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San Diego – American chef Chad White is making his mark in the culinary world by creating his version of Mexican cuisine — and oddly enough, Mexicans are his biggest fans.
It was on a trip with his grandfather to San Felipe, Mexico from Spokane, Washington, 20 years ago, when he first fell in love with Mexican food.
“I grew up in a conservative family and Mexico was such a uniquely different lifestyle from what I knew, it was mind-blowing,” White told Fox News Latino.
Fast-forward to 9/11. A deeply patriotic Chad White joined the Navy to fight in the Middle East and he became a chef there, following his culinary training at USN & USAF Culinary Arts School in San Antonio, Texas.
Behind every great man, they say, there is a woman who inspires them. For White, it is the Mexican woman he married and her family who hail from Guerrero and Acapulco.
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“Her mom’s food is more seafood and hearty items — tamales, chile relleno, mole, posole,” he explained. “She taught me the proper way to make real beans with lard.”
Meanwhile, White said, her father is from a river region [in Guerrero] so the food is more about grilling, smoking, with rustic, homey dishes.
It was on a hunting/camping trip where White says he began to hone his now well-known style, which until recently he put into practice in San Diego’s “Comun” and other restaurants in the area.
In that trip, he said, he became friends with Miguel Angel Guerrero, the father of “Baja Med” cuisine.
“We went [camping] for about 20 days; traveling by motorcycle and off-road truck from the tip to the stern of Baja. It was very intense. Eleven of us and I was the only American,” White recalled.
“We packed for Armageddon — knives, fishing gear, diving tanks. I learned about the culture and how they cook,” he added.
“In American kitchens we tend to throw away the ‘less desirable’ parts. Mexican cooks keep every single bit of the animal and the produce. All of those are used in the menu, nothing gets thrown away. From onion peels to pig ears, stuff that’s over-looked in our culture,” White explained.
“I learned about adapting to one’s environment. I became more crafty and well-versed in the machismo attitude of these guys and how hard they worked. No divas. They were out there roughing it. I was involved in every meal and I had to use the ingredients they had. I applied my style of cooking.”
In 2010, White was invited by a renowned Baja chef, Javier Placencia, to cook at the world-famous annual Vendemmia Wine Festival. “I thought I’d be cooking for gringos, but it was all Mexicans. I got a standing ovation. I brought my style and meshed it with their culture,” White told FNL.
White became a fixture on the Mexican culinary scene with the opening of his restaurant La Justina, located in Tijuana's Revolucion Blvd. A bold move for a white guy from the States.
“I get more pushback in the U.S., from Americans, about being a gringo cooking Mexican food. I don’t call myself a Mexican chef. I’m just a chef. I cook with Mexican ingredients because they’re complex and interesting to me,” White said.
Making a name for himself in SoCal and in Baja, it would only be a natural next step to hear from the Bravo TV series “Top Chef.” San Diego boasts two Top Chef contestants with thriving culinary careers — Brian Malarky and Richard Sweeney.
“My first answer was no ... [But then] I started to think maybe the risk was worth it. I talked to friends and family and decided to go for it,” he recalled.
“I feel proud of what I did. I was a fierce competitor.”
White will appear on the upcoming 13th season of “Top Chef,” premiering on Dec. 1. He told FNL he maintained his individual style and enjoyed jumping into the fray of the competition.
“I cooked the way I liked to cook. I thought it was a great opportunity. It allows you to see where you are in comparison to other chefs,” said White, who has been called the ‘Seafood Maverick’ of San Diego and has 16,000 followers on Instagram.
“But that’s all in San Diego – he noted – I wanted to know how I would stand up to chefs in NYC or Chicago.”