Chef Jen Zavala elevates and escalates Mexican fare at Volvér’s Chef-in-Residency program

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COURTESY OF MADISON BERTIN / JEN ZAVALA

It’s hard to believe that chef and culinary innovator Jen Zavala has been part of Philly’s food firmament for 20 years. Yet, along with being a one-time Bravo network ‘Top Chef’ contestant, the wise and talented Zavala led the charge at No Libs’ El Camino Real when Bart Blatstein’s Piazza was in its infancy, worked with Jose Garces when he was opening Amada in Old City, and brought the heat to Xochitl in Headhouse Square at a time when that block had zero spice of which to speak – and all before Zavala went on to do her own thing, the ultimate pop-up, of selling her fresh and twisted-traditional tamales out of her van.

Now, Zavala — hot on the heels of newly-opening her Juana Tamales and Birria salon on East Passyunk Avenue — is back with her old friend Garces (until May 1) at his Volvér for its Chef-in-Residency program of elevating and advocating for local chefs. To that end, Zavala at Volvér “stays on brand with the types of food that I’ve always made here in Philadelphia, which has a strong plant-based following; taking a very traditional street food element, the wheat chicharron, and making it fun, bright, and exciting for that community” and offers said heritage menu items with a haute couture vibe of paddlefish caviar, duck fat and pork belly available on the West Coast.

COURTESY OF MADISON BERTIN / JEN ZAVALA

Metro Philadelphia’s A.D. Amorosi recently spoke with Zavala to learn more.

Amorosi: Tell me about the last few years of doing the traveling tamale jawn, then landing a brick-and-mortar space for Juana Tamales.

Zavala: I became uninspired working as a chef conventionally. Also, the industry is not designed for moms, and in order to still be the mom I wanted to be, I sold tamales out of a van. It’s been done many, many times by many moms before me – it just blew up in this case because it’s me doing it.

Amorosi: Define, without confining, who you are as a culinary artist.

Zavala: I would say I’m not very unique, surprisingly.  I think I’m a lot of what doesn’t get talked about in the industry. When I started out, I was just doing what I had to get a meal at the end of the shift; I was never in it for the glory or to climb to the top. I think my passion for cooking came out of being immersed in the culture itself and my necessity to be disciplined, be part of a team, and stay ethically very strong. I do a kind of Mexican food that is not the type on offer here in Philly. It’s very Mexican-street-food married with Philadelphia-street culture.

COURTESY OF MADISON BERTIN / JEN ZAVALA

Amorosi: Juana Tamale is open at 1941 East Passyunk. How is the process there, and how would you compare what you’re presenting things there, to what you are doing at Volver? Is there an elevated aspect to bringing these same dishes to Volver?

Zavala: The process at my shop is no-frills, pre-order online, walk up/ take-out, almost like a pizza shop type fast-food experience. The audience at my shop is diverse, inclusive, dynamic, old, young, it’s all over the place, and that’s how we like it. By comparison, Volver is obviously fine dining, elevated in its experience: conceptually still very much me. I’m muted a tad because I don’t think the theater crowd is into my spice. Both experiences are extremely different from each other, and both totally worth the ride.

Amorosi: I’m into that spice. How did you and Garces begin talking about the Volver collaboration and what was your impression of his impression?

Zavala: I think Jose’s impression of me is similar to what everyone’s impression of me is: “What the hell is she doing?” I make a lot of noise, I’m very active in the food scene, and I think that confuses people about what I do and where I came from because I’ve never been able to be tied to or defined by a restaurant location or experience. Jose has been very much ahead of me for a while, as I started working at Amada during the height of his Iron Chef time. From my time at Amada until now, Jose has always been a charming, knowledgeable, kind person to me. He’s worked extremely hard through many obstacles, I absolutely respect his commitment, efforts, and branding; it is inspiring and makes me extremely proud for the Latino community. His food has always been the bloodline to his success and is always something I’ve cherished having spent a small portion of my career humbly working in one of his kitchens preparing his food.

COURTESY OF MADISON BERTIN / JEN ZAVALA

Amorosi: Let’s riff about the sensational items I tried on your menu at Volver. First, that deconstructed Oaxacan corn tamale with cod was lovely.

Zavala: The first evidence of a tamale is over 10,000 years old; what we know as the tamales of our day are the very same tamales eaten by Meso-Americans, minus the lard. I wanted to offer this dish this way to stay true to my heritage and to offer it differently than what’s been served by Garces himself and the previous guest chef Jezebel. I sourced locally for Oaxacan green corn and had it turned to nixtamal specifically for this dish.

Amorosi: Your Bunuelos y Caviar with fried flour tortilla and paddlefish caviar?

Zavala: The bunuelos are how I remembered eating them as a little girl in my aunt’s restaurant Mamacita’s in Billings, Montana. The recipe is my Grandma Jane’s tortilla recipe. The caviar represents growing up in Connecticut; that whole dish represents the two very different upbringings I had growing up.

Amorosi: I love that you did duck fat “Friendship” Tacos with Braised Pork Belly.

Zavala: The friendship tacos was a fun one; I have always done duck fat carnitas, starting back from my time at El Camino, where I used to get buckets of duck fat from Bistro la Minette. I just felt it would be a perfect dish to represent my friendship with Jose

Amorosi: You mentioned Garces’ talent for branding. If you had to put a brand to your Volver menu, what would it be?

Zavala: Contradiction Kitchen.

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