“Mine is the antithesis of the typical chef back story – I was an extremely picky eater; just didn’t care about or even much like food. Eating was a chore for me,” recalls Danny Mena, now one of New York City’s top Mexican chefs at Hecho en Dumbo and Sembrado.
A Mexico City native, Mena studied engineering at Virginia Tech, but found himself so curious about food that he often hosted dinner parties for college friends, delighting in exposing them to real Mexican dishes. In 2004, Mena moved to New York City to pursue his engineering degree, but realized quickly he wanted to cook. In March 2005, he enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. During his tenure at FCI, Mena interned at Blue Hill before taking on his first professional culinary job at The Modern. Mena left The Modern when a friend, Ethan Smith, asked him if he would like to add a Mexican food element to a bar he planned to open at Brooklyn’s Dumbo General Store. The collaboration opened as Hecho en Dumbo.
Initially, Mena was only cooking on weekends. Within three months, the business demanded Mena’s food six days a week and expansion of the two-man team. “Hecho en Dumbo was earning a reputation for being a pioneer in presenting authentic quality Mexican food in New York City. We decided we should honor the food and its culture, so we spent about a year looking for a space we could fashion to our requirements.” Having found that space at 354 Bowery, Mena and Smith opened Hecho en Dumbo’s successor in March of 2010 with a small plates-oriented menu devoted to a contemporary Mexico City cuisine. The restaurant continued to be well received by the media, earning four stars from Time Out New York, among other accolades from The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times, and The Village Voice.
By late 2012, thinking about a new concept involving grilled meat tacos, Mena opened his next project: Sembrado, a Mezcaleria serving tacos al carbon with a menu Mena says would be at home in Mexico City. A tribute to the taco with a New York sensibility, Sembrado can be found at 432 East 13th Street.