Chef Zyzko Bernal
On a Friday night at the home of Chef Francisco “Zyzko” Bernal, I sat down with him, while his family listened from the living room. Well, his wife listened. His two of three children were in and out of their rooms. Chef Zyzko is a gentle and kind person. The recipe he shares with us is much like his own personality and demeanor: full of simple ingredients, but when they are put together, they create a complexity of flavor with varying textures.
Chef Zyzko Bernal derives satisfaction from the happiness his food brings to others. His chief desire in the kitchen is to create dishes that bring out the flavor of the food, but he does not hide his ingredients in sauces or spices. He allows them to shine by balancing spice against heat. Texture and taste are weighed against depth of flavor and simple composition. Most of all, he watches his guests to see how they respond to the food he makes for them. A smile is worth the effort, from his point of view.
Chef Zyzko Bernal hails from Chihuahua, Mexico, where he grew up helping his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. He learned early the value of making others happy by watching the matriarchs of his family prepare delicious meals.
Chef Zyzko’s passion for food stems from his family’s love of cooking. In his house, or his grandmother’s, he learned to make Mexican main course specialties and divine treats, such as brittles, scones, and bread with his grandmother. Thanks to the time spent with his mamá and his abuela, he had skills to bring to the workforce. While he was young and cooking with his family, he discovered that he was fascinated with knives.
While he doesn’t have a favorite brand, his fascination stemmed from the skill and mastery in using the knife. For example, he liked cutting vegetables and fruits into fancy shapes. He especially enjoyed learning how to juggle knives.Though, when his grandmother came for a visit this past year, she did make a point with him. “What if you cut off one of your fingers?” she asked Chef Zyzko. So, he quit juggling knives . . . while she visited anyway. As soon as she returned to Mexico though, he started juggling sharp objects again. However, he won’t flip a knife behind his back. Evidently, he has cut his finger so many times trying to complete the behind-the-back knife flip that he gave up practicing that particular trick.
Chef Zyzko calls Reno home now, but he arrived in Nevada twelve years ago. Looking for a job where he would fit in, he found work at Flowing Tide, a local restaurant and bar. He needed a job where he felt comfortable with the staff. He watched the owner clean the floors and wash the dishes and found that his own work ethic aligned with the same principles that the owner, Jason Tolotti, demonstrated. Chef Zyzko remarked, “I saw the owner doing dishes, and I thought everybody should do everything. So I have always worked to learn everything I can so I can always be the most helpful to anyone.”
When I visited Chef Zyzko in his home, he reflected on his journey to becoming a chef. While Chef Zyzko’s passion for food developed from his family’s love of cooking, our discussion of his experiences in the kitchen led to some surprising revelations, including that his professional training ground was not as a student in a culinary school but as an apprentice in restaurant kitchens.
Though his first job was working for Flowing Tide as a dishwasher, Chef Zyzko cut and chopped his way into working with Chef Auriane Ugalde at 775 Gastropub. She put him to the test in her kitchen. Chef Zyzko said,”I had the fortune to know Chef Auriane, a local chef from Fallon. She took me under her wing. She lived and worked in Spain as a chef for a while, so she has a wide range of knowledge and skills.”
Chef Auriane instructed Chef Zyzko in food management and preparation, menu planning and how to efficiently run a kitchen. From her experience in both in the United States and Spain, Chef Zyzko learned the many techniques a chef must possess to run a kitchen and create unique dishes for a fine restaurant.
Zyzko practiced, learned, and pushed himself to absorb the lessons Chef Auriane put forth in her kitchen. He used this training and became the lead chef at Grateful Gardens just a year after starting at the restaurant. While he worked at Grateful Gardens, the staff often asked him to create dishes not on the menu. He did so without hesitation and was rewarded with unique and delicious results. Several of the items he and his staff created were added to the menu.
In the kitchen, Chef Zyzko is a bit of a jokester. He enjoys engaging the staff with casual comments that bring a smile or a laugh. He also realizes stress levels in the kitchen can run high, so he alleviates tension through laughter. Chef Zyzko says, “I am the clown in the kitchen. I do whatever it takes.” He continues with an example from his most recent position, “If, for example, a server forgets something, I wait for them and tap my fingers. When they ask me why I am waiting, I say, ‘I read the ticket, and it says to come see you. So I am seeing you.’” His smile and graceful mannerisms provide a calm strength . . . and humor.
The reason he was able to elevate himself to chef from his first position as a dishwasher is evident: his demeanor and grace, positive attitude, and willingness to learn are all reflected in his ability to manage people and produce tasteful and elegant, yet simple, dishes that are delicious.
And cooking isn’t his only passion--he makes boomerangs. Yes, boomerangs that his son tests to see if they will fly. His passion is to work with his hands. His love in life is to bring pleasure to others, regardless of the medium he works within be it food, boomerangs, knife juggling, or just being the stable, happy, focused individual in the kitchen who holds everyone together. In his kitchen, he truly enjoys when his wife makes refried beans--frijoles. He said, “She knows how to cook better than I do.” When I turned to see her face, she beamed a gentle smile at him and his compliment to her.
Thank you, Chef Zyzko for the interview and for the recipe you created for us. It is a twist on Indian chutney.
2 hours prior to cooking time, make a simple brine with 2 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of sugar and ½ teaspoon of salt. Mix ingredients and marinate the chicken in it for at least 2 hours.
When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat a medium frying pan for the chutney mix, and preheat a flat grill to cook the chicken and heat the arepas.
For the meat, slice the chicken into 4 strips and cook it on medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. When the chicken strips are done on the first side, flip (5 to 7 minutes, depending upon thickness of the strips).** Only flip the chicken strips once, so the meat stays moist.
Dice the fruit and vegetables, place them in a bowl, then add them to the preheated frying pan. All fruits and vegetables should be diced to approximately the same size for uniform cooking. Set aside the dried fruit to add later.
In the preheated frying pan, drizzle the olive oil; saute the onions, celery, apple, pear, and chilli for one minute. Add the cranberries, raisins, and vinegar. Stir to mix. Next, add the brown sugar; stir until sugar dissolves. Let the sugar and juices incorporate into an almost honey-like texture; continue to stir. Let the mixture cook 3 to 5 minutes on medium low heat. You are looking for the fruits & vegetables to have a bit of a soft texture, yet still retain some crispness.
Once everything is cooked and heated through, plate the arepas and add some sliced chicken; top with the chutney mixture.
Eat and enjoy.
Arepaes--good with everything!
While the chicken is cooking, you can heat the arepas. Spread butter on each side of the arepa, and then set it on the grill, allowing it to heat through (a minute or two).
** You can heat the arepas after the first flip of the chicken strips. The arepas should have a nice crisp, golden-brown crust.
Reno August 2018