When Chef David Solorzano bought tickets to Guadalajara, he almost didn’t come back.
“It was initially to get away from Tucson, and to explore food,” he said. “I was feeling stagnant in my career, in the way that I felt about food. Nothing was moving forward. It woke a lot of stuff that I had experienced before, in my childhood. It was a catalyst for a lot of things, including my position here.”
Solorzano recently became executive chef at Penca, a Mexico City-inspired restaurant in downtown Tucson. Penca was opened in 2013 by Patricia Schwabe, whose family came from Mexico City with the intention of representing the diversity of Mexican cuisine. Solorzano will continue to that aim by adding his own Mexican heritage to the menu.
Schwabe met Solorzano at a critical point. Penca needed a new chef, and Solorzano’s plans to move to Guadalajara fell through. When she found out Solorzano understood the depth of traditional Mexican cuisine, she was hopeful.
“My hope is for him to bring freshness to the kitchen,” Schwabe said. “To be faithful to the culture and the history of the cuisine, for him to bring higher standards. That people in Tucson become aware and they’re not shy to try food. And they are open to continue to learn about Mexican food.”
Solorzano grew up in Nogales and was raised by a family of bakers, cooks and chefs. His grandmother was from Guadalajara, and a “really great cook.” He remembers sitting in her kitchen making tamales, which only happened once a year, with masa they made fresh from corn.
It was in his uncle’s restaurant that he first had Chicken Oscar—chicken with hollandaise sauce.
“It was the first time I had something at a restaurant that I hadn’t felt before,” Solorzano said. “It was simple and easy, but really good. That was the day that I decided to switch from going to art school to cooking.”
Solorzano’s background in art still influences his cooking; he draws inspiration from multiple places. He once based a dish off a broken pallet with nails sticking out, as a dish, it became a quinoa crumble with burnt carrots coming out. He also pays special attention to texture, color and depth.
From the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Solorzano has climbed from sous chef at Hacienda del Sol, to chef de cuisine at Ume at Casino del Sol, and then to executive chef at Cielos at Lodge on the Desert.
His future as a chef was not always that clear to him, though. He was interested in many other things, from rock climbing and photography, to graphic novels and restoring old axes. He remembers a moment while working at Hacienda del Sol where he just had to make a decision about staying in the food industry. It was then he decided there was no more going back and forth—he was a chef.
“It was a little after that, that I got my first culinary tattoo,” Solorzano said. “It was made by Lisa Cardenas at Haunted Hands. It was the knife…my favorite knife. It was stolen at Miraval. That one had a lot of sentimental value. To this day, I haven’t replaced it.”
And his interests still play a part in his culinary life, making his approach to food multi-faceted. The intensity of focus and endurance of rock climbing, the spatial awareness, attention to color and detail of art. These elements are still visible—and experienced—in his style of cooking. It also affects how he works with his team in the kitchen.
Having been trained in the old French brigade system that relied on a merciless hierarchy and brutal punishment to keep cooks in check, he decided to run his kitchen differently.
“I started meditating more, reading more about Taoism and Buddhism, then I started tweaking the way I was managing people,” Solorzano said. “I felt that kindness is not around a whole lot anymore. I just tried bringing that into the kitchen and managing that way. I try to give them as many tools as I can and continuing education. I try to do as many things for them as possible for them to succeed in the industry.”
Coming to Penca as the new chef means new changes to the menu.
“I didn’t try to change it drastically,” Solorzano explains. “When chefs do that, they alienate a lot of the guests.”
His influence can be seen in adjusted or added dishes. From the ensalada verde, a pile of fluffy baby greens and herbs with thinly sliced radishes dressed lightly with lemon cream, and the crunch of toasted sunflower seeds, to the Tuétano, silky beef bone marrow brightened by the citrusy purslane salad and served on folds of warm flour tortilla. He has also added spicy “coliflor” tacos with salsa macha and peanuts, tacos de pastor with grilled pineapple, and seared arctic char on a bed of quinoa and orbited by gooseberry salsa, among others.
Solorzano aims to show how Central Mexico has its own culinary ingredients and traditions.
“Sonoran food is amazing at beef and cheese,” Solorzano said. “Central Mexico has a lot more variety because of the water. There’s jungle. The terrain is so different. It’s vast. Every region in every state has an insane amount of ingredients and resources that they pull from.”
Currently, he’s experimenting with hoja santa, the root beer plant.
“The taste is kind of hard to pinpoint,” Solorzano said. “There’s a bit of licorice, fennel, peppery, minty elements. It’s huge—really beautiful, actually. It’s really velvety. You can sauté, braise it, put it underneath a tortilla and use it as a taco. It gives a different dimension to the dishes.”
Solorzano said his next project is pickling. He’s going to start a fermentation program and do more in-house, from preparing their own corn for masa to foraging for purslane and herbs. He’s also looking forward to bringing in insects and chili peppers from Oaxaca.
“I’m trying to bring in more things that Tucson isn’t really used to and try to offer it to our guests,” Solorzano said. “They’ll be able to be more aware of Mexican cuisine as it really is.”
Meredith O’Neil is a University of Arizona journalism graduate student and Tucson Local Media intern.