Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Don't prejudge the chef!

Frequently, the CC is asked what kind of food he enjoys cooking, and the answer is all kinds. For those, you have visited the CC, you're aware that the shelves are groaning with cook books, and technique manuals.

In fact, the CC would argue that technique (or the science of food) is far more useful than just reading recipes because one can extract the key idea rather than the specifics of a culinary tradition (which does not mean that the latter is not important -- it is supremely so, as well!)

There was a recent article in the New York Times that sums this up: A Yankee Chef With a Mexican Flavor.

ON a train from Dublin to Shannon recently, I struck up a conversation with an elderly man sitting across from me.

“What do you do?” he asked, recognizing my American accent.

“I’m a chef.”

“What kind of food.”

“Mexican,” I replied.


He chewed on that for a few seconds. A Yankee making Mexican food? How could I pretend to know about Mexican food?

Sure, Americans traveling abroad expect to be treated like pariahs these days. But I get more than my fair share because I’m the ultimate outsider: a Yankee who prepares Mexican food. And who also happens to have a Swedish surname.

Mexicans are particularly suspicious. I was recently asked to judge a competition for young chefs in Mexico City, the Joven Chef Mexicano. Oddly, they hadn’t scheduled me for any of the sessions, so I just wandered around the competition, trying to make conversation with the other chefs.

But no one would talk to me. They just looked at me as if to say, “What’s this Yankee doing here?” I felt like an interloper.

Then Guillermo González Beristain, one of the most reputable chefs in Mexico, greeted me. Guillermo had also attended my alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, and within a few minutes, we were having an animated conversation. Suddenly, everyone else warmed up to me, too. I felt as if I was surrounded by friends.

Why do I specialize in Mexican cuisine? Because it’s some of the most diverse food on the planet. It’s complex, it’s often a challenge to prepare, and it’s delicious. Being an outcast is a small price to pay for that kind of culinary calling.

I’m even willing to sustain some friendly fire. At the annual Hispanic Children and Families fund-raiser, which benefits underprivileged Hispanic children, I set up a table for our restaurant. There’s an elite group of Latin American chefs that also participate in the event. I’m always cast as the outsider by them.

Last year, I made cochinita pibil, a traditional pork dish from Yucatán, with plantains, pickled onions, habanero chiles and tortillas. The chefs would come by the table, help themselves to the samples, whisper something to each other and leave. But at least they were eating.

Mexicans are perplexed that anyone would want to develop an expertise in cooking their food. South of the border, the chefs usually specialize in Spanish or French food, although lately, Mexican cuisine has been getting a lot more respect.

On a recent visit to the Vendimia Wine Festival in Ensenada, I met several Mexicans who didn’t get it. Unfortunately, they were border guards in Tijuana. I was trying to bring supplies across the border to cook a trio of ceviche — marinated raw fish in lime — and duck carnitas with mole coloradito, for the festival’s gala dinner. When the guards saw the food, they turned me back.

“Please,” I begged them, “It’s for an important dinner.”

But the idea of an American preparing Mexican food was so odd that they figured we had to be up to no good. Seeing the impasse, I tried a last-ditch effort. I dropped a name.

“The governor of Baja California will be there,” I said.

The guards conferred with one another. An American cooking Mexican food — for the governor? It sounded so preposterous, it had to be true.

“Señor,” said the guard. “You may go.”

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