Jorge Pareja was born in 1971 in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Having emigrated to the U.S. in 1989, Jorge still fondly recalls his upbringing in the thriving farm community of Alpoyeca as an ideal example of people living in harmony with the land.
High in the plains between mountains, or cañada, cut by the river Tlapaneco, Alpoyeca has an excellent climate for farming of all types. Protected from the heat of the long equatorial days by the sheltering shade of the mountains, Alpoyeca has warm days and cool nights. Jorge recalls life on his grandparents’ farm: “We had the perfect conditions for growing any type of plant. In spring and summer, we grew everything from corn, beans, tomatoes and chiles to mango, melon and papaya. We would eat these foods right from the plant. In winter, when the rains flooded the river, we grew rice.”
During the rainy winter, mountain streams, or barrancas, would also flood, often altering the course of the river uncomfortably close to towns alongside it. Jorge humorously recounts: “Every year the people of each town hoped the barrancas on their side of the river would flood first and direct the river away from their town.” Fish were also plentiful, and fishing was part of life, though as Jorge says: “Not with a pole, but with nets and spears.” Two types of wild agave also flourished in the nearby hills and local mountains; one is used to make rope, the other, for the native spirit, mezcal.
Jorge and his brothers went to school in the morning and worked the farm in the afternoon. His grounding in the culinary arts began on the farm, tending the crops from planting to harvest, as well as helping tend the livestock. Farm life in Alpoyeca left a lasting impression on Jorge: “Ever since, I’ve always had a tremendous respect for nature and her flavors.”
Jorge’s passion for cooking is also partly genetic. He considers himself the latest in a long line of “natural chefs” in his family. From his mother, Maria Gomez, he learned the traditional methods of grinding and treating the dried corn used to make masa dough. She then taught him her recipes in which masa is used, from tamales and gorditas to empanadas and sopes. Another of the family’s “natural chefs” is his grandmother, Ruperta Ortiz. Her famous family recipe for chocolate, which she uses for mole sauce as well as hot chocolate, involves toasting the cocoa beans, hand grinding them with toasted sugar and cinnamon before shaping them into tablets easily stored for later use.
Arriving in New York City in June of 1994, Jorge established himself at Arizona 206, where his skills were recognized and he rose through the ranks to sous chef. Two years later he was given the opportunity to move to the Rocking Horse Café where he was able to extend his range, and was promoted to chef de cuisine. During this time Rocking Horse Café enjoyed critical acclaim. Then, with the opening of Hell’s Kitchen, a new restaurant in hell’s kitchen, Jorge was the natural choice. The vision was to create a progressive Mexican menu. As chef de cuisine, his variations on family recipes became the inspiration for menu items and weekly specials. Jorge was able to hire and train the staff, which included friends from his home town and work side by side with them. Hell’s Kitchen garnered rave reviews from the local press in addition to the Zagat’s survey.
Since taking charge as executive chef, Jorge’s menus continue to inspire legions of devoted fans. His signature creations, from his Sea Scallop Ceviche with Avocado and Radish Salsa on a Guajillo Tostada, the Long Island Duck Breast with Sauteed Arugula and Pineapple Mole, to his Charred Sirloin with Sweet Potato Fries and Endive-Pasilla Sauce, satisfy the crowds that flock to Hell’s Kitchen. The seasonally changing menus reflect his approach to food: “I take everything I know about cooking, including my memories, and combine them in every dish.” By creating dishes that highlight traditional ingredients and methods of preparation in new and unique ways, his cuisine appeals to people seeking both traditional tastes and new experiences.