Forget everything you think you know about Mexican food—it’s heavy, it’s fried, it’s fattening—and come with me to discover new, sophisticated Mexican cuisine in the history heart of the country. These are colonial cities—UNESCO World Heritage Sites—which are safe, prosperous, easily accessible via Aeromexico, and welcoming to tourists. The focus on elegant and light cooking using organic products in amazing ways is being led by a young generation of chefs who are passionately promoting locally-sourced ingredients and recipes drawn from the diverse traditions and regions of Mexico. Two weeks ago, we wrote about Mexico City and Queretaro and last week shined the spotlight on San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. This week, we focus on Chefs Ada Valencia and Monica Solis.
Sabor a Queretaro
If there is an Alice Waters of Mexico, it is Ada Valencia, 40, who in addition to being a wife, mother of two, and professional chef, is head of the “slow-food” movement in Queretaro, and passionately dedicated to the transformative power of growing and marketing locally-produced products. Her personal story is as amazing as her professional story is impressive. As she put it, “In 2009 I got a life and good health when I got cancer. Yes, cancer even brought my family closer together.” Up till then, she says, “I was going in the wrong direction, pursuing my career in a selfish way.” She studied in Spain with Chefs Adria and Arzak, who were transforming Spanish cuisine. In the U.S. she worked with, among others, renowned, New York based Mexican Chef Zarela Martinez. She coordinated pioneering food activities in Mexico with Chef Paul Bocuse and, with a full time job at Nestle Mexico, was on the fast track.
Then, tragedy struck. Within the space of a few months, Ada, her mother and aunt developed breast cancer. In 2010 her mother and aunt died. By then, Ada had undergone a double mastectomy and was in the midst of a chemotherapy regime. It was during her four-hour chemo sessions in Mexico City that she conceived and wrote a proposal to launch, Sabor Queretaro, a multi-leveled, professionally judged annual competition for the best new recipes featuring local ingredients, for both amateur and professional chefs. In 2010, 100 people – sometimes mothers and sons, aunts and nieces — competed, bringing their ingredients to the elegant grounds of the Hotel Hacienda Jurica in Queretaro, where the cooking and judging took place.
With the Spanish food revolution as a model, all of Ada’s activities are dedicated to rescuing the traditional cuisine of Mexico, reviving pride in Mexican gastronomy, and providing jobs. Ada has embraced the value of “working with others,” and expanding Mexico’s network of similarly minded chefs. “It is my gift to Mexico.”
Ada supports small businesses in the region dedicated to manufacturing and marketing local products For example, she is a partner with Carlos Sanchez Mejorada, who is producing organic honey, salsas, marinades and other products in an abandoned Seagram distillery, which he rescued and refitted as a food factory. His gourmet lines are distributed throughout the country.
In the kitchen of the Redonda Vineyard, we watched rising apprentice chefs, working under the guidance of Chef Ada, recreate the recipes that won the 2010 Sabor Queretaro competition. And at the Hotel Hacienda Jurica, we watched this year’s hopeful amateurs fire up their stoves as they prepared their specialties. What was clear was the immense achievement of this tiny, young and, in the realm of wine and food, powerful woman whose passion is, in fact, like that of Alice Waters, sparking a revolution in her country.
Monica Solis, “forty years young,” is the primary author of the official Guanajuato cookbook, and as a consultant, had the supreme honor of being invited to cook for the Pope at the Vatican. She made two dinners, met the Pope and considers it one of the great events of her life. In a macho country where male chefs have generally ruled professional kitchens, Monica and Ada are working to, as she put it, “recover the management of the kitchen in Mexico to women,” and “rescue authentic recipes of our country.” We were fortunate to observe a cooking demonstration by Monica at the elegant Villa Maria Christina, a Relais & Chauteaux luxury boutique hotel favored by such notables as Johnny Depp and the Queen of Holland. A converted townhouse, with 13 high-ceilinged suites, an indoor pool, and extensive spa facilities, the hotel boasts its own four-star chef, who joined Monica – in addition to Dina Butterfield from San Miguel — in preparing our extraordinary lunch on the hotel’s rooftop terrace. It was a testament to healthy, light food and indigenous recipes.
Local products were the stars of the show, from cactus to guenabana, a fruit from which drinks, desserts and custards are made. We began with an ethereal mix of jicama, mango, red onion, cheese and chili served in a cucumber boat, followed by an unusual, sweet-and-sour shrimp ceviche, made with green apple and orange juice, as well as lemon and xoconostle, a fruit of the cactus, elegantly served in a martini glass. The best wine of the trip, paired beautifully with the ceviche, was a 2 B Double Blanc, from Baja California.
Monica’s signature guacamole might not be to everyone’s taste, since it featured pickled pigs feet as well as the usual ingredients, but we enjoyed it, as well as her Tacos from Recason, a complex recipe with a bean and chipotle sauce. The stuffed taco was rolled and cooked in a banana leaf. Dessert was simple but outstanding – quince three ways. The membrillo ice cream was, to me, a taste revelation.
As we headed back to Mexico City for our trip home, my memories were not only of the extraordinary food I’d eaten and the beautiful cities I’d visited, but of the proud, passionate, dignified people I’d met, so many of whom are women. Dedicated to their craft, their country, and a new way of thinking and cooking, they embody the very best of their homeland. If you have never visited Mexico – or are ready to return — now is the time to consider a journey to the heart of artisanal Mexican cuisine.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag.