The Epic Journey of a Oaxacan Chef18 min read
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.
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.
The Toronto Star invited Pilar to its test kitchen to prepare mole amarillo and verde. The Star will not publish a recipe unless each and every ingredient is locally available. Pilar’s concern was securing the green leafy herbs for the verde, but as it turned out, the dry hierba santa did do the trick, and everything else was available fresh. A page-long spread on September 16th, stands as testament of ingredient availability: http://www.thestar.com/living/food/article/696159.
Repeated phone calls, emails, and attendances to and with the chefs and administration of each establishment were ongoing right up until Pilar’s final performance the evening of September 29th, at The Chef’s House, the restaurant and hands-on teaching facility of George Brown College’s Institute of Culinary Arts.
Arrangements had previously been made for longtime friend, Enrique Jiménez of Mezcal del Amigo notoriety, to give Pilar as many bottles of each type of mezcal – blanco, reposado and añejo – as she wanted. Then Ontario’s Woolwich Diary, known for its goat and feta cheeses, offered to provide each venue with unlimited product. The range of recipes in Pilar’s arsenal increased. And the generosity of these two enhanced the ability of each restaurant and culinary institute to bolster its bottom line.
The events, and more of the media
It’s beyond the scope of this essay to review each dinner prepared at the diversity of venues. However, the range included: teaching at the two Nella Cucina events, and working with Chef Li and his team of chefs and students of the hospitality industry at George Brown College; Frank Restaurant, the 120 seat high end dining room of the Art Gallery of Ontario (featuring guest artist Gabriela Campos while lives in Ontario and spends part of each year in Oaxaca); Veritas Local Fare; working alongside fellow Mexicans Luis Valenzuela at Torito Tapas Bar and Pepe at Frida; and finally, Pilar’s solo efforts at private dinner parties in the kitchens of Mary Luz, and of Lee Baker of Oakville, Ontario.
To this writer the dinner at Frank gets the highest grade, echoed by the critique on September 22nd, in the Women’s Post by Cathy Riches of the Toronto Tourism Board:
“Starting with one of the best margaritas I’ve ever had (sorry Mexico!), the six-course meal unfolded delightfully, moving from botanas (Mexico’s version of tapas) of silken scallop ceviche, incredibly fresh salsa de mango and guacamole, to kebabs of grilled shrimp the size of a baby’s fist, sublime salad, creamy corn soup, and chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and poblano chiles. As with any fine meal, it’s the details and subtle touches that raise it above the mundane. So, a scattering of tart pomegranate seeds contrasted beautifully with the sweet richness of the corn soup and delicate, crispy fried tortilla threads and chile pasilla added crunch and fire to the salad. The artful blend of typical Mexican ingredients with local ones like Woolwich Dairy goat cheese was also a welcome touch.”
But it was the review of Sheryl Kirby of TasteTO.com, after her experience at Frida on September 16th, which set the tone for the tour and was likely instrumental in ensuring that each and every evening event was completely sold out:
“the sheer brilliance of Cabrera’s 30-ingredient authentic Oaxacan mole will likely remain one of the highlights of my food writing career.”
As a result of the careful and skilled orchestration of Sizzling Communications (http://www.sizzlingcommunications.com/), media were either at each public event, or attempting to ply Pilar away from her engagements so as to obtain interviews for radio, television, newspaper and magazine, and blogs. Newspaper coverage included the Toronto Sun noting Pilar’s tour ahead of Bill Clinton’s much-touted talk to Torontonians; The Toronto Star giving her more press than George Clooney’s participation in the Toronto International Film Festival; and an article about her tour in City Bites, a magazine insert of The Globe and Mail.
While at Nella, Pilar was interview by Sarah Elton for a radio piece about huitlacoche, a delicacy derived from corn mold, which aired on CBC Radio’s Here and Now on September 23rd, and by Food Network Canada’s Erin Jackson, who recounted her exhilarating experience in taking a class from “the master herself.”
Pilar was also interviewed over bagels and cream cheese for breakfast at Jewish style restaurant favorite United Dairies, by Good Food Revelation’s Malcolm Jolley. Additional coverage was provided through Slow Food Toronto, Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, and on websites such as Tripadvisor, Mexico My-Space and Mexconnect.
Dining, leisure, and being a tourist
When it came to Pilar’s own diversity of Toronto culinary experiences, she did it all – well almost: whole Sechwan duck to go; snails in black bean sauce and ginger lobster at this writer’s favorite Sechwan seafood haunt on Spadina Avenue; a selection of Greek fare on Danforth Avenue; Ethiopian; Thai; Indian; Hot Wings and jazz at a couple of bistros; healthy selections at the gentrified Beaches neighborhood; Italian at The Monkey Bar on Toronto’s famous Yonge Street; and the crowning glory, French with a Quebecois touch at Auberge du Pommier.
