Chef Iliana de la Vega reflects on her journey as El Naranjo celebrates its 12th anniversary.

Chef Iliana de la Vega and Ana Torrealba; Photo by Tanya Chavez Laguna

By Janaye Barabin.

Chef Iliana de la Vega opened her first restaurant, El Naranjo, in Oaxaca, Mexico, and operated it for almost 10 years. Due to social unrest in the area, her family made the difficult choice to close and leave their home. Despite this setback, de la Vega kept her dream alive and opened a restaurant in Austin in 2012 with the same name. In the years that followed, she has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in 2022, one of the most prestigious awards for chefs in the U.S.; was a semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest in 2019 and Best Chef Texas in 2020; and worked as a chef instructor and cuisine specialist at the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America. Now, de la Vega and her family are celebrating the revered restuarant’s 12th anniversary.

It’s clear how important family is to her. Though she admits that working with family isn’t always easy, she smiles as she talks about them. She opened the restaurant with her husband and her two daughters, and her first memories of cooking come from watching her mother. There wasn’t a cooking school in Mexico when de la Vega grew up, so her mother was her teacher. “I loved [going]to the market with my mom and [learning]about things,” says de la Vega. “Asking questions—‘Why [did]you do that? How did you do this?’ I was looking at her doing things and learning from her.”

Although de la Vega showed an interest in cooking at an early age, her family was skeptical. “I wanted to cook, but it was not well regarded in my family. Not because they didn’t like to cook. My mom was an excellent cook, [and]she was a chemist. So for her, she was a step forward with [having]a degree, but then her daughter wanted to be a cook. It was like, ‘That’s wrong; you should go to university.’ I tried, but I didn’t like it. Eventually I just decided to go into cooking.”

El Naranjo Valentine’s Day menu 2024, Photo by Consumable Content

After de la Vega moved to Austin, she was offered a job as a culinary specialist at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. “Not coming from an environment of a cooking school [was]interesting,” she muses. “I’m not a [chef]trained in a school, and they said, ‘That’s exactly what we want. We want to learn about Mexican food as it is.’”

De la Vega desires to educate people about traditional Mexican cuisine while making space for innovation, with a firm belief that it’s more important to focus on tradition, instead of authenticity. “It’s hard to say what is authentic and who will name it,” she says. “Who will be the judge to say this is authentic and this is not? It’s more about the tradition. I’m not a judge. It’s part of the goal for us, you know, to present, as we feel like it, Mexican food and try to represent it well.”

De la Vega is intentional about each aspect of the restaurant, and it shows. She won’t consider making a dish unless she has the best ingredients available, and what she can’t find, she makes in-house. It’s also important that the team treats each other, as well as the food, with respect.

“Even if we make the most perfect food, if the service doesn’t deliver that information with pride it will get lost,” she insists. “We don’t allow anyone to be disrespectful toward each other. Everyone is valued the same here. [Respect] is one of the most important values of the company. Respect everything: the product, the food, the people. [There’s] not one over the other; it’s all of it. If you don’t respect the ingredients, then the food isn’t gonna be good. They have to understand that they need to study, they need to learn, they need to be curious and proud of what we serve. Otherwise it won’t convey that message to the customer.”

(l to r) Iliana de la Vega, Ana Torrealba and Ernesto Torrealba

El Naranjo honors the rich traditions that have been passed down through families for generations. For Iliana de la Vega, family is what it’s all about. “I just love the way grandmothers have passed down recipes. We evolve them in a certain way, maybe the presentation, but it’s still gonna be the same dish. In general, I think my mom would be proud.”



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