My love affair with all things Mexico began about 7 years ago. After one magical week in the Riviera Maya my partner and I have become obsessed with the regionally diverse and succulent dishes produced by this vast country. It shames me to admit that up until my rendezvous with “M” I was ignorant to the true cuisine of Mexico, confusing it with some glorified and greasy form of dehydrated tacos and the ever mysterious glowing cheese.
Once I was exposed to the never-ending world of flavour, texture and earthy perfection of Mexican cuisine I was hooked and soon became a food groupie to a pint size chef by the name of Pilar Cabrera Arroyo. Chef Pilar is impassioned by her hometown of Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ka) Mexico, a food Mecca for those afflicted with a south of the border obsession. This culturally rich town is the backdrop to Pilar’s internationally acclaimed restaurant La Olla and her cooking school, La Casa de los Sabores. Utilizing the indigenous spice of the region and passed down family recipes, this Mexican Food Goddess intoxicates foreigners with the true seduction of “M.”
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pilar and watched her in action as she lead a group of culinary hopefuls at Danforth Collegiate to produce a lunch for various press and food industry leaders. It is rare that anyone captivates me to a state of star struck awe, but witnessing this talented Chef, (who exuded the perfect merriment of wisdom, control and warmth), lead over 20 teenagers with ease, I truly wanted to steal her hand towel and frame in above my bed.
Our feast began with Tinga al Chipotle: a slow stewed pulled chicken with the perfect balance of smoke and sweet nestled on a warm corn tortilla. It was one of those dishes that was so flavour forward you instantly wanted to eat more. Pilar, you got me at Tinga. The bountiful spread that followed was a cornucopia of spice, texture and passion that included: Soup Redolent with Ancho Chilies, Alambre de Camarones: jumbo shrimp with Serrano chillies, Chile Rellenos: roasted Poblanos stuffed with various ingredients dipped in stiff egg whites and shallow fried. This sensuous introduction to Oaxacan cuisine was prepared in only a few hours by this Culinary Wizard with the help of teenage Chef-lings.
As a veteran of the Culinary Arts I have eaten all over the world, and have been blessed to have dined, cooked and partaken in some extraordinary meals, but this lunch surrounded by college recruitment posters and teenage acne was fantastical. It is uncertain how long my love affair with “M” will continue. I have come to peace with the fact that I am far too old to have a Quinceañera (or so my local Taquería owner has told me) and that as hard as I try to rock a Puebla style dress I will forever look like a waist- less garden gnome, but as our drab winter trudges on I feel the Siren song of “M” calling my name. I sat down with Pilar to talk to her about all things Oaxaca.
When did you know you wanted to become a Chef?
I’ve always been interested in food. It was that interest which lead me to enter into the food sciences and nutrition degree program at university in Mexico City. But as a child and as a teen, I really never saw myself becoming a chef. It’s something that happened gradually, little by little, and of course after completing university, my career path started to become clearer. But even after university I wasn’t certain about what I wanted to do, and so I worked for three years in R & D at Herdez, McCormick. That experience helped clarify what I would want to do as a career.
What is your fondest and most profound childhood food memory?
Cooking with my grandma.
Chefs require constant inspiration to be creative, what or where do you look to for inspiration?
I love to travel and try different foods and recipes from wherever I visit; whether it’s from a little food stand on a street corner, a market in Mexico City, or the most popular restaurants in the country.
If you could try a different career for a year, what would it be?
A photographer, specializing in arranging and photographing different foods and dishes for serving. I’m interested in food presentation and styling, and am always sensitive to how comidas appear; I suppose to some extent I’m always looking at food through a camera lens.
Why is teaching such an integral part of you being a Chef?
Teaching is to share, to promote and to show people things other than that which they are used to seeing or eating. As a chef you are charged with making people happy through food. My goal is to please people through cooking.
What is your most favourite Mexican dish and why?
Well, there are two dishes: tacos al pastor, because everyone who prepares it uses a marinade that’s a little different than the others, unique to the particular cook or chef, and I always enjoy trying foods with subtle differences in flavor; the other is pozole, because it’s a soup which combines various raw vegetables, herbs and spices.
What do you think are some of the common misconceptions regarding Mexican Food in North America?
People think that Mexican food is just green or red enchiladas, tortas and other similar popular or mainstream dishes. Most don’t know, for example, that Oaxaca has seven different kinds of moles.
What are five ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
Chiles (fresh and dried), avocado, tortillas, Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo) and chocolate
Did you come from a family where preparing food and enjoying it together was an important part of your life?
Of course; I always used to go to the market with my grandma or my mother to buy fresh ingredients, and then return home and cook; mealtime was very important for us because we would sit around the table together as a family and eat and talk about anything and everything that was going on in our lives, in the city, and so on.
~Therese De Grace