Interview with Chef Patricia Quintana of Izote de Patricia Quintana – Mexico, D.F.

October 2007

Heather Sperling: How did you get into food? What were some early seminal experiences for you?
Patricia Quintana: My family has a ranch in Veracruz, and my mother and grandmother were always cooking. They made hot cakes and pies, tamales and rice – and I just wanted to help them! I was very curious about the working people on the ranch. I was amazed by how they cooked on firewood and I wanted to become like one of them – to wash my clothes in the river, learn how they cook the corn, learn how they dry it in lime then grind it in the molcajete (stone mortar). They taught me about tortillas, beans and salsas. I was surrounded by things to learn and smell and put my hands on.

HS: What defines the cooking of Veracruz?
PQ: Veracruz is a very, very important region for our culture. It is one of the richest because it has 8 different types of cuisine. The southern part of Veracruz is very different from the north. Dishes of the north are based on chiles: chile ancho, chile seco, chipotle meco, which are smoked like chipotles, but larger. Traditionally they’re dried on top of the stove, but now they have smokers. There are beans and tortillas and a lot of sauces with pumpkin seeds – pipían is the sauce from pumpkin seeds that we use on enchiladas. And fish – sea bass, red snapper, grouper, river fish like catfish, crawfish, and shrimp, oysters and crab. It’s a cattle raising area, so there is lots of meat, and cheese is a staple as well. Enchiladas are made with jalapeños and Serrano chiles and tomatillos. The tortillas are brought from the comal (griddle), immediately salted, dipped in the sauce of lard and chiles, and then layered with onions and a little sprinkle of queso fresco.

In that area they also grow a lot of citrus, like oranges, tangerines and grapefruit. There are different types of tamales, with squashes, dried shrimp, shredded chicken, and mole. A huge tamal in Huastecas (in the north) is the zacahuil – it’s made with coarse ground masa, filled with turkey, chicken and pork, plus chile ancho or chile seco. It’s about 1½ meters; it’s wrapped about 50 or 60 times and cooked in a wooden oven overnight.

HS: How has the Mexican cuisine of your youth changed in the last 10-20 years?
PQ: I think that in some regions it’s stayed the same, and there are many traditions that won’t be changing. But we have developed different levels of understanding – what is contemporary, what is traditional, what is cuisine d'auteur. There is a lot of research in Mexico right now. More people are interested in learning more about the cultures throughout the country. There are towns and markets that have been the same for centuries, towns that have kept their own traditions of growing their produce themselves. We are now rediscovering those places and remembering how the traditional, regional cuisine in Mexico tastes different from what you can buy in the supermarkets. Immigrants go to the big cities, get exposed to other foods, then return to their town and realize what amazing food traditions they have.

HS: Where do you see Mexican cuisine going in the next 5-10 years?
PQ: At this moment there are many young chefs coming to work in Mexico, bringing their philosophies and new ideas about flavors and how to make them pop. It’s exciting, but I think we are not going to be too adventurous with chemicals because the cuisine doesn’t go that far, and we cannot really transform the cuisine. We can adapt and create new forms of presentation, but the sauces are going to stay the same. Maybe they’ll be powdered …but Mexicans are more traditional than you’d ever think!

HS: What is your personal culinary philosophy?
PQ: My philosophy is about tradition with a twist – doing deeper research into the food and interpreting it in other ways. Two opposite tracks are forming: one direction is towards the futuristic cooking, and the other is heading towards the roots, finding more traditional things to present in a new way.

In the end, what we saw in the ‘70s with the French chefs, and what we see today at Madrid Fusion, is that the most important contribution of Nouvelle Cuisine is the philosophy of presentation, flavors, and the product. I think the future will hold strong ties to regional products.

HS: What did you think about Madrid Fusion?
PQ: I wanted to smell, I wanted to see…we couldn’t touch anything! It has become like other big conferences – with a lot of videos and a lot of understanding through pictures and techniques, instead of experience. But I’m going to go back next year, of course. I just spoke with the minister of tourism and they want us to help create a Mexican presence.

HS: What languages do you speak?
PQ: French, Italian, English and Spanish. My great grandfather came from London, so English was easy to learn. I also went to boarding school in Canada and spoke English there. I learned French when I spent a year in Switzerland and a year in France. During that time I traveled to Italy and picked up Italian, which I continued studying when I came back to Mexico.

HS: Tell me about your cooking school in Mexico.
PQ: At this moment I’m just teaching courses when people ask me to. I haven’t been able to keep it up consistently because of the restaurant and side projects. I’m updating my book on mole (Mulli, the Book of Mole Sauces) for an American audience, working on a series of 16 books for 10 Speed Press, and I have to finish my novella.

HS: You’re a prolific writer. What are some of your favorite cookbooks by other people?
PQ: I love what Tetsuya Wakuda is doing. His cookbook is beautiful! Juan Mari Arzak too – he’s actually coming next week – he comes twice a year to get ideas to refresh his menu. I love what Pierre Hermé is doing, and I’ve always followed Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks and techniques. I love Thomas Keller’s book too.

HS: What person from history would you most like to eat dinner with? What would you eat?
PQ: You know when you are young and you idolize a pop star? For me it was Michel Guérard. I worked with him in the 1980’s, helping him open Le Cirque in Madrid – he was too early for Madrid, and the people just didn’t understand. I would love to see him again, and the Troisgros brothers too. We could eat a sandwich, or just a salad…it would still be so wonderful because they’d all be there!

HS: Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?
PQ: Moving more towards the artisanal – towards the meanings of the food. I want to extol different regions that aren’t known at this moment.