Imagine if you could spend not just an hour, but a whole day with an expert in the one thing in life you’re most passionate about. Imagine also that you can work alongside them and feel like you could ask them any question and that you’d get an answer to it. That, in a nutshell describes my day with Chef Alejandro Ruiz. Call Me A Food Lover has taken me on some fantastic eating adventures in the last 2 years. It has been my excuse to eat well, travel the world and to explore outside of my comfort zone. I feel like my past 171 posts prepared me for my experience today. Alejandro Ruiz is known as the leader in contemporary cuisine in Oaxaca. He’s also considered one of the best chef’s in Mexico. Not to name drop, (I only mention this so you understand his importance), but Alejandro’s been in the kitchen with both Ferran and Albert Adrià as they get closer to opening their Mexican restaurant in Barcelona, and he will be cooking with the “best chef in the world”, René Redzepi at an end of the world dinner later this month. But this is not what makes Chef Alejandro Ruiz special. He is a master in the techniques and traditions of Oaxacan cuisine. His connection to food came from his mother, and his close ties to the Oaxacan land, from growing up working the family farm. Criollo (cree-yo-yo) is a term used to describe local foods, indigenous to the region. In a time where we are just starting to understand the importance of local foods, it seems Alejandro has known it and subscribed to it, all of his life. But above all, what makes Chef Alejandro Ruiz so special is that he is kind, approachable and so willing to share himself and his ideas, not just with the elite gastronomic community but with everyday regular people like myself. My fantastic experience was organized by Kyle (of Café Brujula) with the gentle nudging of my group in Oaxaca. They visited Alejandro last week at his Casa Oaxaca Cafe and prepped him on my visit. I wasn’t sure what I was getting in to, so when I received my first email from Alejandro, I decided to google him and with the wealth of information I gleaned, I was eagerly anticipating my day in the kitchen with him. We were picked up by Alejandro at 10am at our Casa. He sat down with me and we discussed some options of what to prepare. The rest of the group wandered in to our conversation and mentioned that we were interested in having something traditionally Oaxaqueno, but not a traditional mole and he seemed very open to that. Although we had originally discussed going to the market to see what was fresh to determine the menu, (which was fine with me as that’s the way I do most of my menu planning at home), we bantered about a few ideas so we had a direction in mind. As we sat menu planning, I realized that with the group I was with, I was going to have to assert myself to gain the attention of the chef. Sometimes, I can be quiet or shy when I first meet people, but I knew that I had to push myself out of my awkwardness to rise to the occasion. I was happy I had done my research the night before, so I was able to ask meaningful questions on our walk to the market. Although there were 5 other people on this experience with me, from the sounds of this post it may seem like I was by myself, because my experience was so extraordinary, that I was made to feel like it was all mine.
I have to admit that the food is almost secondary to the time that I spent with Alejandro. I was relentless, asking as many questions as I could and getting brilliant answers. I’ll mention now that although I wanted to call him “Chef”, he did ask that I call him “Alejandro”, which is how I’ve referred to him in this post. Alejandro was quick to point out that we were not going to participate in a cooking class, as he was not going to teach us how to cook in a day, but he considered it more a Taller de Cocina (Cooking Workshop). I liked his use of the word, “taller” as it’s how Ferran Adria refered to his laboratory to explore new cooking techniques. When I asked Alejandro how closely knit the chefs were in Oaxaca, he told me that he, along with the chefs from Origen and Pitiona get together regularly in the taller to cook and share ideas. I mentioned that I had read that his cuisine was sometimes referred to as Modern Oaxacan, and if “modern” was in any way was similar to “molecular”. After he poo-poo’d the idea of molecular, Alejandro explained that he doesn’t consider his food as modern but more an evolution of Oaxacan cuisine. He feels that if his food constantly evolves, then Oaxacan food can evolve with him but if there’s too big of a shift – outside the box – then he may lose the foundation of the traditional cuisine. He pointed out that his food is sometimes referred to as “fusion” to which he stated, “fusion is confusion”, which I have to agree with myself. I think he feels that what he does (with a hand motion to describe it) is a twist on traditional Oaxacan cuisine. My only regret is that my photos don’t justify the experience. What I realized very quickly was that to fully appreciate the day, I was going to have to be a participant rather than a documenter. I was hoping I could grab photos from others, but I realized afterwards that they felt the same way too. While we had originally talked about going to the Abastos market, on the outskirts of town, to save time, we stayed close and walked to the Benito Juarez market a few blocks from the kitchen. Thinking back, I’m happy because I felt the extra time was better served peppering the chef with my questions. Our menu would include a seafood botana, ceviche, bass with tomato marmalade and a traditional wedding mole (but without any chocolate in sight). Our first stop in the market was for seafood. The young fishmonger is the son of the fisherman and the freshness of the seafood contained within a stand that some may consider dingy is astounding.
