Mother Country: Daniel Bermudez’s mother taught him to cook in Mexico; at Limones he became a chef
When Daniel Bermudez, sous chef at Limones restaurant, was growing up in Puebla, Mexico, it was still the culture of the country for women — mothers, grandmothers, daughters — to be in the kitchen, preparing all the meals for the family while the men worked outside the home.
But it wasn’t until his mother had her sixth child (and first son) that she got some helping hands. “My mother would call on my sisters to be with her in the kitchen and they had no interest,” Bermudez says. “But I loved my mother and loved the kitchen and wanted to be there. I always had a passion to cook.”
In addition to preparing meals for her large (Bermudez has a younger brother as well) family, his mother also cooked food to sell, and his curiosity and developing skills were especially appreciated. “She talked to me about ingredients and why she did what she did,” he says. “She explained recipes and showed me how she made mole sauce.”
After he graduated from school, Bermudez took a full-time job in a denim factory; he continued to help his mother on weekends, but never worked in a restaurant. That changed shortly after he moved to Asheville in 2003, where he had family and contacts to find work. He was planning to save money and eventually go back to Mexico with his wife, Reyna Rosas, buy a home, and have children.
Bermudez found himself smitten with Western North Carolina. “The trees, the lakes, the mountains, the air is so fresh. It’s good; I really liked it,” he says.
But the manufacturing job he first got — not so much. A sister-in-law recommended he put in applications to restaurants in Asheville, which led to the life-changing introduction to Hugo Ramirez. They met working in the kitchen of a now-closed downtown restaurant. Ramirez was a cook, Bermudez a dishwasher.
“Hugo was wanting to open his own place and asked me if I would come work with him when he did,” Bermudez recalls. “I said yes, of course, and when he called me about two months later, I went to work with him right from the beginning.”
It was May, 2004 when Ramirez and his wife, Amy Cavanaugh, opened Limones, specializing in an elevated fusion of California and Mexican cuisine. Ramirez grew up in Mexico City and had worked in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to North Carolina.
Bermudez started as a prep cook, and notes that the slow start of the new restaurant — while not necessarily good for the bottom line — helped his professional training and growth as a chef. “Hugo had time to teach me and show me,” he says. “I watched how he cooked and how he did his plates. My mother was a good cook but didn’t do fancy; Hugo made beautiful plates, and I loved that, I loved the colors he put on his plates.”
And yet, he also relied on his mother back home as he perfected his sauces and tried dishes. “Now you can look things up on your phone. Back then, sometimes when Hugo asked me if I knew about a sauce, I would say, ‘Yes, but let me ask my mother to be sure.’ I called her to check her recipes: ‘How many onions, how many tomatoes, how much garlic?’” he admits with a laugh.
The restaurant’s tres leches cake that has been on the menu since shortly after opening is from Bermudez’s grandmother’s recipe handed down to his mother. “My grandmother comes from Spain and the cake is a little different from Mexican tres leches. There are not many ingredients, but it’s marinated with brandy and complicated; a very special recipe. I worked on it a long time before it was ready to put on the menu, but it is still there, and people love it.”
About 15 years ago, Ramirez told Bermudez he was ready to assume the role of sous chef and run the kitchen on a daily basis. “I was a little bit unsure, but Hugo told me I was ready, and I am grateful he had that confidence in me,” says Bermudez.
There are fixtures on the Limones menu that regulars can count on — the lobster nachos, the ceviches, the three-cheese chili relleno, the scallops, and, of course, that tres leches cake. The mole — the quintessential sauce that both Puebla and Oaxaca claim to have originated — was taught to Bermudez by his mother and includes more than 16 ingredients.
Ramirez and Bermudez recently collaborated on four new appetizers and four new entrées for a seasonal menu refresh. Among them, lamb belly tacos with chapulines (grasshopper) salsa, confit garlic labneh, and Jamaican pickled onions, and portobello mushroom tacos with Oaxaca cheese, salsa macha, and sweet potato-crushed pecans tamal.
Obviously, Bermudez’s plan to return to Mexico changed once he and his wife arrived in Western North Carolina and made their home here. Reyna Rosas, in fact, is an integral member of the Limones team — she has run the front of house for most of the time Bermudez has been in the kitchen. They have a son, 13, and daughter, nearly 16. Both kids enjoy cooking at home, but his daughter wants to be a chef, and Bermudez hopes she will go to culinary school then join him one day in the Limones kitchen.
“Coming here 20 years ago, I was so lucky to meet Hugo and get the opportunity to do this,” he says. “Now, when I call my mother, I always say thank you. She was my first teacher.”
For more about Limones, visit limonesrestaurant.com.
Written by Kay West
Photos courtesy of Limones