Gilberto Cetina runs award-winning Holbox, but reluctantly found his way into the kitchen

Hosted by

Holbox, located in Mercado La Paloma, serves traditional Yucatán food, including ceviches and agua chiles. Photo by Peter Cheng.

Holbox, an island off of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, means "black hole" in Mayan. It's also the name of a restaurant in downtown’s Mercado La Paloma, where people line up to eat the tacos, ceviches, and aguachiles made by chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. Holbox was recently named the Los Angeles Times' 2023 Restaurant of the Year and Cetina was also a finalist at this year's James Beard Awards

In this week's edition of In the Weeds, he details his childhood, growing up between Orange County and Mexico. While living in the States, Cetina loved the meatloaf and mashed potatoes his mother made. But she also made traditional Yucátan food before the family moved back to Mexico, when Cetina was a teenager. 

My name is Gilberto Certina. I'm the chef and owner of Holbox in Mercado La Paloma and the chef owner of Chichén Itza, also at Mercado La Paloma, and I cook traditional Mexican food for a living.

I grew up in two places, Orange County and Mexico. I was born in Mexico and at the age of five, my family moved to the United States. We were here for eight years. When I was 13, I went back to Mexico. I'm very fond of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and all the stuff that my mom cooked while we were here, but she also cooked traditional Yucatán food. Ever since we moved back to Mexico, [when] I was 13, 14 years old, I was very drawn to street food there because I'd never really been exposed to street food like that in my life. I was fascinated by the flavors of things like cochinita pibil and panuchos and going to the markets and eating. 

"I'm very fond of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and all the stuff my mom cooked while we were here," says Gilberto Cetina, Jr., who split his youth between Orange County and Mexico. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Centina, Jr.

Seafood was not a huge part of my diet until I was around 16 or 17 years old. That's when I started diving with my cousins in Yucatán. After we would dive, we would prepare ceviche or cook octopus or the lobsters that we caught. That's really where my fascination with ultra fresh seafood began.

I came back to the US in 2000. I was 20 years old and I settled in Orange County, in the city of Costa Mesa. That's where my family, my mom and dad, were living. I came to help out my parents when they were going to start Chichén Itza restaurant. My household has always been a place where we used food to make ends meet. Cooking was always a side hustle that my parents did. It was tamales at church on the weekends and cochinita pibil on Sundays and panuchos out of the apartment. My sister and I were always involved in that. We were always tasked with things like shredding the chicken for the tamales.

After that, I really wanted to get away from cooking. It wasn't something that I saw myself doing. I didn't like it. As a kid, I would rather be doing anything else other than shredding chicken for tamales on a Saturday. I didn't really step back into a kitchen until a couple of years, maybe four or five years after we opened Chichén Itza is when I started cooking as an adult. So my beginnings in cooking were actually not with my dad. I was actually hiding it from my dad.

"As a kid, I would rather be doing anything else than shredding chicken for tamales on a Saturday," says Gilberto Cetina, Jr., who has garnered a James Beard Award nomination. Photo by Gabriel Carbajal.

In 2005, we opened a second restaurant, also called Chichén Itza. This one was in MacArthur Park. My dad stayed at the original location at Mercado La Paloma and I was in charge. I was managing the new restaurant. We hired a chef from Yucatán but he did things a little bit different from how my dad did them. So in my attempt to course correct how things were being done in the kitchen, I suddenly realized that I can't help out in the kitchen because I don't know what I'm doing. So I started with this sense of urgency, trying to learn how to cook on my own. For example, I would learn how to cut tomatoes. I would learn how to cut tomatoes so the next day I could go in the kitchen and show our chef how I wanted the tomatoes cut.

My dad would show up to the restaurant to check on things and he would find me in the kitchen. He was disapproving because I was supposed to be managing. That's how it began until one day, he finally said, "Hey, if this is really what you want to do, you got to do it right." He bought me some tools. He got me a chef's knife kit. Shortly after that, that restaurant closed. It failed. I went back to our original location with my dad and that's where I formally started training with him on traditional Yucatan food.

Gilberto Centina, Jr. (right) and his father in the early days of Chichén Itza, the training ground for the younger Cetina's culinary education. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Centina, Jr.

After years of operating Chichén Itza and exhausting all of the ideas I had for seafood specials, Chichén Itza was growing. It was getting more popular. The stalls in Mercado La Paloma are small. The space that eventually became Holbox became available. It was a bakery before and it had a small little bar area in the front. I'm like, well, that would be really nice to do a little ceviche bar. The idea was, can we use these ingredients that are typically not seen at mariscos spots? And by that, I don't mean shrimp or fish, I just mean a certain quality of ingredients. When I was diving as a teenager, the product that we had was amazing because it was coming out of the water super fresh. It's also the experiences that I'd had at small beachside restaurants in Yucatán or small roadside seafood stands in Baja California. 

The obstacle here was price. These items were expensive. We were creating a menu that we knew was going to be received initially as an expensive seafood option. When we were sourcing ingredients, we would reach out to purveyors and say, "Hey, I'm looking for spiny lobster or Maine scallops. They would ask, "What kind of concept are you doing?" I would say, "Well, it's a Mexican spot," and they would offer me alternatives. Instead of offering me the live spiny lobster, they would offer me frozen Australian lobster tails. I'm like, no, that's not that's not what we want to use.

Cetina works to procure the freshest ingredients for his menu. Photo by Christopher Diaz.

We also realized that if we're buying a whole fish from these purveyors and it's a beautiful fish, it's a beautiful product and it's not cheap, we better figure out a way to use the entire thing. That's where certain menu items came about, from the necessity of using the entire fish. Things like our kanpachi sausage or smoked fish tacos are just how do we utilize 100% of the product?

I think what my father feels about the accolades that Holbox has received recently, I think he's really proud that I continued in his footsteps. My dad is not someone who expresses his emotions too openly. But on our recent trip to Chicago for the James Beard Awards, we sat down and we had a conversation. He expressed openly, for one of the first times in my life, how proud he was of the work that I was doing. And that was very nice.

If you were to come to Holbox today, you need to try the taco de pulpo en su tinta, which is octopus in its own ink. In general, the pulpo en su tinta is a traditional Yucatán-style recipe. It's one of the recipes that we have at Holbox that is more clearly tied to Yucatán-style seafood. It's a recipe I learned from my dad while we were at Chichén Itza. It's a recipe that's really important for me because it's one of the first things that I tried that my dad made at Chichén Itza that really blew me away and I was like, "Oh, damn, Dad. You can cook!" So that's a recipe that I learned from him. Sorry, Dad, I have modified it a little bit at this point to suit my tastes a little bit more and to also suit the taco format, which is how we decided to serve it.

Another item that I highly recommend is the smoked kanpachi taco. For this recipe, we smoke the heads of the fish. We accumulate all the heads for a few days from all the kanpachi that we're breaking down for tacos and for ceviche. They're hot-smoked with applewood. Once it's fully cooked and smoked, we pick all the meat off the heads and we make what's called the guisado. We basically stew the meat with chilies and aromatics and herbs. It ends up being like a smoked fish spread. From there we make the taco, a beautiful heirloom corn tortilla with locally made Oaxaca cheese and the smoked kanpachi. It's folded like a quesadilla and we serve it with a peanut salsa macha. It's one of my favorite things to eat.