Victor Parra Gonzalez
On his own terms, at last
Food photos by Heather Aargent, Portraits by kc kratt
You’ve probably never tasted Mexican cuisine like this before, and you’ve never met a chef like Victor Parra Gonzalez. A meal at Las Puertas, his newest restaurant on Buffalo’s West Side, guides visitors through an adventure in flavors and textures. Each plate’s artistry and precision shows, both in presentation and taste.
The Acapulco-born chef moved to Buffalo in 2009, accompanying his mother as she sought cancer treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Prior to moving to the city, he trained in Montreal at Ecole Hotelier Des Laurentides. While living in Quebec, he spent time on the line at the Au Pied du Cochon, among stints at other restaurants.
Gonzalez and his family opened Jaguar at the Bistro in Youngstown in 2013, where he first introduced Western New York to his thoughtful, creative twists on dishes he enjoyed while growing up in Mexico. That restaurant closed in 2016, but, by that time, Gonzalez already had several other plates in the air. Together with food truck operator Zina Lapi, Gonzalez launched the elevated taqueria Casa Azul in 2016. In February 2017, Las Puertas opened its doors, the end of a long road for Gonzalez and, in other ways, only the beginning.
Spending years honing his craft under other chefs stoked his hunger for his own place and “really changed the dynamic of knowing what I’m ‘allowed’ to cook,” Gonzalez explains. “Owning your own place and using your own money is really empowering.” As a chef/owner, he has to weigh his creative vision with its financial impact. “Opening a new restaurant is a tremendous risk,” he says, but adds that it’s also liberating. “Should we fail, we fail on our terms. We have to dig deep within ourselves.”
At Las Puertas, that introspection comes across in every element that appears on the table. Gonzalez considers his French training and Mexican upbringing key ingredients in the experience he creates for visitors. He doesn’t believe in the word “authentic,” especially not for cuisine as diverse as his own.
“As a person from my culture, we’re always mixing influences,” Gonzalez explains. “When the conquistadors came, they brought a lot of influences, but, before that, there were a lot of influences that aren’t documented.” At Las Puertas, small plates invite diners to take a journey through different areas of Mexico in succession, but Gonzalez hopes each dish also sings individually.
“Every single menu is like a tune we’re trying to put together,” he explains. “If you order two or three dishes, they should go together. But if you order one, it should be able to stand on its own and deliver the message.”
That can present a real challenge, especially for diners not used to ordering multiple small plates instead of one entree. Gonzalez considers it a mission to introduce diners to new foods, and, often, the still up-and-coming West Side. So far, those who have made it to the new restaurant have come away excited. “We can always reach for better and get stronger,” Gonzalez says. “We made a great connection with our target audience and we don’t think we’re missing the mark. Our audience is very welcoming of what we’re trying to push.”
That push requires an open mind and an open heart on both sides of the stove. Las Puertas introduces diners to areas of Mexican cuisine they may not have experienced before, digging deep into what Gonzales calls “truly Mexican” flavors, while contending with the availability of fresh ingredients and indigenous foods in Western New York.
“We have to [show] the customer that it’s OK to trust us with their time and energy,” Gonzalez explains. “Our food really resonates with us. It has to tell a cohesive story, each and every time. If not, you’re in it for the wrong reason.”
As an active member of the Western New York food scene, Gonzalez stays involved by hosting tasting dinners featuring other local chefs and participating in the Nickel City Chef competition, which wrapped its tenth and final season this past spring. The live cooking competition pitted emerging chefs against a cadre of established Nickel City Chefs in a series of fast-paced, blood-pumping demonstrations. Gonzalez participated as a challenger for his first year, and served as a Nickel City Chef for three more, to keep his cooking skills sharp and express his creativity in an exciting way.
“I love the technique, the approach, and there’s a strategy element to it—you put yourself into the food,” he says. “Hopefully, you’re an avid cook when you become a chef, but [cooking live is] a whole different ball game.” The chef, who won his last competition, loved seeing the food that comes out of the Nickel City kitchens, as well as the conviviality and passion for food the event inspired. Like many others, Gonzalez firmly believes that passion is what turns a good cook into a great chef.
“At the end of the day, anyone can go to the same school as everyone else, pay the tuition, take the classes, learn the skills, and you’ll be pretty OK,” he explains. “But if it’s not worth putting yourself out there, you’re missing the whole point.”
As a restaurant owner, putting himself on the plate has always been Gonzalez’s mission, and that transparency has gotten him noticed. In his first year in business, Las Puertas earned a prestigious James Beard nomination for his delicately balanced flavors, innovative approach, and surprising presentations. Even a nomination means big things for the little West Side restaurant that opened without even a stove.
“When I opened the restaurant, I was broke,” Gonzalez recalls. “I had lost my first restaurant and poured everything I had into making [this one] happen. My goal, at the end of the day, was serving people the best food we possibly can. In my mind, being recognized for that … is a dream come true.” Far from feeling discouraged that he did not win an award this year, Gonzalez sees it as the next challenge on his plate. And with the way he’s approached every one thus far, he will take on the year to come with grace, creativity, and an open heart.
Green ceviche of Buffalo farmer-raised prawn
2 serrano chilies, diced
4 limes juiced (reserve several tablespoons, to taste)
8 raw shrimp (local, if possible)
1 small zucchini, sliced thin on a mandoline
1 avocado, sliced thin
1 cucumber, cut into small pieces or parisienne
Salt, to taste
1. Blend the serrano chilies and lime juice until smooth. Salt to taste.
2. Chop the shrimp into a small dice.
3. Pour the blended chili and lime into a small bowl with the chopped shrimp. Toss to coat and set over a bowl of ice to chill.
4. Season the sliced zucchini, avocado, and cucumber with reserved lime juice.
5. To serve, scoop the shrimp mixture onto a plate and arrange zucchini, avocado, and cucumber on top. If desired, garnish with crushed guajillo powder and fresh, edible flowers.