Long before chef Cosme Aguilar was simmering big pots of mole and churning out enchiladas for customers at Michelin-starred Casa Enrique in Long Island City, a neighborhood of Queens in New York, he was inhaling these dishes as a hungry kid in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. And a lot of it.
“I used to go to my aunt’s place in the morning and have breakfast there, then go to another aunt’s place and have more breakfast there, and then come back home and have more breakfast,” Aguilar says with a chuckle. “I’ve loved food for as long as I can remember.”
His mother ran a restaurant before he was born, and after she closed it, she cooked feasts for the family on the weekends. His father purchased whole animals — lamb, pig — which his oldest brother butchered, and the rest of the siblings, including Aguilar, helped with small tasks like cleaning tripe. But cooking was his mother’s domain. She’d turn the lamb into barbacoa, rich in flavor and deeply braised, and the pig into fatty carnitas, crispy chicharron, or cochinito, roasted ribs with a kick of guajillo chiles.
“I was a good eater, but I didn’t think I’d become a chef,” Aguilar says.
A car mechanic by trade, he came to the U.S. in search of a better life and ended up working as a porter at a French restaurant in New York City. His chef at the time noticed how quick and precise he was with his hands and asked him to help in the kitchen.
“The food he was making was so amazing and beautiful, like nothing I saw in my life,” Aguilar remembers. “I said to myself, ‘One day I would love to be a chef.’ And that’s what happened.”
He went on to be the chef and owner of Cafe Henri, also in Long Island City, and continued cooking French food until his brother, Luis Aguilar, persuaded him to start their own Mexican restaurant and cook the food they grew up with. He was hesitant at first. At that point he had only cooked Mexican food for restaurant family meals: chicken and rice and 911 Mole, a quick-cooking mole conjured from chiles, nuts, and fruits which are fried, blended, and cooked down with chicken broth. The chefs Aguilar worked under loved it, but it took more encouragement from his brother.
“When we wanted to open Casa Enrique, I told him I was more into French food because that was what I was doing. And he told me, ‘No, let’s make Mexican food because we are Mexican and I’m sure you will do very well,’” Aguilar remembers. “I said, ‘Okay,’ and voila.”
Now a decade in at Casa Enrique, Aguilar is sharing the Mexican food he loved as a kid and honed as a chef. There’s the cochinito chiapaneco, just like his mother’s, and a variation of his 911 Mole along with new creations, like the Dona Blanca enchiladas made with roasted poblano chiles, slicked in a salsa verde, and named after his mother, as well as with the carne asada which is marinated in tequila similar to the brandy-soaking technique he learned from French chefs.
He wants to open more restaurants in the future — another Mexican one and a new American one — but for now he just wants to continue making the food he and his steady stream of customers crave.
“We have people who come in three, four times a week,” Aguilar says. “It’s Casa Enrique because people love to go and come back. It’s like home.”