Food + Drink

What Does Bäco Mean? A Letter from Chef Josef Centeno

Visually stunning and conceptually fresh, Bäco is the cookbook of the season from Josef Centeno—the chef and owner of Bâco Mercat, Bar Amá, Orsa & Winston, Ledlow, and P.Y.T. In Bäco, he draws on his multicultural heritage, formal training in top-notch restaurants such as Manresa and Daniel, a lifelong obsession with cookbooks, and his insatiable curiosity.

Centeno’s cooking layers textures and explores how spices and sauces can be used to transform the most basic vegetables. Recipes span from simple to show stopping, exploring sauces, soups, mains, salads, and desserts, too.

Baco by Josef Centeno

What does Bäco mean? It’s more than the title of a cookbook or the name of my restaurant. For me it has come to mean flavor—lots of flavor.

Bäco originally referred to a flatbread sandwich that I made for staff meals after a long night of cooking on the line. I was the chef at a Mediterranean restaurant, and there were always fresh flatbreads, lots of sauces (like Spanish romesco and salbixtada), grilled or roasted or braised meats, and fresh herbs and leafy greens.

We craved pickled vegetables and spicy sauces and lots of texture: crunchy, crispy, creamy. The sandwich was filled with everything we loved to eat and cook, wrapped up in soft, fluffy flatbread. Any of the cooks or servers still around at the end of the night would meet at the bar for a sandwich. We called it a “global taco” because of the way it was folded, but immediately scrapped that name. I shortened it to “globaco,” which was worse. And then came up with “Bäco,” which stuck.

Baco_flatbread

Years later when I opened my own restaurant, I initially thought it would be a sandwich shop—Bäco Mercat (Bäco for the sandwich and mercat meaning “market”). But it turned out to be a full-fledged restaurant with an always growing menu, where we’d spin out lots of flavors that were a mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, North African, and Asian cuisines. Pozole turned into a harissa-spiced soup with house-made ramen noodles, and crudo was dressed with a version of the Georgian sauce adjika. The Ethiopian hot sauce kochkocha became one of our favorite condiments.

I think Bäco became an emblem of the way I cook and think about flavors. Maybe it’s an imagined word for an imagined cuisine. That’s where cooking starts for me—the imagination. When I was a kid reading cookbooks, I came across something the French chef André Soltner wrote: “When I start to cook something, I already have in my mouth, and in my mind, the taste of what I am cooking. It is like a dream, a dream of what the food is going to be.” That stuck with me. Cooking was my dream, and dreaming was cooking.

Baco_Josef

It took me beyond what I already knew and where I’d already been. I didn’t get to travel a lot when I was younger—I was always working, a lot of hours in demanding restaurant kitchens. I had only cooking and books. The cultures and traditions and ingredients I read about were what inspired me most.

At the same time I was encouraged as an aspiring chef to develop my own style. That’s the goal when you work your way through the brigade system, from commis (basically a grunt) all the way to executive chef. You learn and you soak it all in and come out of it with your own way of doing things.

I think Bäco means finding your way to new flavors. I hope that’s what Bäco—whether the restaurant or the sandwich or the book—inspires.

Josef Centeno

Josef Centeno is a James Beard–nominated chef and owner of five restaurants in downtown Los Angeles: Bâco Mercat, Bar Amá, Orsa & Winston, Ledlow, and P.Y.T.

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