What Does It Mean to Cook Mexican Food in America?
Three chefs dig in to the question of authenticity.
Authenticity is a hot topic when it comes to cuisine and culture, one that comes up a lot for 2017 Best New Chefs Rico Torres and Diego Galicia of Mixtli in San Antonio and Val M. Cantu of Californios in San Francisco, all of whom cook interpretations of Mexican cuisine in America. We invited them to unpack the idea of authenticity—and move the conversation forward.
F&W: When you hear the word “authentic,” what comes to mind?
RICO TORRES: The a-word is the f-word. It’s so overused that it’s become diluted.
DIEGO GALICIA: The thing about the word is that it’s only concerned with origins. If you’re going to be “authentic,” you need to get the cheese from Chihuahua, the corn from central Mexico, the chiles from Oaxaca—there’s a certain pedigree to follow.
TORRES: I respect ingredients and where they come from, but maybe I’m going to source tomatoes locally and cook them the way the ancients did. It’s not “authentic,” but we have to work with what we have. There’s a level of thought that goes into it. I want to turn a dish into something that can be rooted back to its origins—something future generations can get excited about.
VAL M. CANTU: People think of cuisine as frozen in time: “Here is Mexican cuisine. Here’s this recipe. If it’s not this recipe, then it’s inauthentic.” We’re all trying to broaden this idea of Mexican cuisine through personal cuisine. People don’t make the same dish all over the place; if you go to Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos, all the mothers are making mole negro, and each house has a different recipe. It’s just not a good word to describe cuisine.
GALICIA: To Val’s point, I think “authentic” came along with the sombreros and piñatas of Mexican restaurants in the 1980s. That was the world the restaurateur wanted you to experience—the cartoonish, comedic, “expected” side of Mexico. That was the way to experience the restaurant, the way to connect.
F&W: What word would you use instead?
GALICIA: The word we use a lot is “progressive.” We change all the time. We respect technique 100 percent; we use the molcajete properly, and Rico always makes the masa the same way. In the early days, Mixtli was all about really innovative technique, hard-to-get ingredients, and avant-garde displays of dishes because we admired Ferran Adrià and Wylie Dufresne. Then we realized our restaurant was actually a time-travel machine. By researching pre-Hispanic times and the influence of the Spaniards, we could go back hundreds of years. Sometimes, you need to be regressive to be progressive.
CANTU: It’s a complicated issue since we’re not in Mexico, so there is a disconnect. At Californios, we always get the question: “Is it Mexican?” Yes. “Is it Californian?” Yes. These things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
TORRES: If there were no Mexico–United States border, would we ask this question?
CANTU: A lot of times I’ve told people that I don’t care what they call it. If putting a label helps you understand it more, do it. But for me, I’m just cooking for people. We’re trying to create something special for our cities. It’s really a very personal cuisine.
F&W: Do you feel like you need to explain this often?
GALICIA: Not really. Mexican food is on the rise—just look at the James Beard Awards and Michelin stars. We don’t have to convince anyone. Every day we sell tickets, so we feel empowered.
CANTU: I feel the same way. The tricky thing with both of our restaurants is that people have strong memories of Mexican food they love, and sometimes, they come in to dinner and miss those hallmarks—tamales, cheese enchiladas. It takes a minute for them to ease into it, but eventually, they do. They initially come with anxiety, wondering, “Am I going to have a good time? Eat my chips and salsa? Drink my margarita?” Those are great things. I love those things. But sometimes you need to explore other directions.
F&W: What do you hope diners will take away from the experience of eating at your restaurants?
GALICIA: I want them to see that Mexico isn’t only how it’s portrayed in this country. It’s very complex with 31 states and different indigenous groups and crops.
CANTU: That Mexican cuisine can be so much more than [they] thought it could be.
TORRES: Food defines our culture; it’s our own side story of history. And I hope 200 years from now people will think about these cooks in Northern California and South Texas who intentionally created menus and dishes that embraced the past, present, and future.