When he was just five years old, Octavio Diaz was burned by a kettle of hot milk while watching his mother make hot chocolate over their open-flamed adobe oven. Despite the pain to his chest and arms, Diaz stuck by his mother's side, absorbing her techniques, her recipes—and mostly, her passion.
"We are the first generation of men in my family who love to cook," he says of himself and his brothers.
For the past decade, the Diaz family has steadily climbed the culinary ladder in Healdsburg, where they now own two restaurants and a market. Diaz's brother Pedro runs El Farolito on Plaza Street, having started as a dishwasher eight years ago; his youngest brother, Francisco, runs a second location in Windsor. On Cinco de Mayo 2010, Diaz opened Agave Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Healdsburg's Safeway shopping center, a location that belies the restaurant's gastronomic sophistication.
And just this past August, with a music- and masquerade-filled celebration, Diaz opened Casa del Molé Mercado y Carniceria on Center Street (formerly Los Mares), named for his mother Juana's increasingly famous mole negro, which she makes from scratch weekly. Every few months, Diaz's parents return to the Zocalo market in their native Oaxaca to procure several of the 32 total ingredients—which include plantains, walnuts, animal crackers, chocolate, and a variety of chiles—that give mole its distinct flavor.
Passed down through four generations of Oaxacan women, Juana's unique recipe contains no lard or sugar, though she does use local Gravenstein apples and golden raisins for sweetness. The entire process takes about three days, from the first roasting of the chiles to the final jarring of the sauce, which is available for purchase at Casa del Molé ($12.99 for a 16-ounce jar). "One of our secrets," Diaz confides, "is to remove all the seeds from the peppers, because they are bitter. It takes a lot of work, but it's worth it."
Hard work comes naturally to Diaz, for whom success is the only option. "I cannot fail," he tells me matter-of-factly. As the oldest of seven siblings, he feels the pressure of being a leader for his family, many of whom have gained citizenship over the past decade, and whose generosity made his restaurant dream a reality. "In this economy, our family is our bank," says Diaz, "which allows us to stay out of debt and not pay interest."