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Mesamérica 2014, Day One: Street Food, Batali, & Bowien

[Photos: Amy McKeever/Eater]

Yesterday marked the opening day of the third annual Mesamérica conference in Mexico City. In addition to surprise guest René Redzepi and his tear-jerker of a moment, the day was filled with lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and quotable moments from the likes of headliners Mario Batali and Danny Bowien, as well as the slew of Mexican and international chefs and academics. Here now, your day one hangover observations:

Mexican Street Food and Culture

1) Mexican writer Juan Villoro started off the day with a discussion about street food as part of Mexican culture. He talked about the phenomenon known as Montezuma's Revenge (traveler's diarrhea) as it relates to patriotism, and also dropped some interesting knowledge about how traffic defines the way of eating in Mexico City. Thanks to their two-hour work commutes each way, Villoro said: "People in Mexico don't eat whenever they get hungry, but whenever they have a chance because of the traffic."

2) Mexico City is embarking on a revitalization of its historic Merced Market. Designer Ariel Rojo and CEO of the city's fresh produce wholesale market Horacio Robles offered a presentation about their plans to revitalize the market (which houses some 70,000 merchants) without losing its tradition. Rojo challenged the audience to make this a new culinary corridor, and, as Robles added, "Let us all build the city."

3) Paxia chef Daniel Ovadia offered quite a departure from the usual chef demonstration at these events. Rather than prepare a few dishes onstage, he invited 10 guests that he had selected in advance to the stage to indulge in a tasting menu that his team prepared on the spot. Dishes included tripe tacos, bone marrow, snapper in a light tempura batter that Ovadia says they fry at the table at Paxia by pouring hot oil over the fish in front of the diners. 80 percent of dishes are finished at the table at Paxia, he said. It looked pretty badass. "Please start eating," Ovadia told the 10 diners at one point. "You only have 20 minutes."

Daniel Ovadia and the Paxia team cook 10 tasting menus onstage. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

4) Choice quote from Mexican chef José Miguel Garcia of La Barraca Valenciana: "Have you ever heard of a molecular torta? Well that's good because it's a piece of crap."

5) Marco Ochoa lectured on the past and the future of mezcal, its regional forms, and the pitfalls of domain of origin. Regional mezcals are best made in their own regions, he says, explaining that it's the same as when a Mexican person eats a tortilla in the United States: "You know as a Mexican that that's not the taste of tortilla." Fair point.

6) Josefina Santacruz of el Sesame gave a detailed talk about the state of street food in Mexico today, explaining that people tend to take street food for granted and that she wanted to explain her own love for it. As Santacruz said, street food is evidence of the ingenuity of the Mexican people, and it's also a great equalizer. As a friend of her says, "Among tacos, everybody is alike." Santacruz also notes that while men might be running most of the restaurants in Mexico, it's mostly women running the food stands. And 34 percent of those women explain that it's the only way they could support their families without having professional training, she said. "Some people just don't have another way out."


1) Renzo Garibaldi is famous in Peru for his butchery, which is a matter of interest in itself given Peru's cuisine is mostly associated with fish rather than meat. He gave a butchery demo, extolled the importance of using all parts of an animal, and explained that it's important to make meat look appealing when you put it in the case. Then he passed out hot dogs! Word is that he brought a whopping 1,500 hot dogs to give out to the audience right before lunch break.

Renzo Garibaldi's hot dogs. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

2) Marc Alvarez of 41 Degrees in Barcelona took the stage to talk about cocktail-making and the huge change hitting the cocktail world in Spain. He notes that whereas at one point people didn't really know gin, now people think that the 50 different types of gin he offers at his bar are not enough. He encouraged the audience to fall in love with cocktail making.

3) Brooklyn's Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo took the stage asking, "DF in the house?" They were at the conference to introduce the assorted American chefs: Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo and Danny Bowien & Mario Batali.

