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Dining in Oaxaca Restaurants

Patronizing Oaxaca's Popular Restaurants Dilutes Chances to Experience Real Oaxacan Fare

Real Oaxacan food remains a mystery to a majority of visitors to the city of Oaxaca and its central valleys. Most hotel managers, tour guides and others in the business have a preconceived notion of what tourists want when they come to Oaxaca seeking culinary seduction. And reasonably so, since visitors to the city in fact arrive with their guidebook dining lists, including the likes of Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, La Catrina de Alcalá, La Biznaga and La Olla; and they systematically cross each off the list in the course of their vacation.

But ask any chef in Oaxaca what he likes to eat, or where, and pesos to pozole he’s tell you about a roadside eatery, a comadre in the countryside, or a diner down the block from his own establishment. The fine downtown restaurant of a colleague customarily doesn’t make the cut.

It’s not really a fraud on foodies that’s being perpetrated, but rather a deception, partially unintended.

The realization gradually came to this writer in three ways:
• after several dining experiences with a chef friend in Oaxaca;
• in the course of organizing a gastronomic tour for Mexican food aficionado and critics, and;
• sitting around the table with five Oaxacan couples at a monthly get-together for dinner, drink and dialogue.

A Chef’s Guide to Indulging in Oaxaca

The Oaxacan chef occasionally dines at the aforementioned downtown Oaxaca restaurants. But it’s the roadside eatery an hour’s drive out of Oaxaca, El Tigre, without fanfare (or even electricity), which provokes her palate – the freshest food possible (El Tigre doesn’t know organic or free range, because that’s all there is), over firewood. Every dish is prepared on the spot, even salsas and tortillas.

Another favorite haunt, El Caminito al Cielo, is a tiny diner a block away from, of all places, the largest cemetery in the city. And a third, specializing in the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, is in the suburbs. How often does anyone in the tourist industry (save this writer) recommended departing the ease and familiarity of downtown for a comida, or a cena by the cemetery?

Gastronomic Tour of Oaxaca

The gastronomic tour of Oaxaca was designed to give participants a grounding in the cultural richness and diversity of the central valleys of Oaxaca, with food and dining a focus. Restaurants included four of the five noted “stalwarts,” in theory representing Oaxacan cuisine at its best. But as could have been predicted, the quality of service and fare at a couple of the restaurants was not exceptional. Service is often provided by waiters and even cooks without a personal interest, and food is usually institutional. No matter how haute the cuisine, it is frequently not truly reflective of the food which has given the state of Oaxaca its reputation for gastronomic greatness.

The tour was a success, and there were no significant restaurant disappointments. But the majority of accolades were directed at the un-touristy experiences the organizers wished to highlight, two of which are noteworthy.

Lunch with a rural family at their homestead ranked high, the meal materializing over open flames, as has been the custom with the family for generations. The welcome was warm, air of informality striking and everyone was given an opportunity to pitch in. Sopa de guías, frijoles, tasajo, aguas frescas and a traditional dessert – a typical Oaxacan comida, with a Oaxacan family.

A unique restaurant, Caldo de Piedra, provided another primordial yet exceptional dining indulgence. It replicated the practice of pre-Hispanic hunters & gatherers who cooked freshly picked herbs and vegetables together with the spoils of the hunt, on the spot, in the pot. At the palapa-roofed eatery, diners watched as an herbed-tomato broth was ladled into half gourds, snapper or shrimp added, then red-hot rocks gingerly placed in each individual receptacle, resulting in meals poaching before one’s eyes.

Oaxacans Cooking for Themselves and Their Friends Produces Pure Magic

Each month a group of friends gathers in the home of one couple on a rotating basis for fabulous fare prepared by each couple, a la 1960s style, but with nary a Bob or Carol, Ted nor Alice. While concept is dated, sampling the finest of food based on traditional recipes passed down through generations is unmatched.

The opportunity to experience home-cooked dishes eludes most if not all travelers to Oaxaca. This is the food from which the modern-day recipes of Chef Pilar of La Olla, Chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca, and Chef Juan Carlos formerly of La Catrina, has emanated.

Fly in the Ointment

But the modern chefs of Oaxaca take the history and diversity of the state’s cuisine to new levels. Their cuisine arrives at one end, at one point in time, along an ever-progressing continuum. And so new faces are compelled to continue to forge unfamiliar ground on the Oaxacan culinary landscape. Their restaurants should indeed continue to be patronized by both residents and tourists alike, for this reason alone.

Native Oaxacans will continue to appreciate both the humble roots and Spanish influence of contemporary Oaxacan food. The region’s culinary development is part of their heritage, as the couples sitting around that dinner table boast every month with every mouthful. It’s the visitor to Oaxaca who is likely losing out.

Continue enjoying the restaurants in Oaxaca praised by guidebooks and reviewers. But jump at any opportunity to attend a fiesta, accept an invitation to dine in the home of a native Oaxacan, or wander off to wherever the locals are dining.

Epilogue

In 1969, a youthful Canadian hippie, hungry for experience, knocked on the gate of a rural homestead, intrigued by smoke billowing from inside a thatched-roof abode. He was invited in, and sampled his first hand-made tortilla together with beans and salsa, and nothing more. Decades later the memory lives.

Owner of Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), Oaxaca resident Alvin Starkman leads personalized tours to the craft villages, market towns, pre-Hispanic ruins and more off-the-beaten-track sights in the central valleys of Oaxaca, is a consultant to documentary film production companies working in the region, and writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca (including restaurant reviews) for magazines, newspapers and travel websites. Alvin also arranges Oaxaca culinary tours with Chef Pilar Cabrera (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). Casa Machaya Oaxaca B & B combines the comfort and service of a downtown Oaxaca hotel with the quaintness and personal touch of country inn accommodations.

Posted by titosarah 07:04 Archived in Mexico Tagged food mexico in restaurants best tour culinary mexican oaxaca gastronomy gastronomic Comments (0)

Oaxaca Culinary Tour a Great Success

Suggests More Tours on Horizon for Visitors to Southern Mexico

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

The accolades tell it all: “I had a terrific and very inspiring time in Oaxaca. Your knowledge of the culture and region introduced us to so many interesting people, all willing to share their passion, whether it was for pottery, wood carving, frothy chocolate, the best moles or natural dyes” [Elizabeth Baird].

Elizabeth Baird, one of the foremost Canadian culinary icons of our time, was a participant in the May, 2010, Oaxaca Culinary Tour. So was prolific cookbook author and columnist Rose Murray, who endorsed a copy of her seminal work, A Taste of Canada, A Culinary Journey, with similar praise: “Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge of Oaxaca with us. We know it through your eyes.”

If the foregoing is any indication of the success of this most recent tour, then the thought of what’s in store for participants in future, similarly organized Oaxaca culinary events, should titillate anyone interested in Mexican gastronomy – chefs and foodies alike.

