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Mexico City's new wave of chefs generates heat


rjwong
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This is a Los Angeles Times Food Section article (Wed. 23 Feb. 2005), Mexico City's new wave of chefs generates heat / by Corie Brown.

As per the article, Mexico City's Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, with mostly under-40 upper-class young Mexican professionals, are filled with "sidewalk cafes serving cuisines from around the globe — and Mexican food that doesn't remind them of their mother's."

Previously, eating Mexican food in Mexico was done at home. Now, Guillermo Osorno, the editorial director of dF, the capital's city magazine, says that going out to eat at a restaurant is a cultural change.

"Now we have a kind of Mexican food that you can only find in restaurants. That's new."

Gabriela Camara, a 29-year-old entrepreneur who opened up Contramar, is part of a new generation of Mexican chefs (mostly female).

"My generation is willing to be Mexican without being traditional.”

Diana Kennedy, the British-born author of "The Art of Mexican Cooking," describes this trend as "barbaric" and "absurd." However, Kennedy is not totally dismissive of this latest movement.

These are some of the high points of the article. Basically, my question is:

Does this article, in its entirety, give an accurate picture of what is going on in the high-end Mexican restaurant scene? If so, to what extent is it "making waves" in Mexico? In the United States? And any more comments from Diana Kennedy?

Gracias.

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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Thanks for the article. Very fascinating. I was in D.F. in December. Unfortunately, the restaurants I wanted to eat in were closed for holdiays.

I see nothing wrong with this new wave. It's happening in other parts of the world, why should we try and hold innovation back in Mexico?

I loved the quote from Camara, saying she consults Kennedy's books. I think that is a very impressive statement about Kennedy's tireless work.

Diana Kennedy's comments might have been taken out of context, but my oh my isn't she crotchedy these days? And it's too bad she wasn't available for more comment.

There are a few of you posters out there living in D.F. What do you think?

Shelora

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I'll be in D.F. in a week, and I spoke to one of my friends there yesterday, who wanted to take me to her favorite seafood restaurant (I forget the name at the moment, but will ask her when I speak to her again), but I believe she said it is open only for lunch. She said it has the best seafood in D.F., and I think it is either in Polanco or Condesa. I might go there on my own, since I won't be available on a Saturday to go with my friend.

The friends I do have in D.F. really appreciate having new varieties of food available to them. I don't think that the traditional style is in danger of disappearing, since it is so prevalent. My friend Michelle took me to a traditional upper class family restaurant in Col. Roma last time, and I found it a bit bland and boring, but there were plenty of very Spanish/European looking families dining there. There is no reason IMO that Mexican food should remain static and that it should not continue to evolve and diversify. In the more remote regions of Mexico, the traditional methods will survive and probably change very little. You have to expect a huge city to be able to support more variety and still not endanger the traditional ways. There's plenty of room for all, I think. The upper class will remain fickle.

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The LA Times article was filled with silly inaccuracies on every level....I won't even get into it... There is no reason for a cuisine not to evolve, but sometimes "fusion" can be an ill-used concept producing stupid, thoughtless, provincial ideas in food for the sake of pretension, "new" for the sake of "new". Diana Kennedy is a traditionalist, keeper of the flame, and we should forgive her opinionated-ness. Some of the food, chefs and restaurants that they mention and write about are great, and the revival of interest in Mexican food as a cuisine, here in Mexico, is healthy and thriving. See Rachel Laudan's wonderful piece about the Mexican Culinary establishment in our archives. And I've also had awful, ill-conceived dishes here - I mean oysters with chipotle blah blah...FEH! oysters shouldn't be smothered with anything strong like that! (sound opinionated?)

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The LA Times article was filled with  silly inaccuracies on every level....I won't even get into it... 

nickarte, I would appreciate what those "silly inaccuracies" are, por favor. When I was reading the LA Times article, I was intrigued by what was going on, as per the LA Times. Mind you, I wanted to make sure what the LAT was writing was accurate. So, I posted this thread. I figured that eGullet members would have the "real scoop" on what's going on in the D.F. Is LAT sensationalizing on the "it's not my grandmother's cooking"-type of Mexican cuisine? Do you find that these new chefs are trying to find their niche by "experimenting" or doing a culinary "hit-and-miss?" I don't know the answers. Perhaps I'm not asking the right questions.

So, please, nickarte and others, help me out! Gracias.

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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My goodness, where should I begin? Yes, there is a restaurant boom in the yuppie parts of Mexico City. For Condessa and Colonia Roma, just listen to Nickarte because he spends a good bit of his time there.

