If you hail from Wellington, you may have heard of our long-loved La Boca Loca or newly-built Boquita. Now, we go behind the doors to meet Lucas Putnam, the man behind the Mexican restaurant mavericks that have taken New Zealand’s capital by storm.
Let’s start off with a little about you – I see that you originally hail from New York and then to California – what was it like growing up in America?
- It was a combination of traditional and non-traditional – we moved around a lot. We moved to France when I was 3, but I was young so I didn’t get the full benefit. We then moved back to San Fran with my father, and then eventually settled in Napa Valley. I moved around schools a lot as a kid – but even with that, I had a great time. There was a very strong Mexican culture in Napa, as a lot of Mexicans came to work in the wineries – especially 2nd and 3rd generation families. Because of these families coming and bringing their culture to Napa, I was exposed to the Mexican cuisine.
As we know, America is riddled with Mexican chains & restaurants – when did you first encounter Mexican food?
- The place that really got me first – I think I talk about it in my cookbook – was this place called Taqueria Rosita, a little family style restaurant – which funnily enough was actually owned by one of my classmates in high school! It served really delicious traditional Mexican food that I was inspired by and that we’ve tried to recreate here at Boquita and La Boca Loca. Before that place – it was basically Taco Bell, which I regret to say. But because we could buy fresh corn tortilla’s in Napa that were basically made that day, my father made a lot of easy Mexican meals for us, so I guess that helped feed my love for Mexican.
The Mexican food in Napa Valley sounds delish! But before all that, what was the go-to food for you and your family?
- Anything I could get my hands on! We weren’t very wealthy, and because my dad was raising us on our own (for the most part), it was quite hard. When I grew up there was a massive health movement, especially in San Fran (nowadays it’s L.A), which maybe had to do with the 70’s movement and the consciousness of the earth. Because of this we went from eating McDonald’s and ice cream to eating macrobiotic diets – which made me VERY hungry! After a while my dad realised he needed to actually feed a growing male teen, so then we treated ourself to fast food. I only really got conscious around health at university, after the first couple of years (after the fresher 15) – and then swiftly moved to preparing more Mexican dishes.
Obviously you’ve now set up shop in windy Wellington, when did you move to New Zealand and why?
- I came here to work in Film at Weta Digital for about 17+ years, though when you take into consideration all the hours it feels like about 20. Basically I saw a job, I applied for it, worked there for a bit and then realised there was no Mexican food. Me being selfish, I wanted Mexican food – so chose the obvious solution and set up a restaurant. It took a while to find this place, had a few false starts along the way but here we are! I now name it the most expensive taco I’ve ever had.
I see that you’re a conscious consumer – that’s awesome! What does sustainable cooking mean to you? How do you perceive cooking sustainably?
- Yes we are one of the early adopters of that connotation. The main components for that are trying to get ingredients that are organic, which can sometimes be a really touchy concept. We try our best to make sure we’re using really sustainably produced food and that kinda’ means no harming the environment. However, meat and dairy pretty much inherently do damage to the environment – so it’s a balance of give and take. So then it comes down to being sustainable in other ways – we recycle as much as possible, compost as much as possible, and minimise waste where we can.
I saw on your website that they call you Master of Tequila – how does one gain that kinda title?
- Totally self-appointed – just love tequila! I learned as much about it as possible when travelling, knowing the producers, and even going to Tequila the town. Tequila is similar to champagne, where it has two (or SHOULD) come from the regions its derived from.
Getting onto the restaurant side of things – why did you open up Boquita? Why not another La Boca Loca?
- I wanted to try something different, my partners at the time were really excited about opening a vegan place. I had tried one before back in California and it was pretty good, so I thought well, let’s try it! The space Boquita is in is conducive too that decision – we don’t need to prepare meat or dairy, therefore don’t need a back kitchen. We can store, prep, and cook everything in one small space. It’s a really communal space too between chef and customer which is what I love – you sit so close to the pass that you’re pretty much helping prepare the food!
For those whose mother-tongue isn’t Mexican – what does Boquita translate to in English?
- Boquita means ‘Little Mouth” – La Boca Loca means ‘crazy mouth’ – but the location is snug and its smaller scale so we went for ‘Little Mouth’. Anything with ‘ita’ on the end, means little in Spanish.
Setting up a restaurant sounds pretty full-on! How would you describe your journey towards opening up Boquita compared to first establishing La Boca Loca?
- Relatively easy – we didn’t have to earthquake proof, retrofit, any of that. La Boca Loca was a very different story. We opened right around the 2 Christchurch earthquakes, so it was really touch and go. We basically had to strip everything back and rebuilt it so it would withstand the elements. Boquita had a kitchen at the back, the front we put a countertop and that was it, ready for service!
What is the main inspiration for Boquita? How does that differ from La Boca Loca?