While numbers were small (May is when most Americans and Canadians are content to stay close to home, stow their winter attire, and begin gardening), organizers provided the 8 – 10 participants in each of the week’s daily activities with all that the tour promised, and more: cooking classes with Pilar Cabrera and Susana Trilling, dining at renowned Oaxacan restaurants Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, La Olla and La Catrina de Alcalá, and what impressed the most, getting out into the villages and learning the secrets of local recipes through hands-on instruction from indigenous natives – in their kitchens and over their open hearths and comals.

Background to the Oaxaca Culinary Tour

Internationally acclaimed native Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo spent the month of September, 2009, working her magic in Toronto, both as guest chef at several restaurants and invited instructor at a prominent cooking school. It had been arranged through the efforts of Toronto food writer and researcher Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, and several others willing to dedicate their time and effort to ensure a successful month-long event.

Once the framework of the tour had been decided, Chef Pilar was invited by the Government of Mexico to represent Oaxacan cuisine at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre Hot & Spicy Food Festival’s Iron Chef competition (as it turned out, she also agreed to judge the festival’s Emerging Chef event) which took place around the same time as the tour.

In Toronto Chef Pilar met the likes of Elizabeth Baird (who judged the iron chef event and adjudicated alongside Pilar at the emerging chef competition), Chef Vanessa Yeung (who cooked with Pilar at the cooking school and dined with her at one of the private dinner parties), and a host of prominent food writers and critics, as well as chefs (including Chef de Cuisine Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier) – most of whom had no previous exposure to Oaxacan cuisine.

In true Oaxacan fashion Pilar warmly and sincerely invited virtually everyone she met to come visit Oaxaca. But who would have ever thought that tour organizers would immediately begin receiving inquiries from diners at the various venues, chefs, and media personnel, about traveling to Oaxaca to gain more in-depth knowledge about Oaxaca’s longstanding reputation for culinary greatness. After all, the tour was intended to merely provide an introduction to Oaxacan cuisine. It succeeded in whetting the appetites of Canadians, for much more.

Those who ultimately participated in the Oaxaca tour included aficionados of Mexican cuisine, food writers, chefs and restauranteurs. Some booked the entire tour well in advance, while others only caught wind of the week’s events after they had planned their Oaxacan vacation, and accordingly were permitted to take part in cooking lessons, day tours and evening dining.

Oaxaca Culinary Tour Showcased a Variety of Food Venues and Other Dimensions of Culture

While a theme tour has its raison d’etre, it should not be overly restrictive in its events so as to blind participants to what else a region has to offer – and in this case the impact of other dimensions of culture upon a people’s cuisine. In Oaxaca there is certainly a broad enough diversity of restaurants, food markets, cooking styles and levels of sophistication, to keep foodies thoroughly enthralled for weeks. But it’s the unique and varied cultures, and the melding of New World and Old World ingredients and cooking methods, to which these tour operators also sought to expose their clients.

For this culinary tour, participants learned as much about availability of and regional variation in meats, cheeses and produce (and their cultural significance), as they did about staples such as moles, tlayudas, chocolate, tamales and mezcal. It was all achieved through imparting an in-depth understanding of traditions, through chatting with and learning from people at all stations of life. At one end of the continuum were the most humble of villagers who welcomed the group into their homes, to make chocolate by pureeing roasted cacao beans, cinnamon and almonds using a primitive grinding stone (metate), and to make tamales by folding corn leaves over masa, mole amarillo and chicken. And at the other end were the European-trained chefs who explained each dish upon its arrival at the table from their modernly equipped kitchens.

Oaxaca Culinary Tour Daily Events

One chef arrived in Oaxaca a day early, enabling her to meet with organizers in an informal setting, learning about and indulging at a Oaxaca culinary institution, Tlayudas on Libres, where locals gather between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. for their favorite snacks grilled directly on and over charcoal: a folded, oversized tortilla stuffed with melted Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), bean purée, lettuce, tomato, depending on one’s sensibilities a thin layer of asiento (pork fat); and choice of chorizo (sausage), tasajo (beef) or cecina (pork). For ardent foodies, a tiny sample of marinated pig’s feet is required. And for the rest, a hot, corn-based drink of atole or champurrado is non-negotiable, especially during the wee hours of the morning.

An American doing his Masters in Nutrition arrived two days early, using the time to explore Oaxaca’s centro histórico (downtown historic center) including its quaint colonial buildings and food and craft markets.

Another participant stayed on a day later, after the rest has departed. A local organizer graciously offered to chauffer her to one of Oaxaca’s rich cultural sights known as the San Agustín Center for The Arts, to see a modern ceramics exhibit housed in a spectacular lush mountain setting. And then for last minute gift purchases he drove her to Atzompa, a village specializing in traditional Oaxacan green glazed pottery.

Wednesday

Most participants had arrived by Wednesday, late afternoon, in time for Pilar Cabrera’s walking tour of downtown Oaxaca. This enabled group members to gain some perspective on the magic of Oaxaca and to begin planning to how they might want to spend the leisure hours built into the tour.

Dinner was at Oaxacan institution La Olla, Pilar’s own restaurant. The large candlelit table on the roof of the restaurant provided a special view of Oaxaca at night.

[For analysis and critique of the food served at these more upscale establishments, I’ll leave it to the food writers and critics on the tour who are better note-takers and possess greater objectivity and a much more refined palate than this writer.]

Thursday

The morning began with a visit to the Tlapanochestli research station, museum and teaching facility devoted to understanding cochineal (cochinilla), the tiny insect which has played an integral part in the history of Oaxaca because of its unique quality; when dried and crushed it yields a strong red dye, which with the addition of lime juice and or baking soda changes to tones of orange, pink and purple. Of particular interest for tour participants was its application as a natural colorant for restaurant foods. While sampling a refreshing gelatin / water / sugar based dessert colored with cochineal, our foodies had an opportunity to see familiar grocery store products dyed with the insect (Campari, Danone Yoghurt, Campbell and Knorr soups, make-up and lipstick) and briefly discussed the sensitive issue of adequacy of ingredient labeling.

Then off to San Bartolo Coyotepec in the comfy 18-seater van equipped with bucket seats and A/C. Don Valente Nieto, son of the famed ceramicist Doña Rosa, provided an upbeat, informative and entertaining demonstration of the methods used by his parents and his family members today, in fashioning the well-known folk art form known as barro negro (black pottery). Tour members can now rightly claim that they saw the same demo that Don Valente provided to Jimmy Carter and Nelson Rockefeller, who’s photos alongside Doña Rosa and Don Valente grace the showroom walls.

The humble abode and workshop of Armando Lozano, sculptor and master jeweler of hand-made bronze necklaces, earrings and bracelets, provided the first opportunity for the group to see how most Oaxacans live, and eke out a modest existence. The contrast between the quality workmanship of the family, and its lifestyle, was remarkable, overshadowed only by the welcoming nature of the Maestro’s daughter-in-law who offered the jewelry for sale.

The final two touring stops of the day were directly devoted to food and drink. Lunch was at the unique roadside eatery, Caldo de Piedra, where chef César prepared a tomato and herb based broth which he then poured into a large half gourd for each diner. To each he then added one’s choice of either fresh red snapper, a healthy complement of jumbo shrimp, or a combination of the two. Red hot rocks from an open flame were then placed in each gourd, and individual meals were thusly cooked, the rocks causing the broth to boil and fish to poach. Only large, hand-made tortillas from the comal and quesadillas amply filled with mushrooms and squash blossoms were needed to compliment the meal, of course along with large pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice spiked with soda water (naranjadas).

