Comedor Teaches You How to Cook Their Modern Mexican Dishes at Home
Gabe Erales and Philip Speer talk "Assembly Kitchen" meal kits, changes in food supply chains, and more
We sat down (via Zoom) to chat with chefs Philip Speer and Gabe Erales, the whiz kids behind Comedor, about their new "Assembly Kitchen" meal kits, changes in food supply chains, and the incredible artistry peeking out from just beyond the pandemic horizon.
Austin Chronicle: I'm in my living room – you guys appear to be at Comedor. So, you guys closed for a while to gather thoughts and make plans, and then came up with the idea for Assembly Kitchen?
Philip Speer: Yep, we're at the restaurant. We closed because it's what we needed to do. We weren't going into the curbside service because that's not who we are at our core values, not who we are as a company. We furloughed employees and were able to keep paying insurance by closing. Then we had to decide what we're gonna do next. For months we'd kept current with what was needed to be safe and responsible, so we took it all into consideration and decided [these meal kits] are something we can do to continue providing the Comedor experience and get back to providing our whole staff with jobs, at least a little at a time, as well as getting through the next however many months to still be an operating restaurant when that time comes.
As for Comedor's part [of Assembly Kitchen], we've created instructional video content to [go with] menu items. There's bone marrow tacos; a package with memela, quesadilla, tamal, goat barbacoa tamal; a pastry package that's a proof-and-bake, bake-at-home; and there's a chicken dinner. Gabe has figured out how to make the best chicken I've ever had. You order it, we deliver it with sterile delivery, and you cook it. You create the Comedor experience at home while engaging with a prerecorded engagement with Gabe and/or myself. We also have a window of live engagement, in which you can reach out to us through Instagram, until we figure out a better way to do that. We have recipe cards, even designed with our font, and there's a QR code that'll take you to the videos. We made it so you can do it at home.
AC: Gabe, how have you been through this?
Gabe Erales: We maybe had a couple days where it felt like a pause or hesitation, but really after those first two days, when the city took the big initiative to shut down, we hit the ground running. A business like this would take six months to a year to create, and we did it in two weeks. We spent one day shooting the videos for like 14 hours, with not a lot of scripting, mostly improvisation. We've been hustling on production because when we launched, we got a steady stream of orders and good feedback and reception from the community.
PS: There's a certain amount of intimacy that we wanted to bring to you that people are missing. But we also want people to have that sense of discovery you get with Garage and Comedor. We wanted to stay with that. We're not going to compete with this commodity market, so to bring this experience to you, we need to do it interactively. Bring you the food, the chef, the ingredients. This will be the first time that many people have masa on their counter from heirloom corn from different parts of Mexico that was literally growing that morning. That's just unheard of – you don't just get to have that on your countertop – but now you get to have this certain type of discovery – touch it, feel it, taste it, smell it, in different ways. Because you're the one who is preparing it, it gives you a sort of accomplishment. It's definitely doable and straightforward, but still fun and challenging.
GE: It's a new level of accessibility in a time when people are looking to connect with a restaurant community. Before, when you wanted to find that break in your life and hectic work day, you could go to the restaurant, unload. Have a nice meal, unwind. I think this provides that connection back to the restaurants and chefs, even Front of House.
PS: We wanted to not only provide opportunities for our staff, and for us to survive, we want this to have longevity. We're in startup mode. This is a time to innovate. When limitations are put on you that's when the greatest innovation comes if you can withstand that pressure. So that's what we're doing.
AC: People are starting to remember that our food doesn't just come off of a grocery store aisle.
PS: People are really noticing where the supply chain is, and the disruption this whole [pandemic] thing is causing, far beyond restaurants or grocery store aisles. This is crazy. We have local and statewide purveyors who just don't know what to do. Some have completely changed business models; some have just said we can't do restaurant wholesale anymore. Some that were delivering seven days a week, twice a day, are now only delivering three days a week, once a day. That's a giant, giant change and it could be such an economic change for so many mid-level produce and food chains companies. It affects so many all the way up or down.
AC: Have y'all had disruptions?
GE: We pride ourselves on sourcing locally for a lot of produce, herbs, garnish – things that we feel are the soul of Mexican cuisine. We get quesillo made for us weekly – literally weekly shipments from a family in Oaxaca. If we don't get that quesillo, we don't do quesadillas. When you're making something with three ingredients and one-third of it [isn't there], you lose a whole flavor profile. Luckily our corn supplier that works with small companies in Mexico built a warehouse in Texas when they started to import so they have a backstock for us, which is really nice to know. One of the other challenges is that because so many restaurants are closed there's an abundance of stuff on shelves, so you're not getting the best quality. We're ordering onions and they look like they've been sitting there for who knows how long.
AC: I'm sure some of this has sparked the creativity that makes you guys great chefs.
PS: Yes, I talk about that a lot. With Gabe being the engineer that he is, so much of our creativity comes from passion, but it also comes from limitations put on us, so [the changes in supply] definitely adds to that. Absolutely. But between everything we're doing here, and ordering local food to eat, we're doing our best. We all need each other to survive.