I immediately recognize the mutual respect between the purveyor and chef which carried on throughout the trip to the market.
We wandered from stall to stall looking for criollo products. He bought what was best at each stall and moved on when he felt we could find better. Alejandro would pick up products to inspect them carefully or hold them in his hands just to get a feel for them.
Our taller de cocina was being held in the Rodolfo Castellanos’ kitchen of Origen. We arrived there after our trip to the market and Alejandro set the kitchen up into stations for us.
On the main station he laid out the ingredients for the meat course. When we requested a dish less known to us, Alejandro described a mole which is eaten by families who have gathered together for a wedding. We learned that while the pig would be used for the wedding celebration, on the night before, when friends and families were preparing for the big day, they’d serve a meal using the remnants not being served (including the innards) to make a mole enhanced with ground corn.
We separated off into stations. I wanted to do ceviche because I could use my knife skills, but then I put myself at the fish station with the thought of making tomato marmalade (which in my mind sounded so much more technical). Kyle was by himself making the seafood botana, Henry and Tom were on mole and Jo and Molly were in charge of the ceviche.
My station turned out to be less technical than I thought and I was put to the task of purifying/washing the vegetables.
I washed, blanched and peeled the tomatoes and then quartered and de-seeded them. The tomatoes were put into a pot along with the blended seeds and skins passed through a sieve. Chef Alejandro came and added honey to the pot along with a few sprigs of rosemary and we let the pot boil away.
It seemed for the most part my job was done, so I flitted about from station to station. I felt a like my cooking skills were being under-utilized but I tried to not meddle with others and let myself enjoy the moment. The crew worked under the direction of Chef Alejandro for a few hours and it was great to see all the components coming together.
When we were close to finishing, a tray of the crispy pork bits that we picked up at the market were taken hot out the oven and put onto the counter for us to nibble on with a nice cold beer.
It was time to eat, so we went to sit at the table. Each person was responsible for finishing and serving their own dish, although Alejandro was very hands on with the plating. Kyle was first up with the seafood botana.
Next up was the girls’ ceviche. Jo and Molly went into the kitchen to plate but as I sat at the table, I realized I was missing out on some action, so I followed them in.
Next up was my sea bass with tomato marmalade, a much requested dish at Casa Oaxaca even though it’s not on the menu anymore. The fish was pan seared, skin side down and put into the oven to finish. A simple sauce of capers, lime and butter was made to counter the sweetness of the tomato marmalade.
Last up was Henry’s mole which was being served with pork ribs.
Chef Rodolfo Castellanos was not only kind enough to let us take over his kitchen but to also serve us a refreshing dessert to finish our meal.
We brought Mexican wine and Oaxacan mezcal with us to accompany the meal. After our amazing feast was complete, both chefs sat with us and I had the opportunity to learn more about the food of Oaxaca from 2 of their top chefs. I learned that the pair are opening a bar upstairs of Origen which will serve small plates of food to accompany the drinks. Alejandro took me on a tour of the space upstairs which they hope to open next year sometime. I learned about the El Saber del Sabor, a gastronomic festival in Oaxaca, whose goal is to “spread knowledge of flavors beyond the 7 moles and to research and rescue the traditional recipes of Oaxaca”. Everything about the festival sounded amazing, it sounds like something I’d really like to go to. Putting it on my list… Throughout the day, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I prepared delicious food with locally sourced ingredients, all under the tutelage of the premier ambassador of Oaxacan cuisine. Add this to the tops of my food loving experience list with 41Grados and The French Laundry. Maybe it’s because it’s fresh in my mind, but I may put my day spent with Chef Alejandro Ruiz above those 2 because it was about much more than the food alone. I gained knowledge and a deeper tie to the complex cuisine of Oaxaca. I learned to understand that criollo isn’t a new fad, but is ingrained into the lives of these chefs in Oaxaca. Above all, the day was inspirational. Maybe I’m getting spoiled with all of the amazing restaurants that I’ve been going to, but in the past few months I’ve felt like there’s been something missing in the meals I’ve been eating. I found it here, in the soul of the chef and I could really taste the difference. I’m sure the length of this post and my use of many positive adjectives captured my exuberance from the day, but I’m just going to put it out there now… BEST DAY EVER!!!
*Photos taken by Henry & Tom