Oaxaca is known for its mezcal (mescal), so what better way to have an introduction to the spirit than to head to Matatlán, World Capital of Mezcal, and learn from a producer with from a five generation pedigree of palenqueros (mezcal producers). Enrique Jiménez welcomed the tour into his parents’ traditional family compound where all witnessed the quaint and primitive production methods, and then imbibed several varieties of mezcal with chasers of lime and orange wedges, and sal de gusano (the salt, chile and ground up gusano worm mixture), together with quesillo and ricotta-like queso. Then to the family’s brand new state-of-the-art facility where Enrique explained his new method of mezcal production. The process dramatically improves quality control while retaining the richest qualities of mezcal produced the traditional way – only smoother.

Dinner at La Catrina de Alcalá provided a nice contrast to earlier events and tastings in the day, with classy Chef Juan Carlos on hand to introduce each dish. Tour participants were so taken with the selection that towards the end of the evening when asked if they wanted to move on to dessert, or perhaps try a venison dish, almost in unison each opted for the latter.

Friday

Cooking classes by Pilar Cabrera are always highly enjoyable and educational, beginning with a visit to Mercado de La Merced for buying fresh produce, through the cooking phase, and finally indulging in the fruits of one’s labor. The entirely of the class has been described elsewhere by me, so no more will be noted.

Each tour participant thereafter had a free afternoon to explore more of downtown, rest, and then dine at a recommended restaurant.

Saturday

After a relatively relaxing Friday it was back on the road for another day of touring. At the handmade knife and cutlery workshop of Apolinar Aguilar, the group watched the master work his wonders, heating recycled metals with the aid of a primitive yet effective stone and clay oven, then forging with only a mallet striking the red-hot metal over an anvil, and finally the all-so-critical tempering stage.

Knife blades are polished to a brilliant shine without lacquer or nickel. Purchasers on this day had an opportunity to have inscriptions engraved on the blades of knives they purchased. In anticipation of the culinary tour, Apolinar had prepared a selection of paring knives, a turkey carving set, a cake cutting ensemble, and bread knives. In addition to the more traditional Bowie hunting knives, swords and machetes, he also had on hand more unusual collector pieces such as knives with deer antler handles and letter openers with blade undulations of the Indonesian genre.

In the tiny village of San Antonino participants were provided with an opportunity to select from the finest imaginable hand-embroidered blouses and dresses – cotton, silk, and blends.

Lunch was in the rustic homestead of the Navarro family, the sisters and mother known for weaving fine cotton textiles on the back strap loom, and brother Gerardo for his watercolors. But the main reason for stopping in Santo Tomás Jalieza was to dine with the family in their Eden-like surroundings, and witness their preparation of tasajo on a small hibachi-style grill, and all the steps required to make sopa de guias, a broth made of all the parts of the zucchini plant, and a small piece of corn for added starch. The welcoming nature and all-round hospitality of the family was as impressive as their simple yet immaculately kept rural home and grounds.

The tour day concluded with a visit to the workshop of Jacobo Angeles, master carver and painter of alebrijes, for a demonstration (the particulars and details of which are once again available online as part of a lengthy dissertation about woodcarving in Oaxaca). However what tourists to the region never get to experience, and what Jacobo had arranged for the group, was a lesson in making aguas frescas of limón and jamaica (hibiscus flower), and the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, known as the “drink-of-the-gods.”

After a late afternoon rest back at Las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast, the group welcomed the leisurely evening walk to Casa Oaxaca, purportedly the best high end restaurant in Oaxaca. Unfortunately on this night chef / owner Alejandro Ruíz was somewhat preoccupied entertaining a group of visiting chefs from diverse Latin American cities, so in this writer’s opinion the experience was somewhat disappointing. Word has it that for the next culinary tour the organizers might pass on Casa Oaxaca unless an acknowledgement of the shortcomings and an assurance of better next time are both forthcoming. Each and every participant in a culinary tour of Oaxaca should expect and receive nothing but the best, of course subject to unforeseen circumstances.

Sunday

The penultimate day of the Oaxaca Culinary Tour provided the broadest diversity of experiences imaginable. The group began at the rug making village of Teotitlán del Valle, but not merely for a weaving and dying demonstration. Rocio Mendoza, one of the daughters-in-law of Casa Santiago owners Don Porfirio and Doña Gloria, with her unwavering warmth and comforting smile welcomed the tour group into the extended family household for a lesson in the traditional methods of making both hot chocolate and tamales de amarillo, the ritual dish served at certain town fiestas.

Both the women and men of the household were present to answer questions and help out. Tour group members to a number were made to feel more welcomed than one could think possible. Each had a chance to take over the task of grinding toasted cacao beans into a hot velvety paste. Matriarch Gloria gave a hands-on lesson on all the steps required to prepare her special tamales, assisting each participant in learning how to place and fold ingredients into a corn leaf, and then ever so carefully stack the batch of tamales into a steaming hot clay container (tamalero) heated over firewood. Once all was cooked, and after a traditional “salud” over small glasses of mezcal, each indulged in the fruits of his or her labor with members of the Santiago family: hot chocolate with sweet rolls on the side for dipping, and a plateful of piping hot tangy tamales de amarillo. Goodbyes were particularly difficult after the establishment of relationships based upon a commonality of purpose – the mentoring and learning about culinary traditions in Teotitlán del Valle.

Two hours in the Sunday Tlacolula market is pretty well required when a group of food enthusiasts is involved; especially when organizers have special relationships with vendors so as to enable tourists to ask questions and take photographs at will. What Pilar did not cover in her Oaxaca market tour leading up to her class, the organizers ensured was explained in detail in the course of the visit to Tlacolula. Traditional market drinks of chilacayota and pulque were sampled. Members purchased decorative gourds, wooden spoons, embroidered aprons and colorful table coverings, and of course chiles to take back home. The aroma of chicken grilling on open flames and steaming caldrons of barbequed mutton and goat teased. The pageantry of Zapotec women in their native village dress going about their business buying, selling and trading, impressed all. And the ability of group members to have all their questions answered, sample foodstuffs and drinks without trepidation, take their fill of photos, and wander freely while soaking it all up, provided one of many trip highlights.

The quaint open-air eatery known as El Tigre was a stark contrast to the earlier market scene, but just as welcome, in the nature of a well deserved respite. Each member of the group was able to question comedor owner Sara about salsa preparation, the disinfecting of fresh produce, and cooking techniques and challenges where every menu item is prepared fresh, over a flame on the grill or comal. Once again, a review of El Tigre is available online. The eatery was selected so as to advance one of the organizers’ goals of ensuring as diverse a culinary experience as possible.

The tour day concluded with a visit to the picturesque mountain setting known as Hierve el Agua. The site consists of mineral deposit “water falls,” and bubbling calcium and magnesium-rich springs feeding two pools of water suitable for a safe, refreshing swim. Most took the opportunity to cool off – and perhaps reap the benefit of the legendary curative properties of the water – while others were content to sit in the shade, chat about the day’s events, and of course take photos.

