Todd Richardson checks on progress at Casa del Barco, planned to open in late December at 321 S. 11th St. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Restaurateur Kevin Healy was a little surprised when he walked into the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing's catering kitchen one day and found executive chef Todd Richardson eating a tamale.
"Where did you get that?" he asked.
"I made it," Richardson answered.
"How did you learn to make Mexican food?" Healy wondered.
"I'm Mexican," the chef said.
With his Irish blue eyes and fair skin, Richardson doesn't look at all Mexican. But a 1926 photo of his maternal grandfather, Carlos Perez, complete with sombrero and serape, graces the website for Casa del Barco , the latest addition to the Boathouse family.
Healy says he'd brought up the idea of opening an upscale Mexican place several years ago with developers Richard Souter and Jason Vickers-Smith, who worked with him on the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing. When they took on The Locks project along the Haxall Canal, they approached Healy in the spring about opening a restaurant there. In Richardson, Healy already had a chef who was well-versed in Mexican cuisine and who could draw on his heritage for inspiration. Richardson, who grew up in Williamsburg, says his mother learned about Mexican cooking from her Irish mother, Mercedes Perez, who learned from her sister-in-law, Aurora, whom the family called Aunt Ray.
"I looked forward to the nights she cooked Mexican food for us," he says of his mother, Andrea Maria Perez Richardson.
He says he began experimenting with Mexican cooking as a teenager when the family moved to Germany and he and his sister were on their own for periods while his mother traveled with his dad, an airline pilot.
Tired of eating out, he says, "I started watching German cooking shows and reading cookbooks" — and reproducing the family's Mexican dishes. During his career as a chef, "every menu I've written has had some Mexican components."
Before joining the Boathouse three years ago, Richardson co-owned Verbena, which closed in 2009. His résumé also includes the former None Such Place with Michael Hall, Havana '59 with Brian Munford, and Helen's with David Shannon. Rather than attending culinary school, Richardson learned from other chefs and supplemented that experience by reading and traveling. "It doesn't work for everybody, but I feel like it's worked for me."
At Casa del Barco, he's planning to elevate the typical U.S.-style Mexican fare by serving tacos with rotisserie-roasted chicken, duck and rabbit; braised beef short ribs and pork shanks; and salsas with ingredients such as green tomatoes, almonds, pumpkin seeds and habañero peppers. He'll be assisted by chef de cuisine Jeremy Dutra, a recent transplant from New Mexico. The goal, Richardson says, is "being creative with the Mexican cuisine, reinventing the tradition I grew up with and making it modern."