Although I have explored many different types of cooking in my thirty years of being a chef, the Cocina Mexicana is most certainly the closest to my heart. My mother’s parents were Mexican, and my grandmother used to run a little restaurant in the Hospital of Santa Rosa in San Antonio, Texas. Her food was Tex-Mex, based on the most incredibly chewy flour tortillas, pinto beans with crispy corn chalupa shells and exceptional hot tamales. Her cupboard was full of her famous homemade jams, made from the large variety of fruit trees she nurtured in her yard. As a child, I thought her kitchen was the center of the universe. Something about the smells there and the language spoken by my grandparents over steaming cups of hot coffee seemed exotic and mysterious, and I embraced it wholeheartedly.
Oaxaca invites a deep appreciation of Mexican culture. Here time has stood still in the small villages where I was enchanted with every burro laden with corn going to the mill, every horse-drawn cart filled with alfalfa for the cows and horses; I was filled with laughter at the sight of the native guajolote, or wild turkey, puffing up his chest to impress his mate. I loved the women who could balance huge trays with watermelon slices as well as countless other products on their heads, carry babies on their backs in rebozos (woven shawls), and take time to arrange beautiful altars for their patron saints in their homes or in their market stalls. Now, after living here many years, I see many subtle changes, but still feel the magic, see the beauty, and am eager to always learn more about the history embedded here.
When I came here to live, I was introduced to the other end of the food chain. I had always been a chef, but had never grown a thing in my life. I actually thought that beans grew on trees! What a revelation to grow, harvest, and eat our own produce. I made friends with the people in the markets and in my village, the women nurtured my biggest passion– the Oaxacan kitchen and its delicacies.
Rancho Aurora is located between two small villages San Lorenzo Cacaotepec and San Felipe Tejalapan. San Felipe is a Zapotec village where handmade tortillas are the major cottage industry. I felt I really became a part of the community when we grew flowers for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). While selling them door-to-door with a friend, village women proudly shared with me the traditions that surround their holidays. The cooking techniques here are ancient customs in some villages have been preserved for over 1,000 years, and that is what gives the food its unique flavor. Crops are picked in their ripe stage to allow the flavors to reach a delicious peak. Every dish has its own magic, and its own traditional sauce to make it even more special. Oaxacans are proud of their food, and rightly so, for its flavor can be subtle or very intense, but always pure Oaxaqueño. Worldwide fascination with the culinary delights of Mexican cuisine has continued to grow, and as a result Oaxaca has earned recognition as a very special place with a unique cooking style. This is why I love to be here, teaching and cooking real Mexican food.
In 1999, I published my first major book, Seasons of My Heart, A Culinary Journey through Oaxaca, Mexico (Ballentine Books) and hosted a 13 part TV series for PBS by the same name. In 2000, we moved the cooking school out of my home kitchen and inaugurated the “temple of cooking”, as our friends call the new school building and this began a whole new phase in teaching, catering and hosting people from all over the world. Today, my favorite aspects of my work are the challenges of the regional tours and all of the new people, places and recipes that have come into my life.