Inside the kitchen of Jose Hadad, the owner of Mad Mexican
Stocked with dried chilies, cake pops and a hidden mezcal collection
Jose Hadad, the owner of Mad Mexican restaurant and wholesaler, left Mexico on the advice of a college admissions officer. “At an information fair in Mexico City, I heard that George Brown was the only place to go if you wanted to become a chef,” he says. “I needed $20,000, though, and I only had $200 to my name.” So, in 1999, the 18-year-old moved to Alaska, where he earned money working in canneries and hotel restaurants. After two years, he was finally able to enrol.
He attended classes during the day and worked in the Wheat Sheaf Tavern every night, though he eventually took a pay cut when he landed a job at a neighbouring Mexican restaurant called Jalapenos. “At that point, I’d basically cooked everything,” Hadad says. “I’d learned about all types of cuisines. I finally knew enough to realize that Mexican food is unequivocally the best.”
Despite its clear superiority, Hadad noticed a dearth of authentically prepared Mexican snacks in Toronto. So, in 2006, he began frequenting St. Lawrence Market to do some investigating. One day, the owner of a stall selling jarred salsa clocked Hadad’s accent and asked if he could make guacamole. Hadad knew enough to make the best of the opportunity. He began selling guacamole there—then salsa, then homemade chips, all of which he whipped up in the two-bedroom apartment of his now-wife, Dianne, at Bathurst and St. Clair. “He used to fry the chips on my balcony at night,” says Dianne, now the head of operations at Mad Mexican. Since then, the pair have acquired a huge production plant in Scarborough, a full-service restaurant in Baby Point and a beautiful home in Etobicoke.
The family does most of their shopping at Eataly and Bruno’s, and they pick up fruits and veggies at a mix of grocers in Etobicoke’s Six Points Plaza. Fridge staples include cured meats, avocados (ripened to perfection), okra, radishes and, of course, Mad Mexican’s packaged goods. The freezer is also a treasure trove for Hadad’s experiments. “Right now, I’ve got a pulled chicken that I made with pico de gallo and dried morita peppers.”
The family’s fridge is also home to an enviable collection of cheeses, including burrata, Grey Owl and Beemster. “This red one is from Yucatán. It was invented in the early 19th century,” says Hadad. “You dig out the centre and eat it until it’s virtually hollow. Then, you use it for a dish called queso relleno, where you stuff it with a mix of beef, pork, tomato, habanero peppers, spices and a Mexican-style sauce that’s similar to Béchamel.”
The kitchen is littered with hot sauces straight from Mexico, but Hadad is eager to add his own to the collection. “The hot sauces you get in North America are all about the heat—for the most part, flavour is secondary. I am looking to invent my own authentically Mexican hot sauce, one that is properly balanced, approachable and flavour forward. It should accentuate the dish, not overpower it.” He recently concocted one with roasted tomatillos, habanero, mustard seeds and oil.
The family mostly eats at home, with Dianne as the main chef. “Jose makes fancy meals when we entertain, but day-to-day, I run the house restaurant,” she says. “He taught me everything about cooking, though. I use our products to make things like chicken tinga or enchiladas with arból chili oil and tomato sauce.” They explore other cuisines too. “The kids love making ramen by themselves, and if I need something easy, I’ll just make Kraft Dinner.” For even more ease, they’ll hit up Sushi 2 Go and Chiang Mai Thai Kitchen.
Meanwhile, the pantry’s contents live up to Hadad’s heritage. One of the cupboards is filled with jars of hibiscus, cacao nibs, pumpkin seeds, a huge variety of Mexican vanilla and chicharrones. “I love to garnish dishes with chicharrones, or I’ll use them instead of tortillas to dip in salsa or guacamole,” he says. “You can also cook them down into salsa verde for added smoky notes.”
There are also some treats for the kids, like packaged cake pops. “I traded some salsa for those at a food show,” says Hadad.
A second cupboard contains a variety of truffle oils, chipotle peppers, al pastor sauce (from Mexico, obviously), Calabrese chiles, pastas, salts, spices and dried crickets. “Another great garnish,” says Hadad. “They’re really good on guacamole and tacos.” There’s also achiote (“A staple of Yucatán cuisine. It’s a super-flavourful seed that is ground, turned into a hard paste and used for dishes like pollo pibil”) and huitlacoche (“A rare fungus that grows in corn. We use it for sauces, quesadillas—basically wherever you would use a mushroom”).
There’s also a variety of whole dried chilies, including arból and pasilla. “The arból chili doesn’t really have heat—it’s kind of like a sun-dried tomato. But, when you throw it in a dish, it’s a flavour bomb,” says Hadad. “The pasilla, on the other hand, is a bit spicy. It can be stuffed like a poblano, but its flavour is more concentrated once it’s been dried and brought back to life.”
Hadad’s favourite cookbook author is Rick Bayless, whom he calls the king of Mexican cuisine. “He may be American, but he’s more Mexican than any of us. He studied the cuisine of every region. Then he applied proper French techniques to translate all of it into modern recipes with easy directions.”
A secret cupboard, tucked high above the refrigerator, houses a formidable collection of mezcal. “Mezcal comes from all over Mexico—unlike tequila, which only comes from the Jalisco region,” Hadad says. “Every mezcal has a different story and comes from a different Mexican family. That’s what attracts me to it. When I’m drinking a great mezcal, it feels like there’s a spiritual connection. After all, they’re called spirits for a reason.”