How did you get started on TV?
I did a show a long, long time ago called Cooking Mexican. It was a studio show as opposed to on-location like the one I do now. Before my first show, I was a cooking instructor and I did a whole lot of classes for home cooks about Mexican food. It was more than just procedure; I wove in history, ingredients, culture, plant life. So even in those classes I was already packing that sort of thing in; it’s more interesting than sweating the onion in the pan. I was teaching around the Detroit-Ann Arbor area and the people at the public TV station there were looking to do a Mexican cooking show aimed at migrant workers; something that would bridge the gap between the Mexican food they knew and their new country. The station put an ad in the newspaper and my friend saw it and told me I should talk to them. They realized I was their guy.
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on air?
One of my favorites is chilaquiles. It’s corn tortilla chips in a simple, brothy tomato sauce with a little chile for heat. It’s wonderfully homey. It has irresistible crispy bits and I love to eat it. And you can play around with it-add chicken, sliced red onions or all these different things that can easily dress it up. That’s what I really look for when cooking a dish on TV. I like that I can say, "Look how much liquid is in the pot. Add enough chips so it looks like this." It’s so much better than exact measurements. For the audience, a lot of it is about those fabulous visuals. Anything that will make the mouth water. A lot of people don’t like to eat on camera, but I eat on camera all the time. I’m standing in for the viewer. I’ll buy something from a street stall and the camera will show me putting some salsa on the taco and then do a close-up of me eating it. It should make people hungry.
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
I don’t know if there’s any other show out there that is as steeped in culture and history as we are. Most people don’t do it because it’s very hard to weave in. Alton Brown does a great job explaining the science of food. We replace the science with culture and history. Despite of the fact that we do a niche cuisine, people really love the show because they learn something. People get to see a different side of food than they usually do. I’m taking them off the beaten path to places they will probably never go. Also, it’s one of the only shows that’s shot with only one camera, so it can be edited really easily. Plus, it feels more like a dance with the viewer that way. I have to do an awful lot of rehearsal, so the camera knows where I’ll be, but shooting with one camera adds a lovely rhythm. It makes it feel like the camera is the viewer, like the viewer is there with me. I try to make it very realistic.