Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

The absolute worst thing a diner could say is “Oh, that was really interesting.” We don’t want them to be interested. We want them to be swept off their feet.

For the first seven years that Frontera Grill and Topolobampo were open, I worked the line every night. It’s my favorite thing to do. You get into this wonderful flow that people talk about, when all of a sudden time stands still.

I take criticism really hard. It used to bring me down for days. Total funk. A lot of self-help books say things like, “Don’t feel bad, just use it as a learning experience.” Well, I do feel bad, dammit. But it doesn’t crush me like it used to.

I have to cook something, beginning to end, every week. It’s like my religious experience. I do Sunday brunch and Monday dinner at home. I have that time cleared on my calendar so I can go to the store or farmers’ market and be inspired by things I might not come across in my regular life at the restaurants.

When you’re from Oklahoma City, sports is everything. My brother excelled at every sport. I was the weird fat kid who was into the creative stuff. When I got to high school, I thought, I’m going to lose the weight. I started really cutting back on what I ate. But I thought I couldn’t be athletic because I had been told I wasn’t, so I didn’t even try.

My physical activity is yoga. Intense yoga, not the kind where you go sit in a class and stretch. I hold poses until I want to scream. It really helps me get clarity on things.

Writing my memoir has been hard, because it was a really ugly childhood. My parents were not very encouraging. Most of the time they just rolled their eyes at me because I wanted to do stuff way beyond my years.

My mother was a very self-centered woman with a very strong public image. She was always leading some organization, and people thought she was God’s gift to the world. But she was a very different person at home. At her funeral last year, my brother and I stepped away from doing any kind of eulogy for her. People who were there just gushed about how she inspired them and how she did all of this stuff in the community. My experience with her was not that.

My father was very closed off, so there was not much of a relationship there. It’s really sad to me, but I don’t know if he had anything to give.

I come from a family of raging alcoholics on both sides, and not just my mother and father. Alcoholics, drug addicts, emotionally unstable people. And there were loads of suicides. I never wanted to have a kid because I didn’t want to continue that, but it’s really the best thing I’ve ever done. There have been times when I’ve had no idea what to do and, like my father, I wanted to retreat. But I married well and have had lots of therapy.

My wife, Deann, has a good head on her shoulders. And she’s much steadier than I am. She’s also incredibly moral. With any decision we have to make, she’s the one who will say, “People, this is the right thing to do.”

The only way to really understand a cuisine is to understand the culture. And I don’t mean somebody telling you what the culture is like. I mean living the culture so much that you begin to develop your own memories about it. It’s not enough for me to just go to Mexico and taste the food. I had to eat it over and over in different regions for a number of years. Once I did that, the food and culture melded for me. That’s what’s missing from so many young chefs who spend two weeks in a place and come back to open a restaurant.

Everybody laughs at me because I’ve got so much energy. Honestly, if you made me retire, I’d have another restaurant opened in six months because that’s just who I am.