Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Savouring Thoughts with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo

Friday January 14th, 2011 

Toronto is so fortunate to have Mary Luz Mejia and her husband Mario Strojanic, the two principles of Sizzling Communications based in this ever-evolving city. Thanks to them I heard about the special arrangements made by the Stratford Chef School to bring Oaxaca (region in Mexico dubbed the Land of Seven Moles {pron. Moh-leh}) cuisine to Stratford at The Old Prune and to Toronto through acclaimed Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo.  In Toronto, she lead approximately 20 culinary-focused high school students at Danforth Collegiate & Technical Institute on Friday January 14th, 2011.  Media was invited to sit-in on the class, help cook or even enjoy the authentic Oaxacan lunch the students created alongside Chef Pilar.  

Photo of Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, 
courtesy of Mary Luz Mejia, Sizzling Communications 

I had the pleasure of posing a few questions to Chef Pilar for her to savour over... Many thanks go to Alvin Starkman who did a fabulous job translating the questions and answers for this interview with Chef Pilar!

SL:  What advice do you have for the attending students?
PCA:  When preparing Oaxacan food, and for that matter any kind of food, use patience, and be passionate about what you’re doing.  If you don’t have the passion for food and cooking, it just won’t work. 
SL:  Oaxaca boasts an impressive gastronomic repertoire long admired by the rest of Mexico and foodies the world over. What new exciting directions do you think Oaxacan cuisine will go in?
PCA: I think we’ll see more of a fusion of flavours. Oaxacan cuisine has developed in this way since colonial times. A lot of ingredients are indigenous to Oaxaca (and Mexico), but the Spanish introduced many ingredients as well. What began hundreds of years ago, will continue, and grow. Mole negro, i.e., is not comprised of only ingredients which are native to Mexico. Many of the more than 30 ingredients were initially brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. Mole negro was a recipe which developed over time. Keeping with the theme of mole, I think we’ll see a preservation of the current ingredient list, and basic preparation techniques, but where we’ll see change is in its presentation… more contemporary and novel, or cutting edge presentation, with the same recipe(s).  In that way the flavours which we as Mexicans have developed over generations will continue, but the dishes will be different in terms of appearance. Flavour is one dimension of cuisine, and another is the visual impact it has on the diner; the appearance of the dish can and should enhance the overall experience.

 SL:  There is a huge focus on freshness and local ingredients. What about seasonality?
PCA: We have an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce, all the time. On the other hand, while for example mangos are always available, they’re only now, mid – January, being produced locally, after a draught of three or more months not finding them in the markets in terms of quantities of very fresh product. But we have other fruits, so we’re never without lots of fresh seasonal produce. Huitlacoche (corn mould) is a delicacy, and while you can find it throughout the year, and some restaurants use it in recipes all year round, the best time to get and use it is in the rainy season.  It’s the same with chapulines (grasshoppers), one of the foodstuffs for which Oaxaca is famous. Oaxacans tend not to buy and eat chapulines all that much except during the right season, when they are fresh and harvested locally.  Chiles en nogada is a seasonal dish (in part because its presentation has the colours of the Mexican flag and hence it’s served towards the end of August and throughout September), but can be made year round.  However, when made during the optimum season, the dish explodes with flavour because of the fresh seasonal fruit from the sierra (i.e. pears, apples, peaches). It makes such a difference.  So getting back to your question, here in Oaxaca, Oaxacans are very sensitive to seasonality. Visitors to Oaxaca will appreciate the impact of the use of seasonal produce native to the region because of the difference it makes to the end product, the dish.
SL:  Your career path is one long love story connected with food.  After completing your food engineering and nutrition degree, you were hired by food giant Herdez-McCormick for Research & Development.  In 1994, you opened your award-winning restaurant called La Olla (the Pot) featuring regional produce (organic if possible). Then, you started your own cooking school called Casa de los Sabores (House of Flavours).  Looking back, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
PCA: Instead of a degree in food sciences and nutrition, I would have studied gastronomy; because that’s what I love more than anything.  On the other hand, my educational background in chemistry and everything else I learned in university has certainly given me a base from which to advance personally with what I’m passionate about.  What I learned in food sciences has helped me a lot with learning about and developing flavours. So while when asked that question of course I must give an answer, and the answer is gastronomy v. food sciences, I have no regrets since the education I did receive has served me quite well, and I can still draw on it to advance myself gastronomically, as a chef and in teaching others.

Celebrated Chef Rick Bayless (of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo) is one of the others she taught. He says, "I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in Mexican food to take advantage of any opportunity to learn from and experience the Oaxacan cuisine of Pilar Cabrera. She is one of the greats!" 
The New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine have echoed similar sentiments.  Toronto is so lucky to have her in town to share her passion for Oaxacan cuisine! Thank you Stratford Chef School for sharing Chef Pilar with Toronto! 

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