Its certainly been a banner year for Mexican cuisine. Restaurants were noted, chefs were awarded and consumer awareness as well as media interest is on the rise. Here are some of the more notable events, many of which were covered in this column:
1. (Actually, late 2010); in what we consider just desserts, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) awarded Mexico its first gastronomy recognition in December of 2010, the first year any national cuisine has been placed on the World Heritage List, alongside the Taj Majal and the Summer Palace in Beijing. This truly speaks to the ancient and modern marvel that is Mexican cuisine, something that, rather than being lost and re-discovered (like so many ancient treasures) has been and is a living, evolving cultural legacy. For commentary on the award from leading chefs and more info, refer to Gaining respect: Mexican cuisine coming into its own (April 25, 2011)
2. A verified feather in the cap of gourmet Mexican restaurants, everywhere, Pujol, Mexico City, Mexico makes the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2011 list as, “Head chef Enrique Olvera… switch[es] from fancy dining to Mexican food “with soul” … with market-inspired dishes that nod to a strong cultural legacy. Cooking in clay pots has ousted the water bath but the food is no less modern – think coffee, corn and flying ants toasted and ground into a powder, stuffed into a dried pumpkin and wrapped in corn leaves, then heated to evoke a balmy Mexican street scene.” Pujol joins Mexico’s Biko, known for its Spanish cuisine, which moved up 15 places on the list to number 31.
3. Latino chefs and food writers figured prominently in this years James Beard Awards in May, which are widely known as the “Oscars of the food world”. Mexican-born Chef Richard Sandoval, chef and owner of Richard Sandoval Restaurants, a leading international restaurant group with more than twenty six locations, was a semi-finalist for the prestigious “Outstanding Restaurateur” award, (as well as the Cordon d’Or “Restaurateur of the Year”). Jose Garces, whose parents are Ecuadorian and is owner of seven restaurants including Distrito, a spirited celebration of the vibrant culture and cuisine of Mexico City and Chifa, a Latin-Asian restaurant (both in Philadelphia) and Food Network’s 2009 new Iron Chef was a semi-finalist for “Outstanding Chef”. Santa Fe Chef Martin Rios, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, specializing in Southwestern and Asian cuisine with a French technique semifinalist for “Best Chef of the Southwest”. Last but not least Mexican cooking writer Diana Kennedy won “Cookbook of the Year” for Oaxaca al Gusto. This was her first James Beard award, after thirty years of writing.
4. San Francisco’s own Traci des Jardins won $30,000 for her designated charity, La Cocina, on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters with several weekly wins, and made a great showing before being eliminated in late rounds. Des Jardin, whose father is French Acadian, is best known for her French-influenced California cooking style (Jardiniere). her newest SF venture, Mijitas Cocina , reflects her mother’s Mexican heritage. La Cocina, based in San Francisco’s Mission district, is “a ground-breaking business incubator designed to reduce the obstacles that often prevent entrepreneurs from creating successful and sustainable small businesses….[with a] mission to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses [and a] focus primarily on minority and immigrant women.
5. Tortillas: a year of good news and bad. On the upside, selection and consumption in the US increased as “half of adults say they have eaten flour tortillas during the past month, while 39 percent have eaten corn tortillas, according to a February 2011 custom Mintel consumer survey; its not a great leap to asume this correlates to an increase in the popularity of Mexican food prepared at home. Lots of new options for tortilla lovers this year, with boutique brands, whole wheat, low sodium all making appearances on market shelves are clearly targeted at the mainstream American consumer, rather than the burgeoning Mexican population in the US. —–Bad news for Mexican’s poor though, as “A surge in financial speculation on maize is causing vastly inflated prices for corn tortillas – a sacred staple in Mexico – and threatening the health and livelihoods of the country’s poor. [Prices have not only doubled but also in fact tripled. Because 2 years ago, corn cost 2 pesos, but now it costs 6 pesos or even 6.50 per kilo. Before, corn tortillas cost 2 or 3 pesos, but now costs 12 pesos per kilo…. For many Mexicans, particularly the estimated 40 million living on less than $5 a day, tortillas account for almost half of their average daily calorie intake. (The Ecologist).
6. One of the highlights of our year had to be this columnist’s interview with celebrity Latino Chef Aaron Sanchez: Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, Chef Sanchez shared with us some of his views on Mexican cuisine, a favorite local eatery, and best of all, some great recipes!
7. On a related note and sadder note, Aaron Sanchez’s mother (and his self-proclaimed inspiration), Zarela Martinez, closed her Mexican restaurant Zarela, in February of this year, an event of such significance that it was reported by the New York Times; “it has been a fixture at 953 Second Avenue (50th Street) for 23 years. Ms. Martinez was one of the first chefs to present New Yorkers with serious interpretations of regional Mexican food, both at Zarela and, earlier, at the elegant Cafe Marimba on the Upper East Side”.
8. As a counter punch, Aarón Sánchez’s new restaurant in Leawood (Kansas) started taking reservations at the beginning of November, with a grand opening planned for this month. The Mexican restaurant, Mestizo, represents Sánchez’s first venture out of New York City which he “created to share recipes of a culturally rich and diverse cuisine”. The name, Mestizo, represents the melting pot of cultures that defines Mexico and its people.
9. 2011 was a great year for fans of Mexican culinary television, as old favorites re-appeared (Food Network’s Rick Bayless’ Mexico: One Plate at a Time), Marcela Valladolid shared approachable recipes in Mexican Made Easy (also from Food Network), and Chuck Hughes shared his adventures touring Mexican and giving many perhaps their first understanding of her regional cuisines in Cooking Channel’s Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico. With Aaron Sanchez as a regular judge on Chopped (Chef Sanchez also has a new FN show this year with Roger Mooking, Heat Seekers, “a tongue-testing odyssey to discover the most deliciously spicy food across the country”, Iron Chef Garces facing off, Mexican-foodie viewers had great choices all year long.
10. As for Most Popular Article of the Year for this column, hands-down the award goes to A Journey to Mexico in a spoon; Agave Tequila ice cream, which got as many hits in a single day as in an average month!