Jonathan Magallanes: Making those flavors work 

Of motorcycles and mole sauces — Jonathan Magallanes shakes up the menu at Las Tortugas.

Photographs by Michael Donahue

Of motorcycles and mole sauces — Jonathan Magallanes shakes up the menu at Las Tortugas.

Jonathan Magallanes is a big dog rider in the kitchen. With warp speed he can whip up a mole or a salsa.

Instead of roosting in crash padding on a superslab, Magallanes is in a chef's jacket working at breakneck speed at the stove.

An avid motorcyclist (hence the lingo), Magallanes, 42, who got his first motorcycle when he was five years old, is chef/owner with his dad, Pepe Magallanes, of Las Tortugas restaurant.

Born in Memphis but living for a while in Mexico City, Jonathan rode his little yellow 50-cylinder Yamaha, participated in Boy Scouts, practiced piano, and took karate.

Cooking sparked his interest after he made a pizza in an extracurricular cooking class at St. George's Independent School. He remembered "preparing food being this exciting, really creative thing" when he lived in Mexico. "My dad was in the kitchen doing a million things at once and preparing food for a lot of different people. The kitchen was a fun place to be."

Jonathan thought, "I can do this. This is something I have complete creative liberty with."

He didn't pursue cooking. "With so many things going on, I think it sort of went on the back burner — no pun intended — for a long time."

He went to Mexico for a year of school when he was at Kenyon College. "We went to Africa and Greece and Western Europe. I think that trip was really where I sort of discovered this exciting world of food and exotic food. I really think I developed a love of food in a new way."

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After graduating with a business degree, Jonathan moved to Naples, Florida, where his parents lived, and got a job in sales with a paint company. He also waited tables at high-end restaurants.

His parents moved back to Memphis, where his dad opened Las Tortugas. Jonathan also returned, but he wanted Memphis to be a home base to network and do resumes.

While helping his dad at Las Tortugas, Jonathan "saw this book on Mexican cooking that was in the office and was just flipping through it. I came across a dish called Mole Verde, which is a green mole that has pumpkin seeds, and it was really exciting to me. I think the fact that it had a ton of ingredients. Then it was really up to you to make all those flavors work. It was also exotic. Sort of rustic."

They served it as a special. "One of the first people who had it was a lady. And she said, 'That's one of the best moles I've ever had in my life.' When she said that, it was this jolt of electricity and I felt alive in a way that, professionally, I had not really had. It was such a great feeling that I wanted to feel it again."

He decided to go into the restaurant business with his dad, who let him "change the menu in ways that we both agreed on. I wanted to add more variety to it. Add more depth to it. Maybe add some things that people aren't familiar with. Like moles that are done with seeds and nuts and not chocolate. I trusted my intuition. I thought that if I really liked something, people are going to like it."

His style became dishes with a "ton of flavor" but light and colorful. "At the same time being traditional."

In 2014, Jonathan was invited by Felicia Willett, owner of Felicia Suzanne's restaurant, to be included in a team to cook at the James Beard House. "That was, in many ways, a career-defining experience. The friendship and respect of all your peers is what it's all about. It keeps me motivated to do the best job that I can. And to know that you're part of a community of people who are really trying to change how people perceive Memphis. They really are proud that they're from Memphis. And proud that Memphis is up and coming as a food town."

Jonathan's contribution to that James Beard dinner was the same Mole Verde recipe he discovered in a cookbook years before. "It was really the dish that set off my culinary journey."

Las Tortugas, 1215 S. Germantown, 751-1200

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