Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Setting the Record Straight: An Interview with Mike Andrzejewski

A couple weeks ago I made a post here speculating on Cantina Loco's delays, based on conflicting information I was receiving.  It seemed to rouse the frustrations of Loco's Mike Andrzejewski, who very rightly pointed out that instead of mucking up the internet with my hare-brained theories, he was available to answer questions if I'd but direct any to him.

So, a change of shorts later, I did.

The following is an interview conducted with Mike A. via e-mail.

I very much appreciate his taking the time to participate in this exercise -- professing to be not much of a computer guy as it is, and having already had to contend with giving an interview with BuffaloEats this past week, I am doubly grateful for his efforts.

I begin, naturally, with the issue of the liquor license....

DR: What information can you tell us about the liquor license delays or any problems you may have had with the SLA while trying to open Cantina Loco?

MA: The entire process has been torturous. Everything started off well enough and deteriorated quickly. When filling out the original application I made one somewhat honest misrepresentation and a major oversight in reporting our location in reference to other licensed restaurants. Although it was unintentional, the powers that be felt I was less than honest, and we had to begin the process over, with a second application, correct information and legal documents. It is now pending and we’re hoping it will be accepted.

DR: I reported a couple weeks ago that I heard that Cantina Loco had received the liquor license.  Two prominent industry associates of mine alerted me separately, and considering what I know about them, I had no reason to doubt them as sources. Any idea why they may have had what appears to be mistaken information?

MA: There is nobody out there who has any information about licensing prior to the actual license being approved and given to the principals, or denied and listed as inactive., anybody who claims to have anything more in the way of information is frankly full of shit. And anyone can check the status of an application in the SLA website Public Query section.

DR: Have there been any other delays?

MA: Some delays are always expected when doing a project like this; we ended up making some changes in our original plans, and ended up with more work and expense with things like HVAC and mechanical improvements.

DR: Is the dining area complete yet?

MA: Right now the dining room is 96% complete.  Kyle Mackewicz, my partner designed most of it. It’s really great.

DR: How are you describing the decor?

MA: Very warm and comfortable, yet very unique and contemporary at the same time. Great lighting and a killer bar. The bar top is an interpretation of classic Day of the Dead art style by my tattoo artist Derrick Hendrickson. Reproduced to about 35 feet long. The windows give a panoramic view of Allen and Elmwood, and that is one of the most vibrant cityscapes in Buffalo.

DR: Will you maintain the take out window after the full opening, or will that be absorbed into the rest of the floor plan?

MA: The take out area will remain an important part of our plan; we can serve customers with takeout more efficiently, while causing less congestion/confusion in the bar & dining room.

DR: What has been the response to the food so far?

MA:Truthfully we've had some mixed responses to the food, a lot of good, some bad, some justifiably so. Customers expect a lot more from us, and we really take honest criticism to heart and try to improve our food every day. Sometimes though, I think that there is an little too much self-serving bullshit out there, and although I know there's room for improvement some people take themselves way to seriously, whether they have ever actually accomplished anything or spend their time just bitching really remains to be seen.  I’ll do my very best to provide the best food I can, if someone really doesn't like it - don't return, It may not be for everyone and I'm all right with that. I'm not all right with some tool or tool-ess (is that a word?) telling everyone that they're from (fill in the city, usually L.A. or N.Y.) and they KNOW Mexican, sushi, steak or whatever. Believe me I’ve had some real shit there in your town too, both food and service.

DR: I’ve heard and seen some things about the menu that suggest not simply Mexican food, but Mexican fusion.  What influences are you bringing to the table?

MA: The style of food is just going to strive to taste good. I'm sure there will be some fusing of flavors and techniques, but not a real conscious or cloying effort to do so. Obviously Spanish / New World flavors and ideas will prevail, but not really fancy or overly intellectualized. More emphasis on simple and good.

DR: What makes a Polish guy from Buffalo NY consistently search for and seek out things that are "different" like Sushi or Mexican or even classic French style food preparations?  What makes you go beyond traditional preparation and into new territory?

MA: I'm often asked about how a Polish guy ends up making sushi etc. I guess the only answer is really that I’m American. I really like to eat, and I eat and cook what I find most exciting. The common thread in all this is really just a love of food. I am thankful every day that I found something I truly love to do. I know that sounds corny but that’s it. I’m a cook, and there isn't much to me after that. I think maybe I just expect more out of myself and my profession, and work at it every day.

DR: How do you see Buffalonians as a "food audience?"  Do you think that we are more willing or less willing to try different or new things than your average American (whatever that means)?

