Soul survivor: a profile of chef Francisco Alejandri
By Jon Sufrin
Francisco Alejandri (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)
At the end of August, Francisco Alejandri cleared out the remnants of his tiny food stand from Kensington Market. He didn’t have much equipment there to begin with — some portable burners, a food processor, a small deep fryer — but the process wasn’t easy. He was heartbroken. He had been running Agave y Aguacate there for nearly
two years, an operation widely considered to have provided the best Mexican food in the city.
Customers had petered out, and Alejandri decided to relocate his business. But he was short on finances, and without a permanent spot, his prospects were slim. The Stratford Chefs School alumnus, who was the Toronto Star’s chef of the year for 2011, found himself pondering how he would make ends meet.
The situation was odd, because Alejandri’s failure at Kensington Market didn’t jibe with his pedigree as a chef.
For him, there was no specific moment, no epiphany, when he realized that he wanted to dedicate his life to food. The desire had simply always been there.
“I knew I wanted to be a chef,” he says, “since before I was born.”
Dream in place, Alejandri was born in 1975, in León, Mexico. As a young adult, he worked at high-end hotel restaurants across the country, and when he wasn’t working, he would watch celebrity chefs on television, transfixed. He realized he would probably have to leave Mexico to make it big.
He came to Toronto in 1996 with $120 in his pocket. He worked at various restaurants, eventually landing a gig at Sassafraz. After deciding that he wanted to go to the Stratford Chefs School, he worked 17-hour shifts, seven days a week, for tuition. He worked so hard that he once passed out from exhaustion.
It wasn’t until chef school that Alejandri found a true mentor in Neil Baxter, a Stratford instructor and chef at Rundles restaurant. Alejandri credits Baxter with helping him nurture his dedication to quality: at Rundles, Baxter would return ingredients to suppliers if they weren’t perfect, and he would never leave anything in the fridge for longer than two days. He cleaned with an attention to detail that reminded Alejandri of his mother.
Upon returning to Toronto, Alejandri had a hard time finding a chef he respected as much. He spent three weeks at Scaramouche before quitting. He spent a year at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, and not much longer than that at Chiado. Usually, he would get fed up with standards that were below his expectations.
Agave y Aguacate was conceived in 2010. Alejandri’s mother had just died, and he was debating whether to move back to Mexico. He looked up to the heavens and pleaded to his mother’s spirit for help. Then, he saw Alfonso Segovia, a complete stranger to him at the time. For reasons still unclear, he asked Segovia if he knew of a low-rent place where he could set up an eatery. Segovia happened to own a Latin American food court, and he was looking for tenants.
“I knew I wanted to be a chef since before I was born.”
Once opened, the restaurant was never anything more than a prep table with some basic cooking equipment on it. Alejandri served what he called Mexican soul food: basa ceviche, tostadas with guacamole and queso fresco, and tomatillos with avocado and fresh lime juice. It was a hidden gem until the media found out about it, then it earned accolades worthy of a fine dining establishment.
So what went wrong?
Ask Alejandri himself, and he blames the location. He says Segovia kept the place in disarray. The back patio was disheveled. Animals would sometimes find their
way inside. Often, common areas were messy.
“I wasn’t comfortable serving customers in an environment like that,” Alejandri says.
Now ask Segovia. He doesn’t deny a little disorganization, but you can’t expect perfection, he says, at such an affordable venue. He thinks Alejandri’s problems ran deeper. In his opinion, Agave y Aguacate blew up too quickly.
“He’s passionate about everything,” Segovia says, “except for the business aspect of running his business.”
He says Alejandri kept haphazard operating hours and didn’t reinvest into the business. If he was dissatisfied with the surroundings, Segovia says, he could have helped improve them. In better times, Agave y Aguacate was pulling in over $12,000 per month.
Now ask a customer. Criticisms about the food were virtually nonexistent, but the web reveals some common complaints. The place often appeared closed. One Yelp user likened Alejandri’s pace to that of a bomb squad technician.
Alejanadri knows he was slow. Even when lineups twisted out the door, he never compromised a dish for the sake of expediency. He created almost everything to order: chopping onions, peeling cucumbers and deep-frying tortillas on the spot. He even made guacamole à la minute. He would garnish his white chalupas, a dish that he sold for $5, with homemade vinegar that would take over 30 days to ferment. He used the vinegar for that dish only. That’s how meticulous he was.
Alejandri says that if his stand seemed closed, it was usually because he was out buying more ingredients (he hand-picked everything) or because he was too exhausted. It wasn’t uncommon for him to work over 120 hours a week. He rarely slept, and he lost weight.
But it wasn’t only a question of pace. His standards were, and still are, astronomically high. Once, during service, I watched him cut open three avocados and throw them out, one by one, because they weren’t perfect; this while customers were waiting for their food, frustrated. The very factors that made Alejandri’s cuisine so good, it seems, also made his business unfeasible. The irony is beautifully tragic.
These days, Agave y Aguacate’s old spot has been replaced with a new Mexican stand. It’s popular, and it’s serving customers more efficiently. But it’s also brought with it a shelf full of prepackaged ingredients and powdered herbs. Alejandri eschews such things, but then again, he’s out of a restaurant.
Alejandri is currently in talks with potential investors to help him finance his own location. It will be difficult for him, but one can’t help hoping, for the sake of Mexican food in the city — for the sake of cooking as an art form — that he pulls through.