So far as new-wave Mexican restaurants go, there are two overlapping groups involved. One is a group of well-to-do women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have opened their own restaurants: Patricia Quintana, Martha Chapa, Margarita Salinas, Mónica Patiño.

The second is a group of professional chefs, mostly men, often working for others, many trained by or associated with Ricardo Muñoz: Alejandro Curi, Gerardo Rivera, Abdiel Cervantes, Roberto Santibañez, Josefina Santacruz, Federico López, etc. They are the products of culinary schools. There are about 40 in Mexico City most of which offer not only classic chef training but also history and techniques of Mexican cooking.

I know every generation defines itself against its parents but the idea that the first group of women restaurant owners and the yuppies who dine in their restaurants are “better educated and more worldly than their parents” is, I think, either the hubris of youth or an invention of Corie Brown. Imagine a Mexican saying of the American restaurant scene “this group is better educated and more worldly than Julia Child and her followers who only offered bland flavors.” Thirty or forty ago a particular kind of subtly-flavored “French” food was what was sophisticated. Now it’s “bold” flavors. That’s fashion not progress (except insofar as our repertoire is getting bigger).

In fact, the women restaurant owners are repeating the pattern of earlier generations. Before them came women who promoted Mexican cuisine, including Alicia de Angeli, (who pioneered high end Mexican restaurants), Lula Bertrán, María Orsini, María Dolores Yzabal, Lila Lomelí, etc. Most of their work was in trying to improve restaurant standards, promoting Mexican food in the US, organizing food festivals, writing books, collecting regional recipes. But in their day it was not chic to open restaurants.

They in turn followed earlier generations of Mexican women such as Josefina Velázquez de León, Adela Hernández, Frida Kahlo who also reinvented Mexican food. But they too worked largely around the home.

To my mind the most promising trend is the growth in culinary schools and professionals trained in Mexican cooking to staff restaurants.

A variety of factors contribute to this. Among them:

The rapid growth of culinary tourism. This has created a need and an opportunity for restaurants. As the article says, Mexican food was at its best in private homes and private clubs (someday I’ll do another rant on why it is weird and unusual in human history to look for good cooking in restaurants). Perhaps so many foreigners think that street food was the heart of Mexican cooking because they never had the chance to experience home cooking.

The rising status of the chef. This has made it chic to open a restaurant or go to culinary school.

The support of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Council on Culture and the Arts (Conaculta) and of the various tourism agencies for research, travel and promotion of Mexican food.

The difficulty of going home for the midday meal, given Mexico City traffic.

New possibilities with spin offs (cookbooks, branded products, visits to the culinary schools for foreign tourists that are springing up like mushrooms, tours for foreign tourists).

Is this making waves in the provinces? No. Of course the provinces are subject to the same trends as the rest of Mexico. But there is no national food press. Even if there were, the provinces regard chilangos (the inhabitants of Mexico City) with deep suspicion. And chilangos would rather die than end up in the provinces except in a circle of chic satellite weekend retreat places such as Valle del Bravo, Tepotzlán, Cuernavaca, Tequisquiapan, perhaps SMA, etc.

Is this making waves elsewhere? It probably will because people from the US are looking for chefs for “interior Mexican” restaurants and for culinary experiences when they go to Mexico.

And what about Diana Kennedy? Of course she’s testy. It’s been her trademark for years and is part of her wonderful perfectionism. She has done a terrific job collecting recipes and interpreting them for an American audience. She is honored in Mexico for promoting Mexican food abroad.

But she has not “rescued” Mexican food as the blurb on her recent book says, she has not been the only or even the primary collector of recipes, she must know but does little to inform on the history of Mexican cooking, and she has not done anything to promote Mexican food in Mexico itself.

All that has been done for at least the last half century by Mexicans and it continues to be done by Mexicans. After all, how did DK find most of her recipes? When Mónica Patiño said to the reporter that they looked to the works of Diana Kennedy, I assume that she was replying to a leading question in the polite way that Mexicans do. I would venture to say that although food professionals in Mexico all know of Diana Kennedy, the hundreds of thousands of educagted women who still turn out superb meals on a daily basis have never heard of her.

End of rant, as Esperanza would say.

Rachel

Rachel Caroline Laudan

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Aguas, allí viene la rantista...

Carolina, thanks for the credit. And thanks especially to you and Nick for the well-considered posts in response to the LATimes article. I've also been pondering it.

