Chef Chat: Jason Tilford Turns Corn into Masa and Water into Wine

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click to enlarge Jason Tilford and his son, Julian. | Jennifer Silverberg
Jason Tilford and his son, Julian. | Jennifer Silverberg

Chef Jason Tilford is not one to rest on his laurels. The owner and chef's burgeoning food empire -- Mission Taco Joint, Milagro Modern Mexican, Tortillatia, Barrister's -- certainly keeps him on his toes, but Tilford is always pushing toward the next thing. Not only is he busy getting ready for the opening of Mission Taco Joint's second location in Soulard, but he is also innovating the way he makes his tortillas. Apparently, freshly made is not good enough for Tilford, so he acquired a commissary kitchen and masa-making equipment.

"We are going to start cooking the corn for our homemade tortillas," Tilford says. "It's a process called nixtamalization where corn is slowly cooked and soaked with lime to remove the indigestible hull. It's then passed through volcanic stone and ground into a dough used to make tortillas, tamales and chips."

Tilford's will be the first operation in town to cook corn for masa and plans to use it not only in his restaurants, but to distribute it to other local establishments. As if having the freshest tortillas around wasn't reason enough to make his own masa, Tilford touts another benefit. "We have sourced a local farm that will provide us with the corn to limit the carbon footprint."

Tilford took time away from his masa-making machine to share his thoughts on the "sexy-hot" St. Louis food scene, which local chef catches his eye and his fondness for sports-themed tearjerkers.

See Also: Mission Taco Joint Coming to Soulard

What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? I have a sensitive side, and I always cry at the end of emotional sports movies like The Karate Kid, Rudy, A League of Their Own and RAD.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Stretching. At my accelerated age, the long hours of cooking, playing soccer and skateboarding is finally catching up to me and my back. A daily stretch, usually in the morning, is crucial to a productive day.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? It would have to be turning water into wine. And, yes, that would be a superpower.

What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? I think it's great that so many chefs that used to do higher-end, white-table-cloth fare are now doing more approachable humble concepts. It's like they're trading in the toques for a T-shirt. Barbecue, pizza, pasta...tacos. And it goes great with all of the local craft-beer brewers.

Who is your St. Louis food crush? Cassy Vires. We have a lot in common, including our love of food and the color purple.

Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? This used to be easier to answer, and isn't it great that now it's so hard with all the talented people in St. Louis? We should feel lucky to be able to watch them all.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? The ancho chile. At first look it's dry, shriveled and crusty around the edges. But once you toast it and soak it in warm water it explodes with layers of smoky flavor and earthiness with a little spice.

If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? hot. So many great things are happening right now in St. Louis at all levels. From the great coffee shops to the craft brewers, the local farmers, the bakeries and doughnut makers, great barbecue and pizza everywhere, the wine shops and gourmet food markets -- and of course Mai Lee.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. Pessimism.

What is your after-work hangout? With our fifth restaurant on the horizon there never seems to be an "after work" hangout. It seems most of the time is spent working, or at home. However, one of my favorite social indulgences that is like none other is hanging out with the soccer guys at Barrister's and having a beer during big games. The amount of entertaining verbal garbage to be heard is second to none.

What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? Pizza! Neapolitan pizza, with a tender thin crust, wood fired with a thin layer of sauce, quality cheese and fresh herbs.

What would be your last meal on earth? This is always a tough decision. Either chitarra or chitarra with clams at Pastaria, depending on my pre-death mood. It's a perfectly balanced, wonderfully simple dish that I always eat too much of at one sitting, but it's the last meal, so what the hell.

Follow Cheryl Baehr on Twitter at @CherylABaehr. E-mail the author at [email protected].

About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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