After the filling breakfast at Las Bugambilias, then hot chocolate with sweet rolls and tamales at Casa Santiago, followed by drink samplings in Tlacolula, and lunch at El Tigre, botanas (appetizer plates) and drinks were the order of the evening, at Los Danzantes, without any doubt the Oaxaca restaurant with the best ambiance by a long shot.

Monday

No visit to Oaxaca, be it for a culinary tour or otherwise, would be complete without a guided tour of the most important and magestic pre-Hispanic ruin in all of the State of Oaxaca, the 2,000-year-old Zapotec site known as Monte Albán. After a brief sit-down and opportunity to quench the thirst, tour participants were shuttled to Susana Trilling’s cooking school to make mole chichilo. Once again, Ms. Trilling’s class has been noted elsewhere by the writer.

Group members were welcomed to conclude their visit to Oaxaca by gathering at an event hall that evening to view a folkloric celebration of Oaxaca’s diversity of dance and music traditions known as the Guelaguetza. But to a number each decided to pass on the idea after such a full itinerary. Instead, they welcomed the chance to finish the tour in a much more casual and relaxed setting, over drinks and conversation at the hillside home of one of the tour organizers, sitting on the open terrace and reliving the week’s events with the fond memories.

Future Culinary Tours in Oaxaca

Culinary vacations in Oaxaca have been done before, and will no doubt continue into the distant future. This tour format, however, was unique for its diversity of experiences and the care taken by organizers to ensure that the expectations of all participants – seasoned chefs, media personnel specializing in the culinary arts and gastronomy, and aficionados of Mexican cuisine – were met, or better yet exceeded.

If the current spate of commentaries regarding the success of the tour and level of participant satisfaction is an accurate gauge, then no doubt there will be future tours, perhaps on a bi-annual basis, with each succeeding Oaxaca Culinary Tour improving on the performance of the previous.

Information on future culinary tours in Oaxaca can be obtained by contacting Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, or this writer.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, thereafter embarking upon a successful career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides with his wife Arlene in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), providing the comfort and service of lodging in a Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of a small country inn.

Posted by titosarah 11:38 Archived in Mexico Tagged food Comments (0)

The epic journey of a Oaxacan chef

opens doors for others with aspirations of travel and promotion in Canada

semi-overcast 24 °C

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

Pilar Cabrera’s world had changed – how she taught her cooking classes, how she ran her restaurant, her vision of her gastronomic future – and she had only been back from her month-long visit to Toronto for 10 days. But outside influences have always played an integral part in the history of Oaxaca’s rich culinary heritage, dating back at least five centuries to the melding of native Zapotec traditions with the import of Old World ingredients during the Spanish Conquest.

In a similar fashion, throughout the course of Chef Pilar’s sojourn to Southern Ontario, she impacted the way many Canadians view Mexican cuisine – now as more than tacos and enchiladas. And at the same time Pilar provided those who already had a palate for pozole, pescado Istmeño and pay de requesón with Oaxacan chocolate, with fulfillment of yearnings they had secretly held since their last visit to Oaxaca.

Pilar’s Canadian excursion provides an example of how Oaxacans can make their mark upon other countries, with no financial support from their own state government. But more importantly, it is yet another illustration of the positive impact which can result from one native woman’s willingness to take a risk, and with the encouragement of family and friends to move outside of her comfort zone. In the case of Pilar there was more: the aid of receptive Toronto restaurants and culinary academies, an enthusiastic public including food experts and aficionados of diverse gastronomic traditions, a keen media, and the unwavering assistance of a food researcher, writer and consultant.

Introduction

It all began during the winter of 2008 / 09, in Oaxaca, with the chance meeting of Torontonian Mary Luz Mejia, partner with husband Mario in Sizzling Communications
( http://www.sizzlingcommunications.com ), and this writer, a Oaxacan resident and former Torontonian – yours truly lamenting how all too often US and Canadian media gravitate towards showcasing all that is American, even when it comes to promoting aspects of foreign cultures – cooking and cuisine a case in point.

“Look at Pilar Cabrera,” I exclaimed, “a native Zapotec chef who learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, and then supplemented that knowledge with a university degree in food sciences and nutrition. Can you find a better pedrigree, or ambassador of Oaxacan gastronomy? And she has a restaurant and a cooking school to boot. She even mentors the likes of Mexican food guru Rick Bayless, an American who brings his staff to Oaxaca on almost an annual basis to learn from Pilar. And here you are, in Oaxaca to film still a different American chef, because according to your production company, that’s what Canadian viewers want.”

Then sometime in April, that first email arrived from Mary Luz:

“I would love to have Pilar in Toronto and to arrange a few events for her here. I can see her cooking at Nella Cucina [culinary school] as I know the culinary director there (does she speak English? If not, I can be with her to translate), at George Brown College [its Institute of Culinary Arts] where I know the head of the college, and a few other places.”

Over the next three months that “few other” turned into 11, including participating in Iron Chef events.

Pilar had always shunned traveling outside of Mexico to work her magic, despite offers to teach in the US. And the thought of making mole negro or tamales de amarillo in thirty minutes before an audience and on camera both frightened and intimidated her; it was hardly what a believer in “slow food” would welcome.

Upon completing her university education Pilar began working for the research and development division of food giant Herdez, McCormick. After three years she left Mexico City to return to her home in Oaxaca. She subsequently opened her restaurant in the centro histórico, La Olla, and then her cooking school, Casa de los Sabores. Despite critical international acclaim in print media such as Bon Appetit and The New York Times, Pilar remained modest, with an almost exaggerated humility – until that April opportunity arose.

After discussion with husband Luis, only the closest of family, and this writer and wife Arlene, she agreed to travel to Toronto to promote Oaxacan cuisine – during September, a time when the tourist trade in Oaxaca is traditionally very slow and everyone in the business can use a little help to pay the bills. But the initial plan of a two week trip quickly turned into three, as more restaurants than anticipated wanted to promote their establishments with the honored presence of a foreign guest chef. Then Mary Luz herself, as well as a foodie friend, invited Pilar to grace their homes to prepare special menus for private dinner parties; and Nella Cucina wanted a commitment for two evenings instead of one. And of course, given the time of year, what an opportunity for a Catholic from Oaxaca to have the opportunity to spend the first night of Rosh Hashanah dining with a Jewish family, my family.

Dates, times and provisional menus fell into place during June, July and August. Accommodations were generously offered by friends, two Toronto couples who had previously visited me and my wife in Oaxaca; Pilar would spend the first half of the trip with one couple, and the second with another. As recent empty-nesters, each now had bedroom space available.

The efforts of Mary Luz resulted in time slots being allocated for media appearances. Blog activity began in early August:
http://www.suite101.com/blog/cookbook/chef_pilar_cabrera_arroyo_to_cook_in_toronto
I began my email campaign about the same time.

Then one day in mid-August, as our September 10th departure date loomed near, Pilar received a call from the Liaison Officer of Community Affairs, Consulado General de México.

