowerment to create with us and taking them on the creative journey that we’re on as well has made them stay.”
For Lopez, the future of Maiz Street Food will see the implementation of the practical skills he learned during his travels and studies. His passion for permaculture and extensive knowledge of farming has prompted his search to seek out local producers.
The venue currently imports half its produce including a rare variety of heirloom corn and chillis. “A lot of the produce is imported because there’s still not much farming going on for particular products yet,” says Lopez. “But obviously the rest of the vegetables we source through our local supplier.”
The goal is to champion Australian produce while showcasing Mexican food and ingredients; a balancing act that has been no easy feat. “Ultimately, that’s my utopia for Maiz; where we can import less and use more of what we grow.”
Lopez has always followed his own path. His experiences as a chef and a farmer have brought him to the point where he is ready to teach others a thing or two about authentic Mexican food and sustainable food practices. Introducing something new to the market always comes with a level of risk, but for Lopez, it’s just the beginning.