Dale Rivas grew up in Nicaragua and came to New Orleans when he was 10. He became interested in cooking and currently works at Mister Mao while finishing a program at the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. He’s one of three students whose concepts were chosen for a NOCHI Food Hall, open to the public for lunch Nov. 4, 7-9, 11 and 14-16. His Petrona stand focuses on elevated Nicaraguan dishes. The other concepts are Johnny’s for barbecue and Kanpai for Japanese dishes. There also is a bar with cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks for each concept. The food hall is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and patrons can walk-in or make reservations via nochi.org/foodhall. Rivas spoke about his interest in cooking and Petrona.
Gambit: How did you get interested in cooking?
Dale Rivas: When I was a kid, my grandmother and my great auntie would cook on Sundays, because after church everybody was hungry. They always woke up at like 7 and started getting everything ready so they could be ready by noon and the family could come and eat and enjoy. They would cook things like arroz aguado, which is a type of rice that is made so it’s soft and watery like a soup. It has some type of pork. It’s a real traditional dish we’d eat on Sundays. Or we’d eat different varieties of tamales. Nacatamales are big ones. Some of the tamales are sweet, but they get a lot of flavor from the masa.
I would help my grandmother with the cooking. I would run around getting ingredients. The first thing I learned to cook was gallo pinto, which is rice and beans sauteed together. You can put onions, garlic and other things on them, but in my house, it was beans, rice and onion.
Gambit: When did you start working in restaurants?
Rivas: The first job I got was actually an accident. My mom was supposed to do desserts, but she wasn’t able to take the job. I was like, I want to work and have money in my pocket. She let me.
It was Clancy’s, and they taught me how to cook all the desserts — lemon pie, pecan pie, coconut pies. There was bread pudding, brownies and all the classic desserts. I also made ice cream. I’d make strawberry and blueberry sorbets, vanilla ice cream, pecan — that was delicious. They also did a great watermelon sorbet.
At Clancy’s, I moved around the kitchen. They moved me to the fry station, where I was frying soft-shell crabs, shrimp and oysters. Then they moved me to the grill and handling all of the meats. Then they moved me to the app station. I had more creativity there. I could do what I wanted with the sweetbreads. I could do whatever kind of sauce I wanted. The chef showed me how to make beurre blancs and other sauces. My favorite was a citrus beurre blanc, and I’d put that with the sweetbreads and butternut squash, broccolini and sauteed onions.
I was there a year and a half, and then six weeks ago I moved to Mister Mao. I am on the saute station. I do scallops, a lot of stir fries, sometimes I do dumplings. Sometimes I do the hot desserts. I am learning a lot. Mister Mao is fast paced, and chef Sophina (Uong) is giving me a lot of tips.
I met a graduate from (NOCHI) at Clancy’s. He told me it would be a great opportunity to learn.
The latest expansion of District Donuts-Sliders-Brew is a bit different.
Gambit: Tell us about Petrona.
Rivas: The name I came up with is Petrona, which is my grandmother’s name. She’s a big influence in why I cook. She’s my biggest fan. I send her photos of what I am doing, and it makes her happy and that makes me want to cook more. The pop-up is a chance to bring forward Nicaraguan dishes. There are some Nicaraguan restaurants here, but I want to elevate the dishes.
There are seven plates on the menu. The first dish is El Guardabarranco, named for the national bird of Nicaragua. It’s fried yuca with some rice paper cracklings. On top of that is going to be a salad of cabbage, carrots, onions and tomato vinaigrette. The yuca is boiled and fried so the middle is soft but all around it will be crunchy.
Nacatamales are traditional Nicaraguan tamales made of rice, tomatoes, potatoes and meat, which is pork most of the time. That’s what I am using, pork rib.
I am doing tostones. Usually, it’s a side. You can put them on the side of many plates. It’s like a tortilla — you can pick it up — but it’s fried plantains crushed and then fried again.
One dessert is going to be a push pop. It’s popular in Nicaragua. We’re making a habanero and mango sorbet. It’s like a popsicle with a wrapper that you push up.
One dessert that is a big part of Nicaragua is rosquillas. It’s a doughnut-shaped cheese and masa dish. We don’t have many resources (in Nicaragua), so we use as much as we can. We have a lot of corn. We have a lot of cows. We take the milk and make cheeses. We try to put it into foods, so we combine masa and cheese. You bake it and it has a crunch. Some rosquillas are sweet and some are cheesy. My favorites are the sweet ones. We’ll be doing both kinds.