Chef José Ramón Castillo, premier chocolate maker and proprietor of the extraordinary chocolate shop and restaurant QueBo! in Mexico City's Centro Histórico, opened the talks for Mesamérica Day Four with a demonstration that left the entire audience wishing for just one of his gorgeous bonbons.
Chef José Ramón prepared a dish of modernized and deconstructed tacos al pastor: roasted and fire-grilled pork perched on a tostada ring, a side of grilled pineapple, and the traditional accompaniments (chile serrano, radishes, cilantro, and onion). The meat is topped with a warmed white chocolate bonbon filled with the gelatinized juices of the roasted pork. The detailed preparation and presentation made everyone's mouth water as the fragrances of this spectacular dish wafted through the auditorium.
The much-anticipated talk and presentation by chef Rick Bayless was absolutely worth the wait. Since opening Frontera, his first Chicago restaurant, Chef Rick has refined both his culinary style and his understanding of authenticity. His delineation (in Spanish) of thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas kept the crowd's attention to the end.
He initially outlined four specific challenges to the home cook or restaurant chef who wants to prepare "authentic" Mexican food.
- Outside Mexico, Mexican food is commonly understood to be 'fast food'. Other than typical antojitos (little whims, generally corn masa based) Mexican food eaten in Mexico is very slow food.
- Many of Mexico's fundamental ingredients are not available worldwide, although some (such as tomate verde (tomatillos) and masa de maíz (prepared corn dough) are accessible in parts of the United States.
- It is necessary to achieve the flavors of Mexican dishes and then balance them.
- The old concept of authenticity includes: (1) ingredients imported from Mexico; (2) old traditional recipes; and (3) no interference by the cook--in other words, no 'tweaking' the original recipes.
Let's take a look at the example of transformation that Chef Rick prepared at Mesamérica.
A traditional tlayuda oaxaqueña has a very large toasted corn base, similar to a tostada. The base is topped with frijolitos negros refritos (refried black beans) and lots of quesillo (Oaxaca cheese). The toppings of the tlayuda pictured above also include chorizo (spicy pork sausage, fried), sliced avocado, and crumbled queso fresco (a white cheese). Photo courtesy Nileguide.
Chef Rick then outlined his new--or perhaps better said, current--concept of authenticity.
- the dish uses seasonal ingredients from the cook's surroundings
- it expresses a deep understanding of culture, environment, or craft. It focuses on the delicious and seduces the diner
- the best authentic food always seduces
Chef Rick then proceeded to demonstrate his expression of the typical Oaxacan tlayuda. While it contains ingredients that are similar to those we think of as traditional, it is served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. Frankly, folks, Mexico Cooks! is not convinced. The flavor combination and complexity may be similar, but if you've been to Oaxaca and what you crave is a tlayuda, this isn't it.
Rick Bayless gave a tremendous presentation that left me and the rest of the audience--about 2,000 people strong--both impressed with his thought processes and re-thinking what our own concepts are. In June 2012, the Mexican government honored him with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest award that Mexico can give to a foreigner. The award was given "for his important work in the promotion and dissemination of cultural expressions of our country, internationally recognized, as is the national cuisine in general and Mexican cuisine in particular." Congratulations, and so well deserved!
Chef Alejandro Ruiz explains a fine point of dinner preparation at his restaurant Casa Oaxaca, in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a delight to see and hear Chef Alejandro working on the Mesamérica stage. His talk focussed on clay and corn.
The setup for his demonstration involved hauling a Oaxacan hornilla (cookstove) all the way from Oaxaca. The hornilla is similar to this fogón--along with its built-in clay comal (griddle)--used in Michoacán.
One of the dishes that Chef Alejandro Ruiz prepared during his demonstration: mero (grouper), brushed with a sauce, wrapped in hoja santa (a subtle anise-flavored fresh leaf), then wrapped again in banana leaf, and finally wrapped in a thick 'tortilla' of clay and baked in the embers of the hornilla. The fish is presented to the diner still in its clay wrap, along with a stone. At table, use the stone to break open the clay wrap and release the fragrance and flavors of the fish. Gorgeous!
John Sconzo is an anesthesiologist by profession and a photographer by avocation. Photo courtesy Peter Merelis.
After years of Internet friendship--we travel in similar online food circles--I was happy to meet John Sconzo, a long-time food aficionado. I asked what he thought about Mesamérica. He said, "I came to Mesamérica because I like cultures that are different from mine, from the food to the art to the whole environment. Here, I heard so much optimism, felt so much energy. The chefs are at once localists and globalists, and no one idea prevails, unless it is to preserve and support traditional cuisine. This has definitely not been one-sided; everything from traditional preparation to the most modern cuisine has been represented. I loved it."
There was more, much, much more--too much to report, to tell you the truth. Among the talks I didn't mention here: biologists Edelmira Linares and Robert Bye, designer Héctor Esrawe, Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, and Chef Oswaldo Olivia, all from Mexico City, and Chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Chile, all of whom knocked my socks off. I've left out the final presentation, given by Albert Adrià (brother of that other Adrià), who will soon be opening a restaurant in Mexico City. Honestly, the three and a half day conference, with a new and fascinating speaker every 30 minutes, left me fascinated but exhausted.
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