I think there's nothing wrong with experimenting with the cuisines of Mexico. Worldly young chefs have experimented with most world cuisines--Pan-asian, Pacific Rim, French/Basque, etc. I myself have occasionally shopped for supper and sighed, 'How I wish someone would invent a new vegetable.'

'Fusion' cuisines seem to be all the rage in many 21st Century kitchens, but as a friend of mine says, 'fusion' is all too easily translated 'confusion'. Experimental cuisine such as that found at El Bulli is exciting, it's electrifying, it's something that's almost beyond the experience of a mere meal--but will these 'confusions' and experiments stand the test of time? Does it even matter that they stand the test of time?

Most of the new wave of Mexico City chefs de cuisine will come and go like footprints on a beach. What will endure is real food. Food that feeds more than a fad, food that feeds not only the palate and the stomach but also the heart will endure. The cocina más alta de México is the home kitchen, elevated to an art at once ephemeral and duradera by las mayoras. Diana Kennedy is la mayora postiza--sure she's crotchety, but look what she's done. No one else who writes Mexican food in English has achieved anything like what she's done: the honest home kitchen of Mexico has been taken to the world.

We may venture out to taste what's new, but when we're entre la espada y la pared, we're going to look for what's old. We'll want not vertical food, but a solid plateful of elemental guisado. Late some Saturday night we might wonder whatever happened to fulano who opened that trendy little place in Polanco, but we'll shrug and end up at El Cag...uama.

¿Que no?

Edited by esperanza (log)

What's new at Mexico Cooks!?

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[

nickarte, I would appreciate what those "silly inaccuracies" are, por favor. When I was reading the LA Times article, I was intrigued by what was going on, as per the LA Times. Mind you, I wanted to make sure what the LAT was writing was accurate. So, I posted this thread. I figured that eGullet members would have the "real scoop" on what's going on in the D.F. Is LAT sensationalizing on the "it's not my grandmother's cooking"-type of Mexican cuisine? Do you find that these new chefs are trying to find their niche by "experimenting" or doing a culinary "hit-and-miss?" I don't know the answers. Perhaps I'm not asking the right questions.

So, please, nickarte and others, help me out! Gracias.

Well, I did not dwell on the "silly inaccuracies" because most of them are irrelevent to the point of the article, but such statements as Condesa/Roma being "built at the turn of the last century" (Condesa was developed separately beginning in the late 1920's, and has always been very different from Roma- it was the first Jewish area, and was and is an intellectual enclave, more like NY's upper West Side in the 1970's), and worse, that it was "all but abandoned" after the earthquake of 1985: Roma declined after the 1940's mainly because fewer people were able to live in huge mansions, and Condesa never declined at all remaining solidly middle class until this day. The comment about "upper-class young Mexicans, {being} better educated and more worldly than their parents" is subjective and distorted and Rachel has a better comment about that below. And nobody is " tearing down rickety mid-century buildings"- we are in fact trying as much as possible to restore them: unlike in the USA, mid-century, ie. 1940's to 1960's, architecture here was imaginative and well designed. It's the later stuff that we WISH was being torn down. So OK, none of this has much to do with food, but for me, colors the article with an obvious lack of knowledge and insight on the part of the author. Meanwhile, I think there is some truth to the reporting on the nuevo fusion etc. scene, but as is usually the case in these articles, everything is exagerated. There is definitely a happening new restaurant scene, and it is true that traditionally, the best Mexican food was found in private homes, but the Upper End vs. tacos-on-the-street polemic is definitely an exageration- there are middle category places that have been there all along serving regional, traditional and wonderful food and in fact the majority of the new restaurants in Polanco and Condesa are not Mexican at all. Unfortunately, I could say that an element of "Malinchismo" or the rejecting of the national in favor of things foreign, still pervades contemporary Mexican culture, and this invades the restaurant world, which is plagued with poor imitations of other genres, ie. "Bistros" which seem more a copy of a New York idea of a bistro than of a Parisian one. But hat's off to the wonderful chefs and jefas who are doing their best to keep this vibrant culinary culture not only alive but growing. And, to be positive, I have noticed some general improvement in quality accross the board.

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Muchos gracias, everyone!!

I knew I could come to my eGullet members to get the real scoop on the Mexican restaurant scene in the D.F.

caroline, esperanza, nickarte, between the three of you, I think you can write an excellent history of Mexican cuisine in English. I wouldn't mind.

...she [Diana Kennedy] must know but does little to inform on the history of Mexican cooking, ...

caroline, why is that? Perhaps, DK feels she has done her part and it's time for someone else to step up? Again, I don't know. Just offering a possibility.

