Calexico native and chef Esdras Ochoa might be spending time in Mumbai, India, working to open some restaurants, but has never left his hometown roots, taking a piece of his childhood upbringing to different regions of the world.
The journey has led him to a new Netflix cooking competition show, “The Final Table,” that will began streaming Nov. 20.
Born in Mexico City, Ochoa, 36, attended school in Calexico and graduated from Calexico High School in 2000. Like all the people that grew up on the border, he experienced two languages, two cultures, and, most important for him, the cuisine of two nations.
After graduation Ochoa moved to Los Angeles to study fashion design and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. While there he saw plenty of Mexican food to eat, but recalls there wasn't a large variety at the time or the specialties like the street tacos of Mexicali. He recalled he didn't see flame-grilled meats, or an expansive salsa bar to top tacos.
“I decided to take my savings and invest into a mobile cart setup, and found a parking lot at 1st St. & Beaudry, and called it Mexicali Taco & Co.,” Ochoa stated in a recent e-mail interview.
“The start was slow, but slowly but surely after several months we began to see longer and longer lines,” he added. “Within the first year, we were #1 ranked on Yelp L.A. even though we weren't a restaurant. In 2011, we opened our brick-and-mortar and began our restaurant history.”
While he didn't know it at the time, spending so much time together with his family is where he drew the most inspiration from as a chef.
“The countless times watching my mother and aunts in the kitchen preparing food for us, showing us that love through their cooking, is something that I have connected to more and more as an adult, and especially now as a chef,” Ochoa stated.
His cooking has deep Sonoran roots and as such involves lots of grilling on fire with charcoal, rustic preparation of vegetables, and hand-made flour tortillas.
“Every restaurant I have continues to show my progress as a chef but also connects me back to my roots and the food that I grew up with,” he added.
His work eventually led him to open a restaurant in Hong Kong, thanks to the motivation of his business partners, a Mexican-centric restaurant and bar in an up-and-coming part of Hong Kong called Kennedy Town. Ochoa stated the reception from customers has been great and those who know Mexican food from the States appreciate the "taste of home" he is trying to bring to them.
He now splits his time between Los Angeles, Hong Kong and India.
The Final Table will feature competition between 12 pairs of acclaimed and talented chefs from around the world preparing various cuisines. Each culture/cuisine has a master chef who will judge the battles until the field is whittled down to the finalists.
“My partner is Chef Rafael Gil whom I met and became friends with in Hong Kong, and we had a blast together.” he added.
Ochoa stated he was approached by the show producers while he was going to open the restaurant in Honk Kong and that he liked the concept. He believes it was appealing to the show producers that he was an untrained but successful chef in Los Angeles with two restaurants who now is expanding to Asia. Ever ambitious, he is following up on the Hong Kong venture by an effort to open restaurants in India.
“Every business I start, every person I meet, every experience I have from traveling...it all connects me back to Calexico and my childhood,” Ochoa explained.
He added, “I try to live my life with the goal of creating great food whose soul comes from my personal history--of which Calexico is a big part of. I hope that our younger generation will strive for greatness and finding their place of success in this world.”