Ricardo Muñoz Zurita has dedicated his life to Mexican food. He's one of the country's most well-regarded chefs, with several restaurants in Mexico City, but he hopes to be remembered for the eleven books he's authored (so far) on topics ranging from chilis to salsas to colors in his country's cooking. His greatest work is perhaps the Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana, a text that aims to codify every ingredient and technique in the vast gastronomic canon of Mexico. The most recent edition, edited by Larousse, represents the culmination of twenty-two years of work. Not to mention Muñoz Zurita took on the project in 80s, at a time when nothing like it existed, and Mexico's culinary scene was in a sad state of affairs. The Larousse edition has just been released in Mexico and is currently being translated to English by the University of Texas at Austin. In the following interview, Muñoz Zurita talks about the dictionary project, his career, and the new generation of Mexican cooks.
You're perhaps best known for your academic work, but you also own several restaurants. Can you explain how you came to have — and balance — both?
I started out in the early 1980s, when there was no such thing as culinary school in Mexico. If you wanted to be a chef, you'd probably have to go to France. So, I first I went to San Diego to learn a bit about international cuisine, as well as what was in vogue then, which was healthy cooking. I went to Paris after that to the Cordon Bleu.
I'm telling you all of this because there was a point where I realized that they'd tell you in Mexico that the best came from Europe. I also realized that outside of Mexico, what people understood of Mexican cuisine was extremely limited. And I could almost have said the same thing about the perception and understanding of Mexican food within Mexico!
I never thought I'd be an author, but one day I really thought about it and said to myself, "Who is going to write all of these books that need to be written? Who is going to take that on?"
People have said there was nothing like it before.
Yes. We didn't have one and we needed one. All of the great cuisines had dictionaries, but ours didn't. So I decided to do it. The first edition, the red book which has become popular, took twelve years to complete. The goal was to document everything, preserve tradition, and enhance knowledge.
But I wanted it to be more complete. In 2000, when I came back to Mexico City, I started working on an expanded version. Ten years later, I handed Larousse what I had done, and several times in the process, they told me that it was too ambitious and vast to make a book out of it. But in the end, it happened.
How did the restaurants come into the picture?
While doing things, I realized I needed restaurants and needed to make a name for myself. I opened several restaurants, which also served the purpose of showcasing a lot — but obviously not all — of the food that's mentioned in my books. That's very valuable, I think. It's one thing to know about something in theory, to read about it, and another to be able to go somewhere and really be a part of it.
Patty Quintana, who wrote one of my favorite books, didn't have a restaurant until fairly recently, and Diana Kennedy has only written [and not cooked].
But you can't really blame them for not opening restaurants.
Of course not. Not everyone needs to be trained in the craft they study or write about. I'm just saying that in my case, it was important to use my training as a chef to enhance my work as a writer. I could make my books even more alive. I hope to come off as modest as possible — it's just something I'm happy to be able to do. It's one thing to read about Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and another to experience it. You have to try to be in it.
Talk about the dictionary. How's it organized and what does it contain?
Like any dictionary, it's a list of words organized alphabetically. In this case, you can find definitions of any ingredient, dish, utensil, or technique in Mexican cooking. You'll have a section on the olive, for instance, which outlines how the olive is prepared from region to region in this country, not in Greece or Italy or anywhere else.
I think it's a valuable tool for anyone who wants to learn about Mexican food. You won't find a recipe for mole negro in the book, but you'll learn what it's made of and how they make it in different areas. If there's an ingredient in the explanation you're not familiar with, there will be an entry in the book dedicated to it. It becomes this big, dizzying, but complete web.
This took twenty-years. It's enormous. So I'll ask you a pretty basic question: how in the world does one go about actually making something like this happen?
I say this sincerely: you can't be too sane to take on a project like this. I thought, twenty-two years ago, that this would be a glossary of some kind. What I did was research extensively and then fit everything I found into the alphabet, and it just kept growing and growing. I started writing this — to illustrate the magnitude of the project — on a black and white computer.
I had a few assistants to make sure that I wasn't losing information. I'd start writing the entry for mole negro, to use the same example, and I'd ask them to make sure we had definitions for every ingredient that would be mentioned in the mole entry. To be honest, though, I didn't get the assistants until very late in the process.
There's another thing I'd like to say about the project: even though there's an extensive bibliography, this wasn't a desk job. The majority of it is made up of discoveries and research done in the field, throughout the country.
Would you say it's complete?
I'm ambitious and hard on myself, so I'd say there are things missing. But to do the book justice and call a spade a spade, I'll tell you that it's the most complete book ever done on Mexican gastronomy. I'm already working on expanding sections from the dictionary to turn them into books.
I think that people in general don't understand the great gastronomic diversity of this country. There's almost every imaginable landscape here, and that gives way to different ingredients and styles of cooking. The universe of Mexican cooking is so vast that it makes the work that people like me do almost impossible, unachievable.
Someone unfamiliar with your opinions might look at the kind of work you do and the type of food at your restaurants and assume you're not a fan of the more progressive Mexican restaurants. But that's not the case.
I'm extremely interested in it. I would be a total retrograde to say I was only interested in the past. There are chefs like Enrique Olvera, Benito Molina, Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain that are responsible for one of the richest and most beautiful periods in Mexican cooking. These guys are doing great things.
The only thing that makes me a little sad is the fact that not too many young chefs are doing traditional cooking. That being said, there is so much to praise and enjoy from this new generation. I would say that all of these newer players are extremely cultured and well-trained, which makes for really excellent and thoughtful food.
It's wonderful to see that these chefs of the new Mexican cuisine are already inspiring even younger cooks. This wasn't the case when I started. There was a time, not too long ago, when people were either doing French with Mexican ingredients or Mexican in a French way. It didn't really work. We're in a far better place now.