One of the first places I lived in Queens was Woodside. Walking Roosevelt Avenue to hit Thai places, Filipino spots, and taco trucks turned me on to the delicious diversity of food that makes the borough my favorite place to live, eat, and play. There’s one place I never frequented in all my time in Woodside though, La Flor, a cafe restaurant helmed by journeyman Chef Viko Ortega. I only just got around to meeting Chef Viko and trying his wonderful nuanced dishes. I was mightily impressed by his cooking. As were my friends Chef Jonathan Forgash and Gabe Gross of Queens Dinner Club. That’s we’ve decided to have Chef Viko cook our next dinner Mexico Meets France and Italy via Roosevelt Ave. which takes Tuesday May 17, 2016, 7:30 p.m. Chef Viko was kind enough to take some time away from the kitchen to answer seven questions.
How did you get into cooking?
I started baking when I was 13 years old in my hometown of Puebla, Mexico. In 1987 when I was 21 the main reason I came here was that I was tired of baking. So I came here and figured out that the only way to make decent money was back to the kitchen. I started doing pizza and pastry and salads. I cooked at dozens of restaurants including Larry Forgione’s An American Place. I can’t get away from baking though. The starter I use to make all the breads at La Flor is 24 years old.
How would you characterize your cooking at La Flor?
I would say it’s a combination of everything I learned. I mix Italian, French, Mexican—that’s one of my favorites—a little bit of Asian. So it’s kind of fusion and I just love food. The dishes that you’re going to find here you’re not going to find anywhere else, I just love to play. It’s me.
Tell me a little about the menu for the upcoming Queens Dinner Club?
I’m planning on doing a watermelon gazpacho to welcome the guests. For the carnivores there will be a pan roasted New York strip steak with mole poblano, twice-cooked potato croquettes, crispy and soft inside, and seasonal greens with corn and truffle oil. And for the fish lovers there will be pan-seared Atlantic salmon with crispy potato gallettes and roasted tomatoes in a caper and white wine sauce. Dessert is tres leches cake with strawberries and peaches.
Your mole poblano is really extraordinary. What’s your secret?
It’s really hard to make. It’s like 20 different spices and what I do is I make a big batch like 40 pounds. I dry my bread then I toast my plantains. I use five kinds of chili peppers: mulato; pasilla; guajillo; a little bit of dried poblano, which is kind of like a chipotle; and just little bit of chili de arbol so it doesn’t get that spicy. The color’s from the mulato chili; it’s a red chili. We just put a little bit of chocolate for flavor. You cannot go crazy with chocolate. It’s my grandmother Rosaura’s recipe.
Do you have any favorite restaurants in Queens?
I love Salt & Fat in Sunnyside and Sripraphai and Spicy Shallot in Woodside for Thai. In Long Island City I like Tournesol and LIC Market, Blend. And Manducatis for when I want pasta, they have a great selection of wine.
Do you like to cook at home?
I used to cook a lot at home, but when I opened the restaurant I got lazy. I still do my barbecues from time to time. I don’t like to use gas, I use charcoal .
What’s in your refrigerator at home?
Beer and wine. If I want to make something I cook it here and then bring it there. You will not find food, only beer and wine.