Variety is the spice of life and the same goes for the kitchen, where Maderas Sous Chef Max Walder says variety and spice are his two favorite ingredients.
“I don’t like to limit myself to a style,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m all about flavor and giving people the maximum (experience). Some chefs use spices subtly. I’m the total opposite. I want my food to punch you in the mouth. You should take a bite and say, ‘Wow.’”
Max has been spicing up his dishes at Maderas since October, when he joined the kitchen staff after working at Avant at Rancho Bernardo Inn. His culinary creations have often appeared as specials at Maderas and will soon be part of a new lunch menu the club is rolling out in the new year. A vegetarian sandwich Max created is especially anticipated by the regular guests.
Sandwiches and their role in his dishes are one of the things Max discussed about his cooking and career in an interview before the holiday that we present here as a Q & A.
You grew up in North County (Valley Center) San Diego and started cooking at an early age. What motivated you?
I have always loved cooking from the time when I was probably 8 years old. I’d jump in the kitchen with my parents and make whatever I could, like eggs. I was really lucky to grow up in a family that food was a big part of. Both my parents cook and do it very well, so they were a big influence. And we did things organically.
You took advantage of growing up on acreage. What did you enjoy about that?
That enabled us to have a nice garden and tons of fruit trees – oranges, peaches, plums, tangerines, guavas, avocados. There was a lot of experiment with.
I got my first kitchen job at 16 and every summer tried to get a job at a great restaurant and consequently had some amazing opportunities (including in Napa).
How does travel benefit you as a chef?
I take a lot of influence from my travels. For instance, when I think of cooking Mediterranean food, I think of cumin, coriander, paprika, cilantro, parsley and mint. And that’s how I think of places in the world, which I’m sure is what it’s like for all chefs. Then you branch out from there and be creative.
What’s different about cooking at Maderas for you?
It’s a completely different style of restaurant and cooking for me. I want to do things that get me excited and try some cool stuff but to also remember we have a traditional clientele base. I’m trying to find that right balance.
I have a background that’s exposed me to a lot of high-end food. It teaches you how to build flavor and think outside the box. I think from that background, I’ve grown a lot and eventually want to open my own restaurant and have it be a lot like Maderas, where we’re doing everything from scratch, from the sauces to the condiments.
How does the new vegetarian sandwich play into your cooking philosophy and creativity?
With my fine-dining background, I’ve developed a lot of ideas and techniques that I can bring to a place like (the Grille) to make quality food in an approachable way. That’s why I love sandwiches. You could put something on a sandwich that people haven’t tried before, but they’re more likely to try it because it’s in a food vehicle they’re familiar with.
The themed dinners at Maderas were one of the things that attracted you. How do you they challenge you as a chef?
I had a good time with the French dinner. I don’t tend to cook French, so that was fun. I made a lot of dishes that you don’t see here often, like duck confit. It involved a lot of interesting ingredients.
What overall do you value most about your opportunity at Maderas?
What attracted me is that I’d have a lot of creative freedom – and I have had that.
I’m able to really expand on anything I want and can experiment, especially with soups and tacos and try those as specials. That’s the creative freedom that really drew me.