She also strolled along streets in Toronto’s Korean, Italian and Polish neighborhoods, and of course did her share of shopping in the malls of the city and suburbs, and in Orillia, on Lake Simcoe in cottage country.
Toronto sights included the mandatory CN Tower (still the largest freestanding structure in the world) and museums: the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics; the Royal Ontario Museum; the Bata Shoe Museum; and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
More out of the ordinary, Pilar spent an entire day at the Christie Classic Antique Show, the largest exhibition and sale in the country, with in excess of 300 dealers in a splendid, outdoor rural setting; paid a visit to the dentist for a complimentary teeth cleaning; attended OVO, one of the 15 Cirque de Soleil spectaculars; and even witnessed a Family Court motions hearing at the Superior Court of Ontario, providing an interesting comparison to Mexican judicial process.
“My two priorities for my visit to Toronto are to get to a number of restaurant and kitchen supply outlets, and to see Niagara Falls,” Pilar had resolved well in advance of her trip. Not only did she get her fill of opportunities to buy all manner of equipment, tool and utensil for her own establishments, but she was able to enter the kitchens of restaurants and cooking schools ranging from those similar to her own, to the state-of-the-art facility at Auberge du Pommier and the elaborate and spacious kitchens at the Art Gallery’s Frank Restaurant, and everything in between. And even while walking along the streets of downtown Toronto, Pilar was welcomed into the kitchens of restaurateurs who were complete strangers to her, Sean Baille’s Kultura on King Street a case in point: “I’m amazed at how open and friendly the owners and chefs are, letting me come into their kitchens to look, ask questions and even take photographs. The openness and willingness to talk and exchange ideas is something to which we, as Oaxacans in the hospitality industry, should aspire.”
The two-day visit to the Niagara Peninsula provided much more than a chance to see The Falls, ride The Maid of The Mist, shop at souvenir and fudge shops, and experience the schlocky wax museums and horror shows.
The wonderfully manicured fairy-tale town of Niagara-On-The-Lake was both awe-inspiring and relaxing, strolling its quaint, flower-adorned main avenue lined with all nature of shops and galleries; and of course visiting the Price of Wales Hotel to experience its pomp and imagine its glory years, while miring its $400-a-night suites, roll-playing as if of greater means, or even royalty.
No chef would dare miss out on touring Niagara’s wineries and sampling some of the finest wines of The New World. Hence, a day was spent along the Niagara Wine Route. Pilar was afforded the opportunity to speak with winemakers; walk their orchards and wine-making facilities while discussing the suitability of certain grapes grown in the region, organic farming, and harvesting; and of course taste. The recommendations of Mary Luz as well as Karen Lavigne of Niagara College were key to enabling Pilar to visit a broad diversity of production facilities in terms of size, level of sophistication, and more generally ambiance ranging from the most architecturally modern tasting rooms and retail outlets, to the smallest family run operations reminiscent of the quaint, family-run mezcal palenques back in Oaxaca.
Pilar will be back in Ontario advancing her mission, in some of the same and in other venues, if not in 2010 then within a couple of years. Invitations have already been extended, locales ranging from Ottawa, back down to Niagara. Other chefs in Oaxaca have already taken notice, some extending congratulatory notes, and in at least one case active pursuit of the Canadian market has already begun. But Pilar will likely leave the competitions to those who follow in her footsteps, with pleasure.
Oaxacans before her have been invited to Toronto, craftspeople as part of Latin American and Mexican festivals. In fact recently one of the Navarro sisters of Santo Tomás Jalieza (cotton textiles) and Carlomagno Pedro Martínez of San Bartolo Coyotepec (barro negro) spent three weeks in Toronto, invitees of the Gardiner Museum. But none has created such media stir and evoked such widespread public interest, as Chef Pilar Cabrera.
For Pilar’s part, a self-described metamorphosis has transformed the once all too modest chef. Now back in Oaxaca, the “little firecracker,” as Food Network Canada’s Erin Jackson described her, maintains humility yet with childlike exuberance, eyes clearly fixed on change after such an inspirational journey. A day after her return to Oaxaca she was off to a restaurant supply show in Mexico City to order new equipment; at her cooking school she immediately instituted new procedures to enhance the conduct of classes; and at La Olla, providing better value added service to patrons was at the top of the list, the first order of business to teach her waiters about the differences in chiles. Who would have thought!