4) Shook & Dotolo on early LA and the importance of Jonathan Gold: In the best entrance music of the day, Shook and Dotolo walked onstage to "California Love." They then told their story of moving from Florida to Los Angeles "not knowing shit" about the LA food scene, according to Dotolo. And, at first, in their catering days, they weren't feeling it. That is, until they started following the food trail of critic Jonathan Gold, hitting the holes in the walls. ("This is Jonathan Gold here. Or actually a shadow of him," Dotolo said while flipping through their PowerPoint.)

5) Shook & Dotolo on street food in LA: After eating that way in LA for awhile, Shook says that he and Dotolo started cooking like they were eating. It was at that point that they realized there really wasn't much street food in LA. In fact, Dotolo pointed out, it was illegal. But there was a sense that things were about to change. And, in 2008, Roy Choi opened the Kogi truck. "The Kogi truck also launched a whole new mentality for street food," Dotolo said, adding that today's street food culture in LA wouldn't have happened without him. The duo finished out their presentation with a preparation of their hamachi tostada, which Dotolo said "sort of evokes all the flavors of LA for us."

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

Mario Batali and Danny Bowien

The day's headliners were Mario Batali and Danny Bowien, and they took a bit of a departure from the street food theme to drop some wisdom on the young audience on being chefs and restaurateurs. In a discussion moderated by Madfeed's Gabe Ulla, Batali and Bowien talked about their paths to becoming chefs, becoming famous, taking care of their employees, authenticity, the Mission Chinese shutter in New York, whether symposiums like this one are "bullshit" and more. Here are some quotes:

On getting into cooking:
Batali: "Do not expect you're going to be Lebron James."
Bowien (later): "I know I'll never be Lebron James because I'm Asian and small."
Batali: "You can be Lebron James of kung pao pastrami."

On authenticity:
Batali argued for chefs offering their own takes on food and not worrying too much about authenticity. "When I interpret a dish, it's not because i'm just trying to fuck with it," he explains. And chefs definitely shouldn't care what journalists say about authenticity, he adds. "Who the fuck cares?"

On Mission Chinese:
Batali asked Bowien when he's going to reopen Mission Chinese in New York, and Bowien replied that he hopes it'll be by the end of the year. Then he added that he wants to open a restaurant in Mexico City, reminiscing about the last time he came and ate at 35 taquerias in four days. "Mexico City is badass," Bowien said.

Gabe Ulla, Danny Bowien, and Mario Batali. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

On fine dining and treating your staff well:
Batali argued that fine dining isn't going away, it's just the "silly tabletop" trappings of it that are going away. Instead, he says, restaurants can spend the money they would have spent on tableclothes and expensive silverware on their own staff. When later asked about his career mistakes, Batali said, "If we had any mess up, it wasn't paying enough attention to your staff as opposed to customers." Now Batali has an HR department and retains his staff by offering them a piece of the business. Batali says his restaurant empire has 24 executive chef partners and 23 general manager partners.

On making mistakes:
Both Batali and Bowien told the audience that they shouldn't be afraid of failure. Bowien pointed out that his restaurant got closed in New York, but he's not crying about it. "You can do whatever the fuck you want as long as you don't ever give up," he said.

On fame:
Batali cautioned young cooks to "search for their fame slowly" and be sure to maintain it. After all, he said, it takes 20 years to build a great personal brand and only three drunk days to destroy it. Both chefs said that people shouldn't get into cooking for fame but only because they love it.

On whether symposiums are bullshit:
Bowien said he doesn't think symposiums are bullshit, but did offer himself up as a cautionary tale for when you stretch yourself too thin when you're just getting started. At one point in the early days, Bowien said, David Chang sat him down and told him, "You have to be in your restaurant." But symposiums afforded him the chance to meet his heroes, Bowien said. Batali also supports symposiums but cautioned that chefs need to know what they want to say before they go in the public eye like that. "You're going to be measured on it," he said.

· All Mesamerica Coverage on Eater [-E-]