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Chef School’s Latin Reach

The percentage of Latin Americans in the kitchens of the U.S. is startling, yet few have attained the ranks of stardom in this country. At the beginning of October, the Culinary Institute of America began its first steps toward doing something about that. With the support of generous funding by San Antonio entrepreneur Kit Goldsbury, the culinary school opened a San Antonio campus with the objective of creating more well-trained Latin chefs.

Situated in San Antonio, a city where the food is redolent with the rich flavors of the Mexican world, the campus is well placed to attain its mission as was amply testified to by the opening ceremony that included not only guest chefs from as far away as Brazil and Peru, but also notable chefs specializing in the foods of Latin America and those influenced by Latino culture such as Rick Bayless, Mark Miller, Cuban-born Maricel Presilla, Houston’s own Robert Del Grande, Florida’s Norman Van Aken and others.

Presenting Latin and Caribbean influences

The Oct. 9 opening of the campus was preceded by a two-day conference that explored many aspects of the food of Latin America. Chefs presented glorious dishes with bright Latin flavors and amazing zest of taste. The chefs with restaurants in the U.S. may have been the headliners, but those who got the most attention at the conference were the guest chefs from other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean who strutted their stuff before an attentive audience in the demonstration kitchen of the new facility.

The keynote presentation celebrated Mexican history with an instructive discourse about our notions of Mexican food and its true history by academic Jeffrey Pilcher, author of “Que Vivan Los Tamales.” Then it was on to the chefs who spent the next day and a half presenting many aspects of the foods of Latin America from Brazil’s churrasco to the cebiches of Peru and the complex dishes of the Amazon rainforest.

Dinners passed in a haze of new friends, fellowship over wine and food, and good conversation and by Friday morning it was all a culinary blur. By then, master chef Mark Miller brought attendees back to reality with a presentation that discussed how these vibrant tastes and innovative cooking methods could effectively be brought to American tables.

Three panels galvanized the crowd and got our mouths to watering. The first was a presentation of cooking over live fire as chefs from as far away as Brazil and as close by as Houston hit the grill and demonstrated the multiple Latin methods of grilling and barbecuing. Chef Rodrigo Oliveira grilled Brazilian rump steak called picanha, along with other Churrascaria specials such as fraldinha (Brazilian flank steak) and carne de sol (jerked beef). The accompanying manioc spears and manioc flour with garlic and savory vinaigrette sauce were also demonstrated by Mara Salles also from Sao Paolo. His eatery, Mocotó, founded by his father, specializes in the foods of Brazil’s northeast, and has won awards for its more than 350 brands of cachaça. Also from Saõ Paulo, Mara Salles was the first Brazilian chef to join contemporary culinary practices with the traditional foods of the country. Her restaurant, Tordesilhas, is a Saõ Paulo must for diners interested in the country’s culinary history. Beer, ribeye steaks, bacon, onions and garlic were the major components in a series of salsas created by Houston chef Robert Del Grande and Roberto Santibañez of Brooklyn’s Fonda restaurant.

Arturo Rubio and Marilu Madueño demonstrated an Andean pit roast called a pachamanca. Similar to a Hawaiian Luau or an old-fashioned New England clam bake, a pachamanca is cooked in a hole in the ground with heated, cured stones. The building of the pit was fascinating and all waited eagerly as chicken, baby back ribs and leg of lamb, along with potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, corn, yucca and unshelled fava beans were piled in. The meats and vegetables were precisely layered with hot stones, and covered first with a cloth, then with a mound of dirt on which the godfather and godmother of the pit roast — CIA benefactor Kit Goldsbury and his wife — placed a cross and red and white flowers, the colors of the Peruvian flag. When it was uncovered and disassembled after the morning’s sessions, we all stood around marveling. The pachamanca’s offerings of meat and vegetables were the highlight of lunch.

A pig cookoff was the conference’s culminating culinary event and featured Mexican pork in adobo sauce, Brazilian pork cracklins, Michoacán-style slow-cooked pork, Morelia pork stew, slow-roasted pork in banana leaves and Maricel Presilla’s 100-pound pig roasted in a caja china. The dishes were all demonstrated and served at the final reception of the conference.

A solid culinary education

The amazing display of the scope of the food of Latin America and the Caribbean were explored in panels on topics as wide-ranging as Mexican regional cooking, the African hand in the foods of Latin America, and the importance of women in the creation of Latin American and Caribbean cuisine.

The attention to the diversity and influence of these cuisines made the challenge for CIA evident. If students are able to access even a small portion of the knowledge displayed, and if they receive training in these cuisines as well as the classic French training that is the standard at most U.S. culinary schools, they’ll get a solid foundation. If they are able to use this information to capitalize on their own varying backgrounds in a San Antonio region so culturally rich in the foods of the Latin world, this campus will be poised to be a big success.

The proposed opening of an Asian campus to be located in Singapore would seem to be another step forward for the Culinary Institute of America as it aims to celebrate the varying culinary cultures of the globe. I wouldn’t be me, however, if I didn’t ponder when and where will the campus be located that specializes in the foods of the African continent and its Diaspora? Now that’s an opening I dream of attending.

Jessica B. Harris is the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage.

Photo: Afro-Peruvian tacu tacu as prepared by Chef Marilu Madueño of Huaca Pullcana in Lima, Peru.

Credit: Jessica B. Harris