Top Chef 2017: Juan Rodriguez

Juan Rodriguez | The Scene-Stealing Caterer
Chef and Owner, Magdalena’s Cocina Mexicana Local

The best meal Chef Juan Rodriguez has ever eaten was in Spain, and it wasn’t even a sit-down dinner.

“It was nine in the morning, and we were driving through La Rioja Region. Our guide stopped in a small town called La Guardia. He said the best tortilla espanola [potato and egg omelet] was made there in a bar,” he recalls. “We walked in, and all the local farmers were sitting down drinking beer and eating tortillas; I had a slice and a cortado [coffee]. By the time we paid…I had eaten six tortillas. They were amazing. But what was even more amazing was getting to know the locals. The ambiance and people…that is what made it memorable.”

Juan Rodriguez has brought many fascinating flavors home from his travels. His elegant, show-stopping paella is a just one example. With 17 years in the culinary business, he calls his style Mexican Fusion, incorporating the flavors and ingredients of Spanish Cuisine, Southwest, and New American into his cooking.

You might find the flavors of Mexican oregano and marjoram in his dishes. And Rodriguez is working with a new ingredient a lot these days — yellow Bolita corn from Oaxaca. Rodriguez grinds the imported corn, and it’s making its way into many of his corn dishes, from tortillas to tamales and sopes.

After attending The Art Institute of Dallas − School of Culinary Arts, Juan Rodriguez continued to grow under the wing of Chef Jennifer Brightman at the Classic Café in Roanoke.

“She would have me make mashed potatoes every day, and I had to have her taste them. She would tell me to add more salt or pepper,” Rodriguez recalls. “Finally, after a while, she didn’t want to taste them anymore…she said my seasoning was where it needed to be. I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit there and season those potatoes…but I’m glad she had me do it.”

Rodriguez then worked his way up through the food chain at Reata, ultimately serving for eight years as its executive chef in a kitchen which has launched a few other careers like Grady Spears, Tim Love and Brian Olenjack, just to name a few.

After leaving his post at Reata, Chef Rodriguez opened his own catering business, Magdalena’s Cocina Mexicana Local, in early 2015. He named the venture after his grandmother, Magdalena, who was another big influence on his cooking.

Hard work pays off. Magdalena’s was named Best Catering for 2017 by this very magazine. But with his first child (a baby boy) due to be born in October, Rodriguez along with his wife and business partner, Paige, will have even more on their plate.

“Magdalena’s is special because we are a supper club and catering company and not a full-service restaurant,” he says. Most of his supper clubs are complete sell-outs within days of opening the reservations. “The menu changes every month, and I like to build a connection between the menu, the guests and the ambiance. It’s about the experience and not about turning tables.”

Overall, the transition from Executive Chef to Chef/Owner of Magdalena’s has been a smooth one. “I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be my own boss,” he says. “I make the calls and create what I want. It’s great. Not many people have that chance.”