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Soma in the city: A chat with the chef

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Soma Restaurante got rave reviews by a very curmudgeonly critic, and on a major consumer review site, when it opened on a beach in Chelem. Eventually, Soma moved to Mérida, something brought to our attention when a reader suggested we add their special brunch to our Thanksgiving guide. The paint was barely dry at their new location, yet both of their Thanksgiving seatings sold out quickly. Clearly, it was time to get to know Soma better, so we asked to speak to the owners.

YELinterview-1114webChef-owner Alberto Balderas — being a native of Celaya, Guanajuato — had not only a grounding in the food of Mexico, but also a solid education in how top-level restaurant kitchens are run.

He spent 15 years in the U.S. at four-star/four-diamond restaurants such as the historic Carolina Inn and Elaine’s on Franklin in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Terrapin in Virginia Beach, Va. In 2011, Alberto cooked for the James Beard House in New York City.

How did he and his wife, Linde, end up in Yucatán?

Alberto jokes, “My wife put a gun to my head and said,  ‘let’s move to Mexico,’ before sharing a darker reality.

“The truth is that my wife had a life-threatening illness, and after our family went through that, we decided to take a drastic step toward fulfilling our dream of opening a restaurant,” says Chef Alberto. “Tomorrow is never guaranteed.”

widequotereverseThe couple arrived in Yucatán in January 2013. By March, they opened Soma.

“It was insane!” says Alberto.

Soma has been moved from the beach to the city, but the concept is the same.

“The idea behind Soma is to bring and share something I love to Yucatán,” says Alberto. “Using the techniques I’m familiar with and respecting the ingredients I find locally, I aim to design dishes based on seasonal availability and exploit the best of their flavors. Without losing the essence of the ingredient.”

But plating carefully prepared food at the beach had its challenges.

“We loved our time at the beach, made so many good friends and learned so much, but being subject to the outdoor elements became a bit much,” says Alberto.

“At one particularly unforgettable moment, we had guests wading in the gate up to their knees to attend the monthly four-course dinner!”

The new kitchen is in the city, but still in a region that lacks ingredients a chef may have become accustomed to in the United States. But Yucatán provides many interesting ingredients to have fun playing with.

“Part of my philosophy as a chef is to use what’s local as much as possible and support the community I am part of,” says the chef. “For example, I have a ribeye and lamb chops on the menu right now that come from a ranch in Tizimin. I plate the ribeye with Recado Negro fluid gel, and local charred green onions. An unexpected local ingredient used in a different preparation.”

DSC_0609webIn his own kitchen at home, Alberto cooking tends to harken to foods of his childhood.

“Being a chef really hasn’t influenced how I cook at home like you may think. I usually cook food from central Mexico, the food of my youth. My mother is a great cook, and I like to add crazy ingredients to traditional dishes and experiment on my family.”

But for any home cook, the idea is not to get into a rut.

“I would advise home cooks to not be limited by what they have always known,” says Alberto. “Yucatán offers a wealth of exotic ingredients that can be used in many ways. I like to take my kids to the market and have them pick out something they have never eaten or seen before. Then we take it home and figure out how to use it. Explore the markets and ask questions. You’ll be amazed.”

Speaking of things we’ve never eaten or seen, are there any new dishes coming up on the menu?

“I can’t guarantee anything in this moment, but Alberto is working on a killer braised beef cheeks dish and local rack of lamb,” says Linde. “For breakfast, the house signature French toast is soon to be revealed … unlike any you’ve ever had!”

Soma, Calle 21 #375 x 60 y 12, Fracc. Malaga, Mérida, Yucatán; Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. +52 999 195 6474

Visit their Facebook page.

somamap720Derived from Google map

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