- So, it’s interesting. My first chef and I worked together a lot on the menus for La Boca Loca – but the first recipe I worked on myself was Tempeh. I really really loved Tempeh, I thought it was an excellent source of protein and fantastic meat alternative – it’s very similar to tofu but a bit more flavour and texture when cooked right! I also love chilli’s, so developed a recipe around tempeh and chipotle and figured out that if you cook the tempeh firs (bake or fry) and add some veggies and chipotle – it takes on another dimension and becomes really really tasty. This was one of the first recipes at Boquita, and the menu just grew from that vegetarian starting point. For the first few nights we were mixing up the menu and trying different alternatives, but then things started to stick. For example, we started out putting the Potato Rosti on special, but as soon as we took it off special, everybody was asking where it was, so we added that permanently. Our 3 core ingredients; tofu, tempeh and mushroom, became the key all-year ingredients, and then we play around with other flavours and ingredients based on seasonality and what’s available.
Boquita is definitely more central than La Boca Loca – what drove you to go into the city, and why is La Boca Loca so far out?
- I opened La Boca Loca because I was working at Weta at the time and I established this place purely just for easy come-and-go access to and from work, pretty selfish of me, right? This space here (Boquita) became available, which funnily enough is right next to where our wholesale kitchen was, so when this front area became available we realised that our idea of starting up a vegetarian Mexican restaurant could actually happen – so we did it! So far so good!
My absolute favourite taco at Boquita was the OG tempeh (drools) – but what’s your favourite dish on the menu at Boquita?
- It really varies – sometimes I’m feeling the falafel, other times I’m feeling the mushrooms, or sometimes I’ll just want a mash-up where I’ll put everything in a bowl and just have that! Although actually when the cauliflower is super fresh for the cauliflower ceviche, its beautiful, I just love it. It’s so good, really light and fresh and delicious. It’s a really clean meal.
So we’ve talked a little about your childhood and past, but I want to know what really pushed you to taking Mexican cooking on full-time?
- After my first taste of Mexican, it took me years to come back to the idea. I’ve worked in restaurants now, but when I was young I started off as a builder and then diverged into film for almost 20 years, but I still dabbled with Mexican cuisine along the way. Every Sunday night after a long week we could always come back to creating Mexican meals. It was hard to get a hold of the ingredients here, so we had two make do with what was available or import the chillies, masa and tequila, but it worked.
Do you find you stick to Mexican cuisine, or do you dabble with other cuisines (North or South American)?
- Typically Mexican, yeah. Boquita has a lot more influences because we’re stepping outside of the typical Mexican parameters. The basis is the same, with the fresh corn tortillas that we make all day long, but through using the vegetarian alternatives in place of meat, there definitely is a lot of influence from other countries and places where these plant-based proteins originated.
If you had to choose one Mexican dish to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? (I’m just genuinely curious)
- The questions are so hard! Well right now its brunch time, so let’s base its off that as Mexican brunches are pretty fabulous. I love breakfast burritos or breakfast tacos; beans eggs, salsa, cheese and sauce – it’s perfect. So yeah, that could be it. Either scrambled eggs or scrambled tofu, which ever I feel like or have on hand!
You cook with Mexican flavours, so I assume you love a kick of spice! What’s your favourite hot sauce?
- It’s all hard stuff! Domestically, I really love Kaitaia Fire – really good spice that one. From the US and Mexico, I love Cholula which is really yummy, Also Yucateco is really nice. There’s this one sauce which isn’t in production anymore from the Dominican Republic, called the West Indies, freaking fantastic – but you can’t get it anymore and its such a shame. You can find ones similar in Louisiana, but the one from the Dominican was just a level above.
Your cookbook is jam packed full of delicious Mexicana dishes – did any dishes not make the final cut, or were they all too delectable to ditch?
- Oh, heaps heaps heaps. The cookbook is a lot of the original menu that my original chefs and I came up with together, but over the years we’ve created a lot. I wouldn’t say there are any unique recipes, I mean Boquita has some unique ones what with the veganization, but for the most part we are just recreating traditional Mexican recipes that we love with what’s available.
Is there a second cookbook in the works?
- Oh yeah, there’s always one in my head. The creation process can be pretty long. If I had more time than maybe it would be a little faster, but with 2 restaurants and I’m the only manager, it’s definitely something to put on the back-burner for now!
And finally – Whats going on in your life? Is there anything coming up for the two restaurants?
- Hopefully! I don’t know if you’ve read anything about the restaurant/hospitality scene in wellington, but its extremely difficult to open a cafe or restaurant and keep them running. There are so many places going under, so my focus is making sure that we survive by putting our unique food, that people love, and at a reasonable price. Boquita and La Boca Loca are unique and they’re set apart, but they’re also very specialised. Some people only feel like Mexican once a week, whereas we feel like it every day (like me), so that’s what we serve! You also see a lot of restaurants offering Mexican themed meals now, so if threes a group of people all wanting different foods they can go to a more generalist place and get the cuisine they want rather than coming here or Boquita where its solely Mexican. But word of mouth really helps, and we definitely hear people loving our food.
If you’re reading this and love a little Mexican in your life (I’m talking about the food here), then head on down to Boquita or La Boca Loca, where you’ll find Lucas and his team of chefs cooking up some of the most authentic and amazing Mexican dishes you’ll ever experience – you heard it here first!