Executive Chef: Manuel Barella Lopez

From law school to culinary school, Manuel Barella Lopez of Bellota prepares mouthwatering dishes that pay homage to his Mexican heritage.

Photo by Joni Schrantz

What’s your background?
“I was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. After dropping out of law school, I decided to go to culinary school and got my first job as a kitchen manager. A year later, I applied to a J-1 Visa program at Gold Strike Casino Resort in Tunica, MS. That was my first job in America. I went back to Toluca, Mexico and opened a little restaurant with catering services. I lived there for about a year and then had the choice of working at Four Seasons in Dallas or The St. Regis Atlanta. I went for the latter, and it dictated the next steps of my life.”

Describe your culinary journey.
“I worked under Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) Jonathan Jerusalmy [MOF is considered to be the highest honor to French chefs]. He became the Culinary Director of Sea Island Resorts in southeast Georgia and offered me a three-year contract and a position as a Chef de Partie (CDP) in what became my first multi-tasting, fine-dining, tweezer-food restaurant, The Georgian Room.

There, I learned food at a fivestar level. I then moved to The Oak Room [another Sea Island restaurant] as a CDP and got immersed in barbecue and southern cuisine, which I love still. In a sad turn of events, I returned to Mexico for nine months—not working in kitchens, but trying to find my way back to the United States through a visa program. Eventually, I moved to Napa Valley and worked at Calistoga Ranch of Auberge Resorts for a year. That same year, I got married to my girlfriend of three years. I then started working for Cindy Pawlcyn at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena in my first sous chef position.

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Eventually, I realized I wanted to return to fine dining. My wife and I moved to Boulder, her hometown and the location of my dream job at the time, Frasca. I worked there for a year, working my way to become the sous chef, when I got contacted by Uchi Denver. Being someone that worked through visas, I never had the chance to get sought after. So, I decided to check it out and fell in love with the culture of Hai Hospitality— that, and the challenge of a new cuisine was something I couldn’t let pass.

After 15 months with Uchi, chef Bill Espiricueta contacted me about plans to open a Mexican restaurant, and we decided to take this journey we’re on now— to change the concept of what Mexican food is in Colorado.”

You are known for bringing traditional Mexican flair to your food.
“I feel that everyone has a respectable approach to what Mexican food is for them based on what they were exposed to while growing up. I had the fortune of growing up in Mexico for 24 years, and I would eat a lot, hungry or not. It’s important for me to share what I have experienced and to show people that Mexican food is more than burritos (which I love, though!) and hard-shell tacos (which I hate!).

The food we’re presenting is a more traditional approach to Mexican dishes that’s friendly rather than adventurous. We have to show people what we do and earn their trust before we get deeper into what Mexican food is. I want to give Denver a taste of Mexico, at least the way I’ve seen it and enjoyed it for so many years.”

What are your favorite dishes?
“I like fine dining because of the non-food parts of it—the intangibles of the culture and the artsy part of it. However, at home I cook comfort food; that’s my favorite type of food regardless of the country of origin, a one-bowl-wonder that not only nurtures your body but also your soul.

At Bellota, I would say my Esquites dish [Mexican street corn] is one of my proudest dishes of my career. When I cooked them for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the old man that would come every Friday after school with his pushcart trying to make a living. That feeling feeds the soul; I can close my eyes and for a second I don’t miss home that much.”

What are your aspirations?
“I want to be talked about in Mexico; I want my fellow Mexican chefs to be proud of what I do here. I look up to people like Carlos Gaytán, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, Daniela Soto-Innes, and Santiago Lastra among many others who have made Mexico proud with their accomplishments. I want people to drive past three other Mexican places to come and try my food. Food is my love language. I couldn’t be happier to be able to share it with people. A couple months ago, I talked to a friend about becoming ‘the best restaurant.’ She told me about doing so, but for your community. When people go out of their way to let me know how much they enjoyed my food, leaving with a smile and a full belly, that’s when I feel my job is done—whatever happens after that is just the cherry on top.”

Why do you love food?
“If there is anything I can teach about food, I will. You can ask anyone on our team. I love the stories behind food, the ‘why’ of dishes, history, origin, and tradition. I like to have a friendly environment in my kitchen where we all work for the same goal; we just have different roles to play. I will always be a kid at heart who jokes and has fun while cooking.”

Who inspires you?
“My mom (and dad, RIP) sacrificed so much in order to keep me in private school so I could learn English, without really knowing how important it would be: It allowed me to get better jobs that paid for college and to ultimately move to America. So, I literally wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. So, when she calls, I answer. I love you, Ma.”

Photo by Joni Schrantz

Esquites (Mexican corn)

Yield: 1 plate

0.6 c. corn kernel
1.8 tsp. garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. shallot, minced
1 tsp. butter
4¾ tsp. epazote (thinly sliced)
6 tsp. slurry
5 tsp. water
1 Tbsp. butter, tempered
4 tsp. mayo (my favorite is McCormick)
1/4 c. cotija cheese
1 Tbsp. salt
½ lime (juice)

Sweat the shallots, garlic, and corn on medium heat with butter until cooked (about three to four minutes). Then, add epazote, slurry, and water and cook until desired consistency. (I like to call it “lava” because when you slide your spoon or spatula on the bottom of the pot it comes back together slowly.) Add butter and stir as it melts; turn off the heat and add mayo, lime juice, and cotija. Season with salt to taste.

At the restaurant we finish it with morita pepper powder (which can be made with a spice grinder), dried epazote powder (that we make in-house), sliced serrano peppers, and Mexican crema.