Q & A: Efrain Cuevos*

In the summer of 2007, Efrain Cuevos left his job as an engineering consultant in San Francisco and moved back to his hometown of Chicago. He’d already returned to the city on a dozen occasions to present the Chicago branch of Ghetto Gourmet, one of the first underground supper clubs to capitalize on the recent renaissance of clandestine dining. While spearheading the Chicago division, Cuevos shared in the glory Ghetto Gourmet received. One Ghetto Gourmet guest, Nicola Copeland, the Chicago program coordinator for Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), was so impressed with Cuevos that she asked him to speak to a group of high school students participating in C-CAP’s after school program. Today, Cuevos is the after school culinary instructor at Simeon Career Academy, and has formed a “community dining project” called Clandestino. Inspired by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard program, Cuevos’ mission is to pair the educational component of studying nutrition, organic gardening and culinary skills with the hands-on element of work-study.

Efrain Cuevos in Pilsen.

How did you get started as a chef?

The first time someone called me “Chef” was at a Ghetto Gourmet underground dinner party in San Francisco. I served a five-course aphrodisiac menu to fifty people at an art gallery in the Mission District. Before that, I was just someone who liked to cook at home for friends. Becoming a chef is a process though, something I am always struggling with. It’s not just a question of “can you cook great food?” Instead, you have to seek out the best ingredients, build a solid cooking team, and get to know your dinner guests. Plus, you are constantly educating yourself about food.

How did you get involved with the Careers through Culinary Arts program?

I got involved with C-CAP in the Spring of 2007 as a guest speaker. I visited Simeon high school to tell the kids about The Ghetto Gourmet and the concept of underground dining. Many of the students were planning on attending culinary school and I thought it was important for them to see another side of the culinary world that they didn’t know about. I was invited back to cook with the students and ultimately was hired to teach a class for the fall and spring semesters. We had a great year and I plan to continue teaching next school year. Although I joke that half of the kids show up only to eat, I really can recognize culinary talents and the desire to excel in the majority of them

What chef inspires you, and why?

Most chefs I meet inspire me. They all came to cooking in different ways and are passionate about food. What’s most inspiring to me is seeing someone cook without even stopping to think. I see this occasionally on TV, but TV chefs make it look so easy sometimes. I’m a big fan of Iron Chef, since its a decent representation of the fervor that exists on the kitchen line.

Efrain Cuevos in a friend’s garden.

What’s a normal day like for you at C-CAP?

Imagine showing up with bags of groceries from Whole Foods to a classroom of hungry high school kids who can actually cook like its nobody’s business. I normally have a menu planned for the day. Sometimes I give the students recipes, other times I verbally walk them through the recipes during class. They do all the cooking, although I usually have to remind them to season their food properly. Sometimes we go on field trips to a farmer’s market, a tortilla factory, or a bakery. I get a lot of joy from exposing the students to ingredients and food that they wouldn’t normally try. This past spring, we prepared spring lamb chops, seared then roasted, and served medium rare, of course. Students made their own white wine thyme and rosemary reduction to complete the dish. Some of the students LOVED the lamb and even saved a piece to take home, but other students were not thrilled about the presence of a little blood.

You’re still hosting private underground dinner parties. What is your goal with each party?

I try to make the dinner parties fun and interesting, but the main focus is always the food. The parties always turn out to be unique adventures with different combinations of people and palates. At my aphrodisiac dinner in Chicago last spring, we served the first course on nude models, much to the surprise of dinner guests. At an enchilada dinner last fall, one of the dinner guests turned out to be an opera singer from the Genesis Opera and sang a beautiful rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime. At a Valentine’s Day dinner last year, my best friend Kurt proposed to his girlfriend Marie. She said yes. Its moments like those that keep me cooking for others.

What is the mission of your community dining project, Clandestino?

It’s actually not much different than the mission of a restaurant. I want to provide a unique dining experience for my guests where they can experience exceptional food that’s prepared with the best ingredients and provide a place where collaborative cooks and students can improve their craft and cooking skills. We invite artists to display their work on the walls and musicians to perform between courses, but they are also dinner guests and sit down for all the courses.

Clandestino is also a place where we all learn about our food supply, where dinner guests and cooks are able to communicate directly with the farmers and growers that provide our ingredients. As a supper club, Clandestino is able to do things that a restaurant can’t do. We move around from place to place, essentially building a fine dining restaurant for one night only in different locations. This tends to spark unlikely incidents and interesting conversations. The idea that we were all getting together for a great meal with music and art warrants a sense of gratitude. Outside of our cozy dining room it’s a mad world, but at the end of the day, we’re all somehow connected by food. Everyone deserves a good meal and we intend that everyone leaves the dinner party feeling refreshed and hopefully inspired.

What’s the next step for Clandestino?

My vision is to create and offer programs where city high school students can have a better hands-on approach to cooking and farming, helping to create dishes for dinner parties with ingredients they grow themselves. There are already some great programs and organizations in Chicago that I am actively involved with and my work there is definitely something to build on.

At this point, Clandestino is still at the beginning stage; we are seeking contributions from sponsors and ideally, we’d like to establish Clandestino as a non-profit organization.

Pilsen garden turtle.

For more information on Efrain Cuevos, his underground dinner parties and Clandestino, visit www.Chefrain.com.

*This article was originally published in Shore Magazine.

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