Toronto Harbourfront Centre International Hot & Spicy Food Festival

The call came from the Consulate’s Adriana Becerra – Serrano, to invite Pilar to participate in the Iron Chef competition of the annual Toronto Harbourfront Centre International Hot & Spicy Food Festival, September 5 – 7.

A few days later, after recognizing that this would mean a much grander opportunity to showcase Oaxacan culture and cuisine, before both a live audience and on screen, the fear and trepidation appeared to moderately dissipate in favor of guarded anticipation:

“But you have to come with me for that extra week as well, Alvin, or else I won’t do it; and what do we do about the plane tickets for the 10th; and where would I stay, since I don’t want to impose upon your friends’ already generous hospitality for any extra nights?”

Between Pilar, the Consulado General de México, and management of Harbourfront Centre, changes in plane reservations were arranged, hotel reservations from the 3rd until the 8th were looked after at downtown Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle, and the paperwork was signed confirming the extra week in Toronto – including Pilar’s obligation to compete in an Iron Chef Competition, initiallly against a chef from Louisiana.

Harbourfront Centre’s Mitch Smolkin then requested that Pilar be one of four judges at an emerging chef event, on the 5th, the day before her own competition on the 6th. And then yet a further request to appear on Canadian National television the 4th, the day after our arrival, with five plates of Oaxacan food to be prepared for the cameras, in advance, all in order to promote the Festival.

“How can we get off the plane Thursday evening, source ingredients the next morning in some downtown market I don’t know, cook five dishes in your friend’s kitchen uptown, and then be downtown again at a TV studio for 5 pm Friday? I don’t even know if I’ll be able to find what I need in the market, or if your friend’s kitchen will have the equipment I require.”

Mexican media previewed Pilar’s tour, on August 27th in Oaxaca’s El Imparcial (http://imparcialenlinea.com/?mod=leer&id=94996&sec=estilo&titulo=Una_Iron_Chef_oaxaqueña), and nationally in El Financiero on August 31st, in both cases highlighting the Iron Chef competition. The Government of Oaxaca finally took notice after the publication of the El Imparcial piece, hand-delivering a congratulatory note of support. And of course Pilar’s visit was accorded its deserved ceremony and spectacle in the Consulate’s September newsletter: http://www.consulmex.com/esp/descargar.asp?b=../data/esp/pages/boletines/061/&f=Consultando%20Septiembre.pdf.

As has now become customary and accepted practice, the Oaxaca division of the primary federal teachers’ union announced three days of disruption in the state capital and further abroad, scheduled to begin September 1st, with road closures, striking in front of all government offices so as to prevent their opening, and the September 3rd blockading all highways. Back in 2006, this meant a reasonable likelihood of an airport shutdown. A frantic email to the Consulate, requesting that a helicopter be made available and kept in the wings in the event of a highway blockade necessitating that we be airlifted to Mexico City, was met with an equally concerned response, and the provision of Ms. Becera-Serrano’s personal cell phone number for our use 24 hours a day.

As it turned out, and as anticipated, the teachers did not blockade at 6 am (by which time we had to be at the airport), since the teachers don’t much care to awaken that early and as a result tend to man the blockades about 8 or 9 am. In any event, overland bumpy treks to the airport pretty well always work.

Pilar indeed descended the plane at Toronto on the evening of the third, and settled into her hotel room with a spectacular view of Lake Ontario, moored boats and the greenery of the Toronto Islands. She could not have planned a more pleasant route for her early morning runs, along Toronto’s attractive waterfront.

Meeting later that first night with her sous chef, actually Chef Jose Hadad, owner of Frida Restaurant, provided Pilar with much needed encouragement and calm, since Pepe would be her “rock” during the lead-up to the competition. And that first morning of shopping for produce, chiles, chicken, and spices and herbs in Kensington Market and Chinatown, provided additional stress-reduction, since Pilar now realized that the markets of Toronto have virtually every ingredient a Oaxacan chef would need to prepare the most traditional and flavorful of all that is Oaxaca’s gastronomic greatness.

The SUN TV segment that first afternoon went smoothly, albeit not without nerve-racking rushing throughout morning and afternoon in preparation for the cameras. A well-deserved relaxing walk through Toronto’s fashionable Yorkville district that evening, and dinner on a terrace overlooking the street provided all that the doctor would have ordered … especially since the next two days would be met with the unknown – the competitions.

The 5th and 6th were divided between meeting with Pepe to discuss and prepare ingredients for the Iron Chef , taking in parts of other Hot & Spicy events whenever breaks so permitted, and meeting the organizers of the Festival, fellow judges, emerging chefs and of course the Louisiana chef pitted against Pilar.

Pilar judged the entire day of the 5th (two semi-finals and the final), competed the 6th, and then participated in an open forum with chefs and the event’s moderator, fielding questions from the public.

The Lousiana chef ended up winning it all on the 7th. His dishes were very good. But a cloud hung over the competition for this writer. For Pilar, the experience was absolutely wonderful, with no regrets and only heartfelt thanks for being given the opportunity to participate. In judging she knew that she would be saddled with the responsibility of perhaps impacting the futures of several young chef hopefuls from a number of different culinary colleges. In competing, working under pressure and representing one’s state and country cannot be taken lightly either; learning the ropes in terms of strategies, what ingredients to use when under a 30 minute gun, working closely with a colleague met only two days previously and in a less than natural kitchen environment, and using that “secret ingredient” presented to competitors five minutes before the cooking begins.

Ingredient options are predetermined and listed. You can ask in advance if a specific ingredient is permitted. The Louisiana chef asked about cajun and blackening pre-mixtures. To our surprise they were permitted. We accordingly asked about being able to use two mole pastes prepared by Pilar, and a powdered third. Once again allowed. Then, the day prior to Pilar’s competition, Harbourfront’s festival head honcho advised that there had been a change – no such prepared mixtures would be permitted, a reasonable about-face, to this writer’s thinking.

Why then did the Louisiana chef use his prepared mixes in the face of the clearest dictate against so doing? Two of the four judges were critical of how he incorporated one of the secret ingredients, garlic. None of the four judges was critical of anything regarding Pilar’s dishes, at least not when questioned in front of the audience. Before the judges had made their decision, while they were tasting and deliberating, the Louisiana chef explained to them the dish he had prepared, and why he had used chicken thighs – because they are more flavorful and moist. More flavorful and moist than what? Chicken breast was the only permitted protein, yet not only did the Louisiana chef use the prohibited chicken thigh, he flaunted his decision to ignore the rules, directing his response to those very judges who ought to have known and enforced the rules – one would think. And he won it all, against Pilar, and in the final round. The State of Louisiana was one of the sponsors of this year’s Hot & Spicy Festival, with booths set up promoting all that is cajun and southern.

Now Pilar is the consummate professional, too classy to allow me to voice my thoughts to the organizers. And besides, she accomplished what she had set out to do – experience a highly competitive fishbowl type of culinary environment with the public and media watching her every stir and taste, showcase Oaxaca, and enjoy.

