For Tyler Rawcliffe, the secret to Mexican cuisine is finding that perfect balance between spicy, salty, sweet and sour.
“I really enjoy coming up with my own recipes and creating different entrees,” says the head cook and kitchen manager at Zola’s Mexicana Restaurant on Murphy Road.
At age 25, Rawcliffe has already cooked for nine years in restaurants in Sarnia and Australia.
He started out at East Side Mario’s making pizza and salads when he was 16. After graduating from St. Pat’s, he continued to work there, saving his money for two years to finance a trip to Australia.
Once overseas, he trained with Red Seal chefs at a gourmet seafood bistro on the Gold Coast of Queensland for five months, discovering he was skilled in the kitchen and really liked it.
“That’s where I got passionate about food,” said Rawcliffe. “And I found real camaraderie in the kitchen.”
He came home to Sarnia a year later and immediately found work at Lola’s Lounge on Christina Street. When owner Tania Auger opened a second restaurant called the Zebra Bar, Rawcliffe worked in both her kitchens. Ultimately, the Zebra Bar was converted to Zola’s Mexicana 18 months ago and he became head cook.
Many of the specials and menu staples are creations Rawcliffe developed through “fusion,” mixing Mexican with cuisine from other countries like Thailand or France.
The Mexican eggrolls are a good example, he said. Homemade chorizo sausage is combined with Mexican coleslaw and shredded carrot, then rolled in a Chinese eggroll wrapper.
Rawcliffe loves playing with herbs and spices, working over the stove until he gets it just right.
“A lot of people think Mexican is about cumin, but cumin is overdone,” he said. “I try to use a lot more fresh herbs and cilantro. “
– Cathy Dobson