Rosa Mexicano’s Darren Carbone Talks Latino Cuisine, Going Corporate

The chef dishes on his move to the Seaport District restaurant and what we can expect with his brand-new spot.

Photo courtesy of Darren Carbone.

After spending a year and a half with Ken Oringer at La Verdad in Fenway, chef Darren Carbone brings his knives and ideas to multi-chain concept restaurant Rosa Mexicano, which as we reported after our hard-hat tour, opens in the Seaport District tomorrow. The 38-year-old chef has worked with some of Boston’s best. But with this move, does he risk giving up his culinary creative freedom? Carbone discusses that and his mission to elevate the city’s Mexican food ahead.

You’ve worked for some big names—Gordon Hamersley of Hamersley’s Bistro on Tremont, Douglas Rodriguez of Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. What’s that been like?
I consider Gordon Hamersley and more particularly Douglas Rodriguez my mentors. I feel like I kind of follow in [Rodriguez’s] school of thought about food—there’s no limits. You have respect for what the [classic] dishes are and how they came about, but there’s no reason why you can’t change things to make cleaner flavors and modern presentations, and really excite people with the colors on the plate as well as the palate that you give them. Gordon probably influenced me more than anybody. And that was with French food, and about trying to let the food speak for itself.

How has that factored into your decision to go to Rosa?
Well, one of the difficult things that we talked about when I was coming on was maybe not doing my own food. I’ve never done that in probably eight years. Fortunately for me, shortly after arriving in January, we started talking about redesigning the menu a little bit, almost re-concepting. Rosa is a very different restaurant than it was 25 years ago, and it’ll be a much different restaurant next year. They’re not sitting back and doing the same thing they did yesterday. They’re in the middle of trying to develop local relationships with farmers. I’m getting my seafood from across the street. Six of the new dishes are mine that are on the menu, and I wrote the whole ceviche menu for them. So I’m excited by some of that.

So where are things going forward, as far as your place there and with helping the restaurant evolve?
They’re trying to put the chef back in the driver seat as opposed to everything being dictated down. They want to see the menu develop. We’re in the middle of trying to come up with a veggie taco and figure out how to make a vegetarian chorizo that makes that work. For me, at least, it’s creating that rapport with these chefs so that they know that I’m trying to create dishes that will work for them and for me so that my creative freedom isn’t stifled. It’s not like at La Verdad, where I literally had four line cooks, and I’m showing them every step right in front of me. There are dishes right now that I won’t ever see them produce. But if all the recipes are done the right way, I’m hoping that they can reproduce them in any of the Rosas. We’re going to start video streaming some of the demonstrations so that the stuff comes out consistent throughout the restaurants.

What are some of the dishes that have you most excited on the menu now?
I worked for Rodriguez in Philadelphia. We had 14 different ceviches on the menu, and we would have to do two specials every weekend and try to do something new. If there’s anything I feel like I can hang my hat on, it’s that ceviche. I love it, you know? And so having the chance to come up with a menu for that has been really great. I tried to run the gamut on this menu, something in my experiences not only in Mexico but in Peru. Instead of making a thick heavy mayonnaise, it’s a scallop mayonnaise basically. For the fish of the day we’re using locally sourced fluke, or whatever’s really in season, and then we’re folding that in with the scallop emulsion and really creating something that’s different that I don’t think a lot of people have had before.

How has the recent Mexican food boom in Boston affected what you’re trying to do with Latino food?
It’s about trying to educate the consumer, that it’s not about just rice and beans with everything. This is what I would definitely say Rosa does best—we really use some complex dishes, especially the sauce work, that people haven’t seen or experienced in Mexican food. The xico sauce that we have that we’re doing with the enchiladas right now is outstanding. It’s a seven-hour sauce to make, and it’s truly authentic, and we’re doing it in a style that’s clean. The flavors are honest flavors, and they’re true to what it means to be Mexican, in my interpretation. The difference between us and what a lot of the other guys are doing—and I guess I’ll sound a little brazen here—but it’s not just about a tequila bar, it’s about the restaurant experience. This is a really good restaurant at the end of the day.

Do you have any favorite new spots around town?
Asia Mei, who’s at Sam’s on the waterfront, I think she’s doing some really great food over there. We came up as line cooks together at Hamersley’s 10 years ago. It’s good to see this city’s still evolving. It’s her take on what I feel the city does so well, which is farm to fork. Her interpretation is really clean with really vibrant flavors.

What is it about the Mexican food and the Latino culture that drew you away from your roots in Italian and French cuisine?
What’s great about that is you take the ideas from around the world in a cuisine like that. They have influences from the Chinese, from Africa, from the Caribbean, from South America, and all those flavors come in, and you create something new. It’s kind of like what you saw with fusion 15 years ago, where you’re creating something new based on something that’s already been there for a while. We’re doing some tacos on the menu right now that have plantains in them and rajas and speaks to the Yucatan, that flavor profile, but at the same time I would argue that you’re not really seeing that anywhere else in the city.

Anything else we should know about your or Rosa or what’s to come?
You come down here, and it’s youthful, and it’s vibrant when you come to work every day, and it makes you feel good coming to work and being close to local products, like the fisheries around here. We’re getting our fish from across the street. We’re getting our lamb from Vermont. We’re trying to do things the right way and trying to appreciate sustainable agriculture. And to do that with 15 restaurants is not easy. It’s good to see that somebody is trying to make that effort. And for me, I want to continue to grow. Rosa’s affording me that opportunity, and I appreciate that.

(Rosa Mexicano, 155 Seaport Blvd, Boston