As a former litigator, I’m perhaps overly sensitive to rules being followed, impropriety, and the appearance of bias. The competition was tainted, at least for those of us who knew the rules and that they had been broken. For the public and perhaps most media, Louisiana won fair and square. It’s the public whose interests are most important from the perspective, I would suggest, of the organizers of the Harbourfront events. But people came out to see Mexico do well, and Pilar did not disappoint. She drew the crowd. There were almost twice as many in the audience for Pilar’s semi-final (some had to watch on a monitor from outside the main event hall), than for the Louisiana chef’s final the following day. Organizers should take note. The Mexican Consul and at least one staff member were in attendance at Pilar’s performance, as were other Mexicans, including chefs eager to show their support. It’s unfortunate they may never know what was very conceivably, an uncomfortable truth.

Lead-up to the events

With a chef like Pilar, availability of ingredients is not the end of the story. Are they the quality she requires; will they be available and fresh when she needs them; are they organic; have the tortillas been frozen, and can they be purchased in blue and red as well; fresh masa; does dried hierba santa take too much away from a recipe calling for fresh or frozen? Several attendances at Chinatown and Kensington Market, and a visit to the upscale St. Lawrence Market, were not negotiable. And of course this meant that the provisional menus to some extent remained as such until only a couple of days before each event.

The Toronto Star invited Pilar to its test kitchen to prepare mole amarillo and verde. The Star will not publish a recipe unless each and every ingredient is locally available. Pilar’s concern was securing the green leafy herbs for the verde, but as it turned out, the dry hierba santa did do the trick, and everything else was available fresh. A page-long spread on September 16th, stands as testament of ingredient availability: http://www.thestar.com/living/food/article/696159.

Repeated phone calls, emails, and attendances to and with the chefs and administration of each establishment were ongoing right up until Pilar’s final performance the evening of September 29th, at The Chef’s House, the restaurant and hands-on teaching facility of George Brown College’s Institute of Culinary Arts.

Arrangements had previously been made for longtime friend, Enrique Jiménez of Mezcal del Amigo notoriety, to give Pilar as many bottles of each type of mezcal – blanco, reposado and añejo – as she wanted. Then Ontario’s Woolwich Diary, known for its goat and feta cheeses, offered to provide each venue with unlimited product. The range of recipes in Pilar’s arsenal increased. And the generosity of these two enhanced the ability of each restaurant and culinary institute to bolster its bottom line.

The events, and more of the media

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to review each dinner prepared at the diversity of venues. However, the range included: teaching at the two Nella Cucina events, and working with Chef Li and his team of chefs and students of the hospitality industry at George Brown College; Frank Restaurant, the 120 seat high end dining room of the Art Gallery of Ontario (featuring guest artist Gabriela Campos while lives in Ontario and spends part of each year in Oaxaca); Veritas Local Fare; working alongside fellow Mexicans Luis Valenzuela at Torito Tapas Bar and Pepe at Frida; and finally, Pilar’s solo efforts at private dinner parties in the kitchens of Mary Luz, and of Lee Baker of Oakville, Ontario.

To this writer the dinner at Frank gets the highest grade, echoed by the critique on September 22nd, in the Women’s Post by Cathy Riches of the Toronto Tourism Board:

“Starting with one of the best margaritas I’ve ever had (sorry Mexico!), the six-course meal unfolded delightfully, moving from botanas (Mexico’s version of tapas) of silken scallop ceviche, incredibly fresh salsa de mango and guacamole, to kebabs of grilled shrimp the size of a baby’s fist, sublime salad, creamy corn soup, and chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and poblano chiles. As with any fine meal, it’s the details and subtle touches that raise it above the mundane. So, a scattering of tart pomegranate seeds contrasted beautifully with the sweet richness of the corn soup and delicate, crispy fried tortilla threads and chile pasilla added crunch and fire to the salad. The artful blend of typical Mexican ingredients with local ones like Woolwich Dairy goat cheese was also a welcome touch.”

But it was the review of Sheryl Kirby of TasteTO.com, after her experience at Frida on September 16th, which set the tone for the tour and was likely instrumental in ensuring that each and every evening event was completely sold out:

“the sheer brilliance of Cabrera’s 30-ingredient authentic Oaxacan mole will likely remain one of the highlights of my food writing career.”

As a result of the careful and skilled orchestration of Sizzling Communications, media were either at each public event, or attempting to ply Pilar away from her engagements so as to obtain interviews for radio, television, newspaper and magazine, and blogs. Newspaper coverage included the Toronto Sun noting Pilar’s tour ahead of Bill Clinton’s much-touted talk to Torontonians; The Toronto Star giving her more press than George Clooney’s participation in the Toronto International Film Festival; and an article about her tour in City Bites, a magazine insert of The Globe and Mail.

While at Nella, Pilar was interview by Sarah Elton for a radio piece about huitlacoche, a delicacy derived from corn mold, which aired on CBC Radio’s Here and Now on September 23rd, and by Food Network Canada’s Erin Jackson, who recounted her exhilarating experience in taking a class from “the master herself:” http://www.foodtv.ca/blog/blogs/food_for_thought/archive/2009/9/30/holy-mole-chef-pilar-s-oaxacan-cuisine-class-nella-cucina.aspx.

Pilar was also interviewed over bagels and cream cheese for breakfast at Jewish style restaurant favorite United Dairies, by Good Food Revelation’s Malcolm Jolley (http://www.goodfoodrev.com/0111/pilar.htm). Additional coverage was provided through Slow Food Toronto, Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, and on websites such as Tripadvisor, Mexico My-Space and Mexconnect.

Dining, leisure, and being a tourist

When it came to Pilar’s own diversity of Toronto culinary experiences, she did it all – well almost: whole Sechwan duck to go; snails in black bean sauce and ginger lobster at this writer’s favorite Sechwan seafood haunt on Spadina Avenue; a selection of Greek fare on Danforth Avenue; Ethiopian; Thai; Indian; Hot Wings and jazz at a couple of bistros; healthy selections at the gentrified Beaches neighborhood; Italian at The Monkey Bar on Toronto’s famous Yonge Street; and the crowning glory, French with a Quebecois touch at Auberge du Pommier.

She also strolled along streets in Toronto’s Korean, Italian and Polish neighborhoods, and of course did her share of shopping in the malls of the city and suburbs, and in Orillia, on Lake Simcoe in cottage country.

Toronto sights included the mandatory CN Tower (still the largest freestanding structure in the world) and museums: the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics; the Royal Ontario Museum; the Bata Shoe Museum; and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

More out of the ordinary, Pilar spent an entire day at the Christie Classic Antique Show, the largest exhibition and sale in the country, with in excess of 300 dealers in a splendid, outdoor rural setting; paid a visit to the dentist for a complimentary teeth cleaning; attended OVO, one of the 15 Cirque de Soleil spectaculars; and even witnessed a Family Court motions hearing at the Superior Court of Ontario, providing an interesting comparison to Mexican judicial process.