Food that feeds more than a fad, food that feeds not only the palate and the stomach but also the heart will endure.

esperanza, may I quote you? That was excellent!

... the "silly inaccuracies" ... So OK, none of this has much to do with food, but for me, colors the article with an obvious lack of knowledge and insight on the part of the author.

nickarte, thank you for your statements. They're not "silly inaccuracies", but sloppy mistakes on the part of the author. A writer needs to have an accurate historical context in whatever s/he is writing about, all verified by facts and meticulous research, à la Diana Kennedy's perfectionism that caroline previously mentioned.

I have learned so much from starting this thread. caroline, I read your thread about the Mexican Culinary establishment. I'll be waiting for your update.

Uno mas, gracias.

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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The South American TV Food Channels often feature Patricia Quintana, Isabella Dorantes and many other young Mexican Chefs who do wonderful dishes.

If anyone is interested in the US, go to:

www.elgourmet.com

and see for yourself.

Except for the availability or not of many ingredients, I found the TV shows very interesting - and a definite improvement over the traditional recipes.

After all, how many tacos, tamales, enchiladas etc. etc. can one eat?

As I am not particularly mad about the high carb content of many Mexican dishes, this was a revelation to me - and a good insight on a new (for me) type of cuisine.

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After all, how many tacos, tamales, enchiladas etc. etc. can one eat?

Tacos, tamales, and enchiladas are common (and indeed, traditional) Mexican foods.

However, they are not the kind of traditional Mexican cuisine that we are discussing in this thread. Many people continue to be unaware of the vast and varied treasure that is the Mexican kitchen. In a country as large as Mexico, the regional differences in cuisine are marked. A complex mole of 30 or more ingredients; the truffle-like subtleties of the elusive huitlacoche; a fine pipián made of purely indigenous seeds and flavors; 2000 or more varieties of bread; a range of soups from the clearest rich broth to the most complicated cream: these are just a few of the broad spectrum that is la cocina mexicana .

I'm a little troubled by the tone of 'After all, how many tacos, tamales, enchildas etc. etc. can one eat?' My hope is that you didn't mean it in quite the elitist way that it comes across.

What's new at Mexico Cooks!?

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I do apologize, Esperanza. I did not mean to offend.

Simply, I am a total ousider (an Italian who lives in India), and I know I have a lot to learn about Mexican food..

I just thought that I would mention how surprised I was when I recently discovered that there is indeed a lot more to Mexican food than the usual fare served in restaurants in Europe and the US.

Recently in Argentina, it was a revelation watching some great Mexican Chefs doing great things.

I really wish that level of cuisine was available at Mexican restaurants world-wide!

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And one more thought on this topic. I wonder if shouldn't change our terminology. Instead of talking about home dining as the traditional site of great Mexican cuisine, perhaps we should talk about private dining.

For Americans and Europeans, home dining is nowadays much reduced as the opportunities for public dining have multiplied beyond the imagination of a couple of generations ago. It is spread out between the rushed family dinner (if there is one) and an occasional attempt (in the US) to create a Norman Rockwell-type family thanksgiving with everyone contributing a dish.

Mexican private dining had many more shades and was, I believe, more typical of other great cuisines world wide, including Indian, Persian etc. Think of the town house with a bevy of servants to assist the woman of the house. Think of formal dinners where affairs of business and politics were discussed. Think of haciendas where guests might stay for months when the owners were actually in residence, or where the upper management might dine at the family table. Think of military messes where fine meals were served. Think of businesses in Mexico City that had private dining rooms for their executives. Think of private clubs that offered fine dining.

These are not harried meals with children more or less out of control. They are social rituals where the participants can be assured of being exposed neither to the dangers of restaurant kitchens of unknown cleanliness and quality nor to the perhaps worse dangers of rubbing shoulders with strangers of dubious social antecedents.

Given the enforced social mobility of the Mexican upper and middle classes due to the political and economic history of the last century, many well-to-do women on hard times made their living running the clubs and the dining rooms thus ensuring a coherence to the cuisine. And then there are the classes they offered for young ladies. These go back at least to the 1930s, probably longer, and they still continue. I have a two-degrees-of-separation acquaintance in Guadalajara who makes her living giving cooking classes to well-to-do girls engaged to be married. They take along their muchachas (servant girls) who will soon be doing the actual cooking while they supervise. The recipe binder alone costs $200.

This is not your pot luck home dining.

Rachel

(Edited for clarity)

Edited by caroline (log)

Rachel Caroline Laudan

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