Maria Oseguera 

Chef, Maya Mexican Grill & Tequila Lounge

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

As a child in Colombia, Maria Oseguera learned to cook while her mother worked long hours. That started a lifelong curiosity about flavors and the power of cooking, which allowed a self-described introvert to please others through food. Now married to a restaurant executive, with in-laws whose cooking skills are "amazing," she says, "It's exciting and very humbling for me to have people enjoy what I do." She and her husband moved with their three children from Queens to Richmond two years ago, and opened their Short Pump restaurant intent on showing how Mexicans actually eat, which is "not necessarily a crispy taco shell with lots of ground beef and lots of cheese," she says. "There's so much more to Mexican food. That is what we're trying to bring with our restaurant, our culture."

Flavors that demonstrate her approach: Mexican food isn't all about hot, spicy, salty and greasy. Here they'll experience fresh ingredients like tomatillo, citrusy and tart, a little heat from the poblano, more of a mild pepper. There are so many ways of working it, smoking brings out the sweetness. Cilantro oil, a very light, beautiful flavor for the chile rellenos. Pomegranates — a nice pop of crunch, and sweet, tart flavor that blends very well with the mole, for example. It's actually a very common ingredient in Mexico but people aren't used to seeing it in Mexican cuisine. I love mole, made from scratch in house, and that is one of my babies as well ... It's a beautiful mix of flavors that I have, about 32 ingredients, a very complex sauce, very labor-intensive ... all of the roasted peppers, raisins, almonds, sweet plantain, a hint of chocolate, it's delicious.

The starting months weren't easy: When we first opened the restaurant it could have been discouraging to think that this is not the kind of food people here are looking for, but we didn't give up. We said this is who we are, and taking a step back, just continuing with what we believe we wanted to share and what we want our restaurant to be. It's our motivation to not get discouraged, and just continue to make it better and be patient and hope it grows, instead of going backwards in what you've worked so hard to create.

Feedback helps improve their game: The best feeling for me is to see guests return because they enjoyed what they had the last time they were here, so they say: "Whatever you're doing I trust. I want to have everything on the menu," and to have something different every time because they want to experience it.

What makes it a worthwhile career: Our busy nights are pretty crazy, delegating who's going to be where and making sure everything is prepped, tasting all the dressings, making sure the meat and fish is fresh and prepared and ready to be done, it's a lot back there for sure. I love being busy and creating and putting things together — it just gets your blood going and wakes you up for sure, trying to get everything done and for everything to be smooth.

Going bold was a decorative departure from the usual here: It was a lot of fun putting everything together, and a little scary thinking of all of these colors. I think it says Mexico, this is what you see — a little hot pink house, and a blue house with a yellow window. That's how the neighborhoods are, very colorful and happy. That's why we chose these colors. Being a little tucked away, it has been a challenge letting people know where we are. We have to work extra hard to let people know.

Interviewed by Deveron Timberlake

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