“My two priorities for my visit to Toronto are to get to a number of restaurant and kitchen supply outlets, and to see Niagara Falls,” Pilar had resolved well in advance of her trip. Not only did she get her fill of opportunities to buy all manner of equipment, tool and utensil for her own establishments, but she was able to enter the kitchens of restaurants and cooking schools ranging from those similar to her own, to the state-of-the-art facility at Auberge du Pommier and the elaborate and spacious kitchens at the Art Gallery’s Frank Restaurant, and everything in between. And even while walking along the streets of downtown Toronto, Pilar was welcomed into the kitchens of restauranteurs who were complete strangers to her, Sean Baille’s Kultura on King Street a case in point: “I’m amazed at how open and friendly the owners and chefs are, letting me come into their kitchens to look, ask questions and even take photographs. The openness and willingness to talk and exchange ideas is something to which we, as Oaxacans in the hospitality industry, should aspire.”

The two-day visit to the Niagara Peninsula provided much more than a chance to see The Falls, ride The Maid of The Mist, shop at souvenir and fudge shops, and experience the schlocky wax museums and horror shows.

The wonderfully manicured fairy-tale town of Niagara-On-The-Lake was both awe-inspiring and relaxing, strolling its quaint, flower-adorned main avenue lined with all nature of shops and galleries; and of course visiting the Price of Wales Hotel to experience its pomp and imagine its glory years, while miring its $400-a-night suites, roll-playing as if of greater means, or even royalty.

No chef would dare miss out on touring Niagara’s wineries and sampling some of the finest wines of The New World. Hence, a day was spent along the Niagara Wine Route. Pilar was afforded the opportunity to speak with winemakers; walk their orchards and wine-making facilities while discussing the suitability of certain grapes grown in the region, organic farming, and harvesting; and of course taste. The recommendations of Mary Luz as well as Karen Lavigne of Niagara College were key to enabling Pilar to visit a broad diversity of production facilities in terms of size, level of sophistication, and more generally ambiance ranging from the most architecturally modern tasting rooms and retail outlets, to the smallest family run operations reminiscent of the quaint, family-run mezcal palenques back in Oaxaca.

Epilogue

Pilar will be back in Ontario advancing her mission, in some of the same and in other venues, if not in 2010 then within a couple of years. Invitations have already been extended, locales ranging from Ottawa, back down to Niagara. Other chefs in Oaxaca have already taken notice, some extending congratulatory notes, and in at least one case active pursuit of the Canadian market has already begun. But Pilar will likely leave the competitions to those who follow in her footsteps, with pleasure.

Oaxacans before her have been invited to Toronto, craftspeople as part of Latin American and Mexican festivals. In fact recently one of the Navarro sisters of Santo Tomás Jalieza (cotton textiles) and Carlomagno Pedro Martínez of San Bartolo Coyotepec (barro negro) spent three weeks in Toronto, invitees of the Gardiner Museum. But none has created such media stir and evoked such widespread public interest, as Chef Pilar Cabrera.

For Pilar’s part, a self-described metamorphosis has transformed the once all too modest chef. Now back in Oaxaca, the “little firecracker,” as Food Network Canada’s Erin Jackson described her, maintains humility yet with childlike exuberance, eyes clearly fixed on change after such an inspirational journey. A day after her return to Oaxaca she was off to a restaurant supply show in Mexico City to order new equipment; at her cooking school she immediately instituted new procedures to enhance the conduct of classes; and at La Olla, providing better value added service to patrons was at the top of the list, the first order of business to teach her waiters about the differences in chiles. Who would have thought!

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Social Anthropology and an LL.B. from Osgoode Hall Law School. A Toronto litigator until 2004, Alvin now resides in Oaxaca where he writes, leads personalized tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a documentary film consultant, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), combining the comfort and service of a downtown Oaxaca hotel with the lodging style of a quaint country inn .

Posted by titosarah 10:17 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Oaxacan chef inadvertently sets City of Toronto ablaze

steals limelight from Clinton, Clooney

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

All Pilar Cabrera really wanted was to do a little promotion for Oaxaca, and make a few Canadian dollars during one of the slowest months of the year for tourism. But by the end of Chef Pilar’s four-week September visit to Toronto, she had set both local and national media on fire – so much so that coverage of her trip resulted in every restaurant in which she was scheduled to cook being sold out; she had to turn down last minute requests to work her culinary magic at additional private dinner parties and cooking schools.

The stellar reviews throughout the trip kept chatter alive; Sheryl Kirby of TasteTO.com described her cena at Frida, a highly praised Mexican restaurant, as “one of the best meals of my life,” then continued to note “the sheer brilliance of Cabrera’s 30-ingredient authentic Oaxacan mole.”

Like many Oaxacan women, Pilar learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. But when the time came to think in earnest of her future, her path diverged from that of others. While living in Mexico City she earned a degree in food sciences and nutrition, and thereafter worked in research and development for food giant Herdez, McCormick. She then returned to Oaxaca to open Restaurante La Olla, and Casa de los Sabores Cooking School.

Pilar has been featured in publications such as Bon Appetit and The New York Times, and lauded by the likes of acclaimed restauranteur Rick Bayless who regularly brings his staff to Oaxaca where they take her classes. Over the years she had been offered and then rejected opportunities to teach and cook outside of Mexico. It was not until Spring, 2009, at the encouragement of this writer, and with the invaluable media and culinary industry contacts of Toronto food researcher and writer Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, that the Toronto tour became a reality.

A planned two week tour rapidly turned into three, as eateries and a prominent cooking school expressed immediate interest. The trip was extended to four weeks when Adriana Becerra – Serrano, Community Affairs Liaison at the Consulado General de México learned of Pilar’s trip and asked her to represent Mexico at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre International Hot & Spicy Food Festival – Pilar was a judge at the Emerging Chefs competition, and was pitted against Louisiana in the Iron Chef main event.

Throughout September, the diversity of plates Pilar prepared was matched only by the broad range of restaurants and teaching venues in which she plied her trade – as honored guest chef, and as instructor. At the high end was Frank, the 120-seat dining room of the Art Gallery of Ontario, with a menu which included tiger shrimp al mezcal skewered with mango, fresh Ontario sweet corn bisque garnished with pomegranate, and chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and poblano chile atop a bed of tomatillo salsa.

Pilar’s opportunity to showcase Oaxacan botanas came near the end of the trip at Torito Tapas Bar where a packed house munched on tostaditas with habanera-marinated red snapper and with octopus a la hierba santa, red mole tacos, mushroom and epazote quesadillas, bacon and cheese memelitas, with pastel de tres leches at the finish.

Pilar spent two days at Nella Cucina Culinary School. Managing Director Joanne Lusted lauded Pilar and Ms. Mejia for somehow managing to sell out sessions totaling 80 students, where prominent Canadian chefs had failed to attract such numbers. And at The Chef’s House, the restaurant and hands-on teaching facility of The Institute of Culinary Arts at George Brown College, Pilar taught both chefs and students, ultimately providing totally enthralled foodies with the likes of potato and chorizo molotitos, sopa Tehuana, pescado Istmeño, flan de vainilla with seasonal berry coulis, and café de olla.

