Cinco y Diez, the much anticipated new Mexican restaurant from Hugh Acheson, Whitney Otawka and co-owner Melissa Clegg is set to open in Athens on Tuesday in the remodeled Five Points space that was home to Acheson’s iconic 5&10 — which last summer moved to an historic house on nearby Milledge Avenue.
Otawka’s resume includes stints at 5&10, Restaurant Eugene, Greyfield Inn and Farm 255, plus an all too brief appearance on “Top Chef Season 9” in Texas.
In late 2013, I caught up with her in Athens, where we sipped a pint at the Terrapin Beer Co. tasting room, and talked about some of her past experiences and recent research and plans for Cinco y Diez.
Here’s a bit of what Otawka had to say:
Q. When Farm 255 closed last year, it was kind of a weird, sad end, but then you landed a pretty good gig quickly after that.
A. You know, I was going to leave there, regardless. When I came back to Athens, I wasn’t sure what the trajectory from there was. I had a lot of offers from restaurants in Atlanta and thought I was going to move forward to Atlanta. But when Hugh heard Farm was selling, he called me and said let’s talk.
Q. You’d worked for him before, so I guess that was an easy thing?
A. I worked at 5&10 2006-2009, before I moved on to Grayfield Inn. So I knew Hugh and I trusted him. And, of course, Hugh was a judge on “Top Chef,” and I was on “Top Chef,” which was not my favorite shining moment in life [laughs]. But I’m glad I did it. It was so much fun.
Q. You came back to Athens after “Top Chef”?
A. I came back to Athens to take over Farm because it was offered to me at a time when “Top Chef” was coming out and it wasn’t such a great idea being on a island that most people can’t get to. Being there then wouldn’t have been a great career move.
Q. It seems like Cinco y Diez is a good career move.
A. It was the best career move in the respect that I’m a talented chef but I also need to understand business and I need to be in a successful business. Partnering with Hugh was a no-brainer. He’s someone who can teach me what I need to know at this point.
Q. And what about the Mexican concept?
A. When we sat down to talk, it was something that popped up, and I jumped on it. Growing up in the desert of Southern California, it was something that was all around me, and then living in the Bay area and San Diego. It wasn’t anything I studied, particularly as a chef. I studied French technique, just like everybody else. But it was rustic cuisine that I loved. I wanted to travel and study Mexican food and I went to Oaxaca.
Q. So how did the idea for the menu evolve.
A. I wrote the first menu back in August, right after we decided we were going to do this, and that menu changed after I went to Mexico. I think in two years I may look back and throw my menus from now out the window because it is an evolution and it’s about learning. The menu is designed to have a lot of playful service. I don’t want everything to be written out on the menu. I want it to be something where you get your protein, and you might get a side of this or that, and then you might have other things on the table, like a vinegary pickle or a spicy salsa. So you as a guest can change the flavor profile.
Q. Is there a specific style you were inspired by?
A. One style I really acclimated to while I was in Oaxaca was from the Isthmus, which is the most southern ocean area. I ate at this great place called Zandunga that was in that style. The way things were presented, there were so many little added bonuses to each plate. As a guest, it feels like a little gift, and it’s exciting. I wanted to bring that back here.
Q. What about spice and heat.
A. Well the other thing in this cuisine is that there are so many layers of flavor. I have to be careful with spice and peppers, because I don’t want to burn out everybody’s palates. And I also have all these really intense flavors with moles. But for someone who wants more spice, I can offer these accouterments that can be added to the dish.
Q. Can you reveal anything more specific about how the menu is broken down?
A. You’ll have little light snacks and there is a whole antojitos section of the menu, which is where you’re going to find the more playful and less expensive dishes. So if you just want to walk in and sit down at the bar and have a margarita, I think the antojitos menu will be really fun. And there’s going to be a section that’s small plates and vegetables. We’re really going to be vegetable-driven, too, and we will be highlighting farmers. The mains will be served with housemade tortillas.
Q. So how would you sum it all up?
A. This cuisine is really fun. It’s food that’s fun to eat. It’s rustic comfort food. And we’ll have a beautiful new remodeled restaurant. But hopefully it will never be perceived as stuffy or fancy. Of course, we’ll have margaritas. Who doesn’t love a margarita? And we’ll have have traditional mescal service. So in all ways, I think it will be a fun place.
— By Bob Townsend, AJC Food and More blog.