The Epic Journey of a Oaxacan Chef

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, 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. 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, initially 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, 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.

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.