Media activity began prior to Pilar’s arrival, with a flurry of blog activity. Then the day after her arrival she was live on National TV, showcasing five dishes she had prepared that morning, as well as Herencia del Mezcalero mezcal. In a Toronto Events column of the Toronto Sun newspaper, Pilar’s tour was noted ahead of President Bill Clinton’s much-touted talk to Torontonians. September 11th she was in the test kitchen of The Toronto Star preparing moles – verde and amarillo.

“I was nervous about being able to source the ingredients I would need, in Toronto, especially for dishes like verde,” Pilar admits. “I knew the newspaper would not publish a recipe unless all ingredients could be purchased locally. I was amazed at how many of our herbs, chiles and other foodstuffs are found in Kensington Market.” And so was The Star; on the 16th it ran almost a full page about Pilar in its Entertainment & Living section. While the photograph of George Clooney promoting the Toronto International Film Festival was a bit larger than that of Pilar, Jennifer Bain, The Star’s food editor, was allotted much more space to write about our own Oaxacan star.

Other media coverage included articles in magazines such as City Bites (distributed with The Globe and Mail), and a wonderful little piece about Pilar’s take on huitlacoche, aired nationwide on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Here and Now.

All told, Pilar judged, competed, cooked and instructed 11 full days and evenings, in addition to at least an equal number preparing – sourcing ingredients and meeting with administrators and chefs.

The epic journey did allow a few days for visits to several museums; Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake and tastings at wineries; a cottage on Lake Simcoe for relaxation; and even Casino Rama (“not for me, but it was interesting to see Las Vegas – style gambling”). And there was an opportunity to sample ethnic eateries including Thai, Sechwan, Ethiopian, Indian, Jewish and Greek; as well as indulge at restaurants ranging from the finest of French (Auberge du Pommier) to neighborhood jazz and wings bistros.

“The warmth with which I was welcomed into the kitchens of other chefs to ask and learn, and the appreciation shown for the little I was able to impart to Torontonians about Oaxaca, was truly remarkable. There is so much the people of Toronto and Oaxaca can learn from each other, relating to gastronomy and other aspects of culture and tourism.”

Indeed. The tour has ignited interest in future tours by Pilar as well as other Oaxacans. With the continued support of the Mexican Consulate in Canada, and the willingness of the Mexico and Toronto Tourism boards to jump on the bandwagon, perhaps the State of Oaxaca will see the benefit in providing more support and encouragement for its own to travel abroad, for the benefit of all Oaxacans.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Social Anthropology from Toronto’s York University, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin ceased practicing law in 2004, when he and his wife Arlene began living permanently in Oaxaca. Since that time, Alvin has written over 90 articles about life and cultural traditions in and around Oaxaca and its central valleys, for newspapers, magazines, and websites promoting tourism in Mexico and abroad. Alvin and Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).

Posted by titosarah 15:10 Archived in Canada Tagged food Comments (0)

La Catrina de Alcalá: Oaxaca restaurant review

One of the best in the city, without a doubt

overcast

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

La Catrina de Alcalá ranks amongst the city’s finest restaurants, rather unsual since most other restaurants within two blocks of the Oaxaca’s zócalo manage to get by with cafeteria-style atmosphere, mariachis and marimbas, and mediocre food. But owner / artist Rolando Rojas took the plunge, and the gamble has paid off: both quality Oaxacan, and unique continental fare in a tasteful courtyard setting, in the heart of the Centro Histórico.

The establishment is actually three businesses combined in a two-story piece of prime real estate, along Oaxaca’s famed pedestrian walkway, Macedonia Alcalá: an upper level boutique style hotel; an art gallery featuring the works of Rojas and several other respected local artists; and the adjoining eatery, managed by chef Juan Carlos Guzmán Toledo.

The experience begins with an attractive young woman clad in regional dress, smiling and welcoming at the restaurant’s entranceway, ushering you to your table. The focal point is a large, cantera stone fountain. Otherwise the décor is minimalist, white walls adorned with sparsely placed art and a series of gilt stars. Yet the ambiance somehow exudes comfort and warmth, perhaps facilitated by the lone strumming troubadour, half hidden behind a strategically placed cluster of plants.

Waiters are eager to show off their English proficiency, whether needed or not, as bowls of salsa, one smoky tomato-based, and the other with a hint of shrimp are placed alongside totopos (crispy, toasted corn-flour crackers).

The restaurant prides itself in its use of seasonal, locally produced ingredients, and boasts that when you patronize La Catrina you’re helping local economies. Vegetarian dishes, “slow food,” and plates from the Isthmus region of the state are noted. However, occasionally the odd import sneaks in as a special, such as kobe beef.

The menu otherwise covers all the bases: soups, salads and appetizers; meat, poultry and pasta; fish and seafood, and regional specialties such as a selection of three Oaxacan moles. But even those dishes in the continental genre are often presented with local flare.

Particularly noteworthy as starters are the poblano pepper soup with mushrooms, squash blossom and bacon, and hierba santa leaves stuffed with Oaxacan string and goat cheeses in a green tomato and mecco chili sauce. The salads range from the traditional to the unique (jícama, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds, wheat quenelle, fried hibiscus flowers and fresh cheese with hibiscus dressing). The staff is extremely accommodating in terms of sensitivity to those with dietary restrictions or a purist palate. For example, at our most recent evening out, chef Juan Carlos was happy to comply with my wife’s request for a simple small green salad.
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The seared tuna with mango and habanero sauce, alongside white beans in coconut milk is prepared to perfection, with the flavor of each ingredient easily discernable. The sliced duck and fresh fig is served on a bed of julienne of zucchini “spaghetti,” smothered with a dark purée of honey-fig. And beef lovers are able to experiment with the non-traditional, be it a rib eye served with guacamole and creamy garlic-stuffed chili, or go for something more Oaxacan, steak marinated with mezcal, pineapple and apple, served with garlic purée stuffed chilito.

All of the after-dinner non-alcoholic hot beverages are available high-test, or decaffeinated, so extend your evening without concern, perhaps concluding with a martini glass brimming with a selection of three tropical fruit sorbets.

Also noteworthy: La Catrina has developed a dedicated breakfast and lunch crowd, often comprised of predominantly local residents. Coffee or tea is suggested upon arrival, with warm, freshly baked breads and an assortment of sweet rolls for the asking. Dishes include an assortment of eggs and omelets, traditional Oaxacan breakfast fare such as enchiladas, tamales, chilaquiles and typical Oaxacan grilled meats with garnishes, both unique and traditional salads, and sandwiches featuring spinach, goat cheese, pecan, apple, basil, mushroom and squash blossom.

La Catrina de Alcalá (www.casacatrina.com.mx). M. Alcalá 102, a couple of blocks north of the zócalo. Oaxacan cuisine with an international flare. Locals and tourists.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Social Anthropology from Toronto’s York University, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin ceased practicing law in 2004, when he and his wife began living permanently in Oaxaca. Since that time, Alvin has written well over 80 articles about life and cultural traditions in and around Oaxaca and its central valleys, including numerous restaurant reviews, for newspapers, magazines, and websites. The Starkmans run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), a unique bed and breakfast experience combining the comfort and service of a downtown Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of country inn style lodging in a quaint semi-rural setting.

Posted by titosarah 12:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged food Comments (0)

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