magnify Click image to view more.

Tending Tradition

Anne McBride - December 2013

Typically, at the culinary conferences that now populate cities around the globe, the world’s top chefs share the stage with other experts of similar sophisticated caliber, be they artists or activists. Village cooks seldom feature alongside representatives of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list, although they are often acknowledged as sources of inspiration. (One exception in the United States is The Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference, which started 16 years ago with the promise of an equal showcase for village cooking and haute cuisine and continues to follow that programming line today.)

In countries like Mexico and Peru, this inspiration is undeniable in the best kitchens. Chefs such as Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City and Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima serve elaborate tasting menus that have more in common aesthetically with restaurants in London or Tokyo than they do with their local peers, but are nonetheless rooted in the deep traditional cuisines of their respective homelands. Ancestral ingredients and techniques provide chefs with a seemingly endless creative playground, one where they can break boundaries and shake established notions of what a cuisine is while paying homage to the tastes and flavors that shaped their palates.

Recent conferences in these two countries juxtaposed contemporary and traditional dishes for the pleasure of wide audiences. Mistura, in Lima, ran its sixth edition in September, while the inaugural Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Mexicana (World Forum on Mexican Gastronomy) took place in Acapulco in October.

What made Mistura famous on the international conference circuit is its chef congress, which sees some of the world’s top culinary talent—this year, René Rezdepi of Noma in Denmark, Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Spain, Davide Scabin of Combal Zero in Italy, Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Brazil, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, and Blaine Wetzel of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, among many others—take the stage over four days for elaborate culinary demonstrations or more philosophical presentations in front of an audience of a few hundred. But the most fascinating aspect of the event, which lasts 12 days, is a collection of mundos: groupings of traditional Peruvian restaurants arranged around culinary elements such as seviche, pigs cooked over open fire, quinoa, anticuchos, or sandwiches. The cooks and restaurateurs come from throughout the country to feed 500,000 of their compatriots, preparing about 2,000 portions of their specialty per day.

Attendees can taste foods from various regions of the country, from the coast to the high peaks, offering an overview of Peruvian cuisine that is unparalleled. They come as families, pay an entry fee, and take turns standing in line to purchase the best foods on offer, sharing tips and tasting notes with their neighbors. It’s not cheap for Peruvians to come to the festival, but the general feeling that passes through the crowd is that no amount of money would dissuade them from partaking in this celebration of their cuisine and ingredients.

Though not with a purpose expressed as such, the congress side of Mistura, which was created by Peru’s foremost chef and culinary ambassador, Gastón Acurio, brings international journalists and chefs to Lima. This, along with a collaborative movement that has seen the country’s best chefs work together to find and make use of the abundance of ingredients Peru has to offer, has helped the city raise its profile as a global gastronomic capital. Visitors come for the stars and stay for a cuisine that speaks for itself at all levels and, most important, is appreciated by all. While few can afford the tasting menu of Acurio’s flagship Astrid y Gaston—named number 1 restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America—he is nonetheless followed around at all times by hundreds of people who clamor for a bit of his attention during Mistura.

With a group of presenters focused on giving their food a sense of place—whether in England, Italy, Belgium, or Chile—pride in all local ingredients and culinary cultures took a different shape under the congress’ tent, but reflected the general, unmatched spirit of Mistura.

The Foro Mundial launched with a four day schedule that included three different tracks of panels and cooking demonstrations, a trade show, a musical stage, various official ceremonies for awards, and lunches centered around women from villages of regions throughout Mexico, who cooked their traditional fares and sold them for a fee to the attendees. The forum was organized by Gloria López Morales, the president of the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture, who spearheaded the efforts behind getting Mexican gastronomy declared intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, the first cuisine to receive that distinction. The appellation focuses specifically on the cuisine of Michoacán, which was well represented at the forum, with a marketing budget seemingly exceeding that of other states: colorful ribbons with the state’s name and its tourism website were tied to attendees’ wrists, while photographers snapped shots of them eating the foods prepared by the traditional cooks and asked them to pose with signs touting the state’s gastronomy.

The indoor program sparked conversations on how to best ensure the future of Mexican gastronomy among the country’s most elite culinary minds, including an extensive presentation on chiles by revered Mexican chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and a demonstration of a few dishes that will figure on the menu of Ferran and Albert Adrià’s Mexican restaurant in Spain by Paco Méndez. The fact that the two legendary Spanish chefs decided to create a Mexican restaurant was the source of much pride among attendees.

The trepidation was, however, greatest around these women cooks—often the last bearers of traditional cuisines in their regions. The organizers hoped to stimulate interest for these cuisines among the numerous culinary students from throughout Mexico who were in attendance, to ensure that these foods would not disappear once the older generations pass on. Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and Estado de Mexico were among the states represented by women in colorful garbs who served their foods behind tables dressed with ingredients and dishware representative of their lands.

The matriarch of all the women cooks hailed from the east-central state of Tlaxcala, the smallest one in Mexico: at 96, Francisca Maldonado is the oldest of five generations of women cooking in their village, all of whom came to Acapulco. Maldonado made pipían rojo, a mole unique to the region that most Mexicans in attendance had never tasted before. Rather than using pepitas as is traditional for pipían, this version is made with the seeds and veins of chiles that Maldonado saves when preparing other dishes until she has enough to grind them into a paste that is then mixed with spices, tomatoes, and onions. No written procedure exists for her process—it’s well honed by decades of labor, and passed on to her family through experiential knowledge.

Maldonado claimed that the secret to her longevity resided in drinking nothing but pulque, the fermented agave juice—and by nothing, she meant no water, ever, and had inculcated that in the other four generations of women cooking with her, down to the eight year old. Whether myth or reality, this type of narrative contributed to the interest attendees had in these women, but the food was unquestionably the focus.

The line between restaurant chefs and traditional cooks is not yet entirely erased in Latin America; the physical separation between grand stages and live fire cooking stalls might be shortened, but it’s still there. However, the enthusiasm for all levels of culinary expressions that positioning them in front of the same audience creates has gone a long way in propelling Latin America at the forefront of the world’s culinary scene.