PHOTO BY CHERYL BAEHR
Nixta's executive chef Tello Carreon.
As a child, the executive chef at the newly opened Nixta (1621 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-899-9000),
Tello Carreon, found that his love of cooking made him the object of his siblings' ridicule. "At a very early age, I'd come home from school and hang out at my mom's table to see what she was doing," he recalls. "My brothers would come in from the fields where they were helping my dad and make fun of me because I was in the kitchen with my mom."
Despite the ribbing, Carreon could not shake a passion for cooking. Eventually, it turned into a calling when he found himself in the United States and in need of a job. "My brother told me I should come visit him the the U.S.," the native of Guanajuato, Mexico, explains. "At first I ended up in Austin, Texas, but it was quite similar to where I was from in Mexico. I wanted to see something different, so I came to Missouri. I got a job washing dishes for three months, but ended up staying for a year — they say that Missouri draws you in, and it did for me. I fell in love with it here."
It was at this first gig at a simple Mexican restaurant where Carreon learned how to properly use a knife. The knowledge empowered him to begin experimenting with food, which led him to culinary school.
However, Carreon credits the chefs around town for helping him build his knowledge and allowing him to work his way up in the industry. At every job — Pueblo Solis, Portabella and Terrene — he picked up new ideas that he would prepare him for his work with chef and restaurateur Ben Poremba.
"I started working for Ben at the bottom, doing prep work during the daytime," says Carreon. "But he let me work my way up, and eventually, I became chef de cuisine at Elaia when [former chef de cuisine] Josh Charles left." He adds, "We always had this idea for Nixta — we just love cooking together and it eventually took shape."
Now in charge of Nixta's kitchen, Carreon is having the last laugh at his brothers as he honors his family's culinary legacy with reimagined versions of traditional dishes. It's a labor of love, he admits, which how he thinks all cooking should be. "I always tell new culinary students that they have to feel this in them from the heart, from the chest," Carreon says. "This is not a profession where you just take things lightly. Your'e either all in or you're not in at all."
Carreon took a break from the brand-new Nixta to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, his love of frozen custard and why you'll never see okra on his menu.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I’ll share my knowledge with anyone who’s willing to learn.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The power to heal.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Colleagues who’ve been able to realize the dream of opening their own restaurants.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Nixta, of course.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
I admire the creativity and hard work of Bay Tran, the executive chef at Treehouse.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would be a carpenter.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Okra. It refuses to be made palatable.
What is your after-work hangout?
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
A custard concrete with banana, chocolate, pecans, and peanut butter.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Lamb barbacoa cooked in agave leaves.
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