At La Calenda, Thomas Keller & Kaelin Ulrich Trilling Serve Sensational Mexican Food

La Calenda’s delicious tacos

Photo Credit: David Escalante

When chef Thomas Keller opened his first restaurant in downtown Yountville 25 years ago, he was determined to make The French Laundry one of the best fine dining establishments in the nation. He was wildly successful, and everything that followed—Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc, and Addendum—was equally triumphant. Although the food at each eatery is distinct, Keller’s culinary philosophy is the underlying thread that ties the restaurants together. Local seasonal ingredients are used along with precision and expert technique in everything each kitchen makes, from the buttermilk brine for Ad Hoc’s fried chicken to the pearl tapioca sabayon for The French Laundry’s signature “oysters and pearls.” Throw in a welcoming and lively atmosphere overseen by professional staff—held to the highest standards—and you’ve got Keller’s recipe for a winning restaurant.

Kaelin Ulrich Trilling

Photo Credit: David Escalante

A year and a half ago, Keller shocked the food industry when he announced that he would be opening a casual Mexican joint, La Calenda, down the street from Bouchon Bakery. Would his extreme mastery and culinary prowess translate to tacos and tequila? After the first bite of La Calenda’s chips and guacamole, the answer is a resounding yes. Chef de cuisine Kaelin Ulrich Trilling makes everything (the salsa, mole, tortillas, sauces, etc.) from scratch, sometimes using an elaborate list of ingredients native to Mexico. The menu has all of the usual Mexican favorites like carnitas tacos, chicken enchiladas, pork quesadillas, and garlic shrimp, but none are made in the typical American style—and the whole menu is written in Spanish. It’s authentic and delicious, and exactly what you would expect from Keller’s restaurant group.

A variety of tamales

Photo Credit: David Escalante

Although he’s only 27 years old, Trilling has a unique point of view and wisdom beyond his age. He practically grew up cooking: his American mother, Susana Trilling, is a cookbook author and the owner of a world-renowned cooking school in Oaxaca. “When I was five years old, when I came home from school, there would be 30 people in my house learning how to make mole with my mom,” Trilling recently told Haute Living from a wooden table inside La Calenda’s pink-walled dining room. “I ran around, eating everything and helping her. I was very inspired and intrigued by cuisine.” On the eve of his high school graduation, while traveling with his mom to promote one of her cookbooks, Trilling heard the siren song of the kitchen. “I saw all the chefs wearing white coats and beautiful aprons,” he remembers. “I saw so much prestige in this profession, and I realized, this is what I want.” San Antonio chef John Brand took Trilling under his wing. Armed with cookbooks from his newfound friends in the kitchen, Trilling honed his skills. He moved his way up in the restaurant industry and found himself cooking across the US, from Nashville to Brooklyn.

Tacos de carnitas

Photo Credit: David Escalante

“I was in New York, and there was a small rumor that chef Keller was going to open a Mexican restaurant,” Trilling says. He thought it would be a fantastic opportunity. “Everyone was talking about it, and then the rumor went away.” As luck would have it, Keller reached out to Susana Trilling asking her for chef recommendations. She mentioned her son, and soon Trilling found himself in phone interviews with Keller. After a series of discussions, he flew to Yountville to give Keller and his team a tasting. “I was very nervous,” he says. “It was an amazing and impactful day for me. I’m from Oaxaca, so I wanted to put my soul on a plate. I think for any Oaxacan cook, mole speaks what you are. It was one of those experiences that you remember for the rest of your life.”

Tahona Sol, a cocktail made with blanco tequila, Reyes Ancho chili liqueur, tangerine juice, hibiscus, and fresh lime

Photo Credit: David Escalante

Once Trilling had the job, he and Keller went to work on the menu and sourcing the necessary ingredients. They didn’t want La Calenda to be a celebration restaurant, but a place where locals and travelers would visit over and over again to get tasty tacos and mezcal cocktails. While the price point is incredibly affordable, the caliber of cuisine is on par with The French Laundry. “A lot of people think Mexican food is ground beef tacos, but that’s not what Mexican food is. There is so much more behind it,” Trilling says. “There are so many chiles and techniques: all the toasting, grinding, and braising.” Take, for example, the process to make La Calenda’s tortillas. The corn is imported from Mexico; it’s sourced from different regions at various altitudes. Once it arrives, it must be dried, soaked, rinsed, and ground—an operation that takes over 24 hours. Then every morning at 6:30 a.m., a cook arrives, hydrates the ground corn and hand presses it into tortillas. The restaurant serves 800 to 1200 tortillas per day. “It’s a process that we Mexicans have been doing since before we got conquered by the Spanish,” Trilling says. “It’s thousands of years old, and it’s something that still prevails and thus, is one of the most important parts of Mexican cooking.”

Tostada de pescado

Photo Credit: David Escalante

Another aspect of Mexico that Trilling has brought to Yountville? Heirloom seeds and servingware from Mexican growers and artists. Keller’s farm team sourced seeds for squash blossoms, cilantro, chiles, epazote, and other herbs native to Oaxaca and are now growing them in The French Laundry garden. Trilling uses these components with fresh local produce to make complex, layered, and savory dishes. “California has the best fresh produce in the United States,” he says. “The garlic we get here is insane. The onion we have here is beautiful. We stay traditional to Mexico by getting all the product we can, such as the dried chiles, the corn, all that foundation, and then the fresh produce that we get from California makes for a beautiful combination. It’s a perfect example of what La Calenda is.”

Oaxacan chocolate ice cream, fruit sorbet, and horchata ice cream

Photo Credit: David Escalante

If the chef makes the restaurant, Trilling is integral to La Calenda. With Keller as his mentor, he’s a rising culinary star. He respects his heritage and the craft while pushing to make himself better. “It’s such a big restaurant, such a big name, and something so big on somebody’s shoulders, that I just want to do what’s right,” he says passionately. “I want to go to sleep at night knowing that we did the best we can. I know the team does an amazing job; they make me look good. I want to showcase what Mexican food is, the small amount I know, to show to everybody that it can be great food. I’m not competing with any other chef in the Bay. I’m not competing with Thomas. I’m competing with myself.”

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