 MA: The Buffalo food "audience” is overall, from what I can tell, really a reflection of Buffalo as a whole. Somewhat cautious, not really fooled by trends or fashion if it doesn’t make sense to them. Economically I think people here work very hard for their income and expect to be treated well if they choose to give it to someone. I definitely know expectations have risen over the last ten or so years, which is good! I have been lucky enough to work in places that gave me the opportunity to offer a little bit more unusual or unique products, and know it's kind of what people expect from my cooking. I really welcome that.

DR: Given the trends in the foodie world and the inability to grow avocados in Buffalo, how local and regional do you plan on making your menu at Loco?  Can you do this and keep the price point where it is (low to very moderate) on the take-out menu?

MA: In a perfect world we would all get our food from the farm down the street. It doesn’t happen here, especially in certain cuisine / styles. I’ll get the best tasting things at the best prices I can. Period.  Face it, if someone can bring me great cilantro and peppers for a couple of months, I certainly give my money to him, but in January it’s coming from far away. Just the way it is. I'm not gonna source, octopus, or tuna or reasonably priced skirt steak at Elmwood Bidwell market. So FedEx remains my most useful kitchen tool.

DR: We have an idea of what you'll be doing with the food at Cantina Loco, but what can you tell us about what you're doing with the bar?  Will it be higher end? Will it focus on cocktails? Or will it be a beers and shots type of place?

MA: I'm committed to keep prices to a really affordable level, no thoughts of big check averages or fine dining. We want to provide a place that guys who work in restaurants can afford to eat after work. And were going to stay open later a few nights and offer Restaurant Workers Discounts and drink Specials.  The bar itself for the most part will be also really reasonable. Although we will offer some really high end Tequilas, and Mescals, as well as flights and specialty cocktails. But if you’re gonna want a stiff one after a rough Saturday service this will be the place to go to. Good beers in frozen mugs, good bartenders, clean bathrooms.

DR: Do you have any comments you'd like to direct to people who are complaining that the name "Cantina Loco" is not proper Spanish?

MA: As far as the name goes, Cantina Loco not being proper Spanish ... Really? No Shit? Guess what- neither am I- or are most of you. It's a name that most of us dumb gringos understand and is purposely a tongue in cheek chuckle at ourselves.... If you want to pick a name, work for about thirty years, put everything you own into your businesses, and work twelve plus hours a day.  Buy a Restaurant.  But when some asshole says that things like the spelling of Cantina Loco "represent everything that's wrong with Buffalo" and yes someone said that, they can go screw themselves. If the lack of correct language etiquette bothers you, then drive down Delaware.

DR: You have a steakhouse in the works as well as Loco, so, by summer, you will be running a raw seafood joint, a Mexican place, and a steakhouse...what's next, Andrejewski's Ethiopian?  How hard is it to move thematically between these concepts without going crazy? Is there something about food and the art of making it that transcends all of these classifications and binaries that we attempt to label restaurants or chefs or cuisines with?

MA: Sorry Ethiopian doesn’t do it for me. But why such diversity? I don’t think I've ever planned it that way, it just grew. Generally speaking, cooking and eating different foods and styles of cuisine seems somewhat natural to me. Although I won’t ever pretend to be an expert in anything. I think that if you approach food from a very basic level, beginning with good techniques, and being honest about your skills what you can do, and practicing what needs improvement is the starting point. Try to get a little bit of understanding where the culture of any given cuisine comes from makes you appreciate it more. Looking for better ingredients, respecting what they are, and learning how they react and how you can manipulate them without destroying what makes them good in the first place. Be critical of what you make, and think about how you can improve it. (It’s almost never "good enough") For God's sake TASTE EVERYTHING! There are no secrets or alchemy in anything we do, mostly common sense. Hard work. Some Chef's like Susur Lee or Robuchon or Jose Andres may have magic but for us it's really just about trying a little harder and getting a lot of joy out of making good food for our guests.

DR: Is there anything we haven't covered that you'd like to touch on?  I’d like to open the floor to give you a chance to speak your mind.

MA: All in all I've been really fortunate to have worked for the people I’ve learned from and very happy that I’ve been as accepted by the dining public in Buffalo. I get quite a bit of publicity and notoriety and try not to take it for granted. Most people here are really appreciative of our efforts and that’s really rewarding. I'm really looking forward to the Lafayette project; I truly think it will change Downtown on a huge level. I'm actually honored to be a part of it. There are many really great things happening here, I just hope everyone involved knows when to get out of the way and let Buffalo reach its potential.


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