[Photos: Amy McKeever/Eater]
Mesamérica 2014 continued yesterday with a slew of expats sharing culinary lessons from their adopted home countries and discussing the importance of connecting across cuisines. Given that Alice Waters was one of the day's headliners, there was also a lot of discussion about sustainability, farming, and combating childhood hunger. Chef David Thompson (of the restaurant Nahm in Bangkok, ranked #1 in Asia) was also in the house to share the history and culture of Thai street food — and he brought along a bit of a surprise guest: none other than Pok Pok's Andy Ricker. Pujol chef and Mesamérica organizer Enrique Olvera had a surprise of his own at the end of the day as well. (And no, it was not René Redzepi again.) Here now, your hangover observations. >>>
The Mexican landscape
1) The day kicked off with a lecture by Mexican Secretary of Education Mara Robles about the SaludArte program that provides public elementary school children with healthy meals and provides them "education for life." Robles said that she had met with Alice Waters earlier that week (Eater spotted them sharing lunch at Pujol) and announced a partnership "for a farm that will teach children the origin of food."
2) Sud777 chef Edgar Nunez was part of a panel with Mexican food truck association president Maricarmen Linares and fellow chef Bernardo Bukantz about the food truck phenomenon in Mexico City. Mesamérica also hosted a food truck festival this past weekend at which Nunez's two trucks, Barra Vieja and Burger Lab, commanded some super long lines.
Burger Lab and Barra Vieja food trucks.
3) Vice's Daniel Hernandez screened the world premiere of a short documentary about the fondas, or cheap restaurants, of Mexico City, El Menu Del Dia. The film follows Hernandez on a fonda crawl that begins in the morning at Beatricita, mid-day at Fonda La Reforma, and then in the wee hours of the next day at Fonda Margarita. Hernandez also told the crowd that Vice hopes to launch Munchies in Mexico by the end of the year, perhaps in September.
Expats and Culinary Connections
1) Spain's Basque Culinary Center sent a delegation of four chefs (Mario Sandoval, Ricard Camarena, Alvaro Garrido, and teacher-chef Enrique Fleischmann) to Mexico City this week for Mesamérica. On Tuesday night, they teamed up with Mexico City chefs Mikel Alonso and Jorge Vallejo on a dinner at Biko.
Yesterday, all six men participated in a panel moderated by BCC Director General Joxe Mari Aizega about culinary connections. The chefs encouraged all kinds of connections: with yourself, with scientists to "learn what we cannot uncover in the kitchen," with other chefs while traveling, and with a community. Camarena noted that there's been a major chef migration to Spain "and we have become much richer" for it. Having an open attitude is a way to become richer, he added to audience applause.
2) Beardy New York expat chef Eric Werner of Hartwood in Tulum was up next to talk about the Mayan milpa crop-growing system. While reading selections from MacDuff Everton's book The Modern Maya, Werner talked about being inspired by the perseverance of Mayan farmers working in intense heat with heavy packs over long distances. At Hartwood, where he cooks over an open fire with no electricity, Werner tries to emulate the milpa, calling it, "the true meaning of growing local." He also shares one of the downsides of purveying, like the time his car broke down and caught on fire.
Eric Werner of Hartwood in Tulum.
3) Journalist and New York expat David Lida shared his expertise on Mexican cantinas in a highly entertaining presentation in which he shared tips such as which bars offer the best free snacks. While, New York bars might give you peanuts and Greek bars might give you olives, he says, "There's no city I have known that is more generous with drinkers than Mexico" in terms of free bar snack offerings. And apparently people in cantinas are generous with other things, too. Among the things the people Lida has befriended in cantinas have tried to give him: glasses, an old coin, a gold wristwatch, and one man's wife.
Though some of Mexico City's older cantinas are shuttering in neighborhoods where property values are rising, Lida notes that the future is still bright because "muchos hipsters" love cantinas, too.
1) Argentinian chef Dante Ferrero of Neuquen in Monterrey, Mexico, also gave a great talk about his passion for smoking meat. The passion started young, as being in charge of the fire and cooking meat is a privilege in Argentina. Finally, Ferrero decided to go for what he calls the "black belt of barbecue": cooking a whole cow. He discovered he loved it, and brought out a whole rack for the audience to share. (Ferrero also cooked a whole cow for Mesa Abierta in San Miguel de Allende in March.)
Ferrero encourages being a part of the whole process, including the slaughterhouse. It's not because he's a sadist, he says, but that he believes cooks need to be aware and respectful of the animals they're killing. "No one wants to see the ugly part, but they're animals. We kill animals," he said.
2) Rodrigo Oliveira of Mocoto in São Paulo came up next to encourage innovation and demo a Brazilian-style tortilla dish made with tapioca flour that is the sort of thing he says his daughters eat for breakfast. He invited audience members on stage to taste the dessert version, filled with caramel and chocolate with coffee mixed into the tapioca flour. It looked fantastic. Oliveira also offered some humble remarks about the honor of speaking there, promised a free caipirinha to anyone from Mesamérica who comes to Mocoto , and jumped into the audience to throw free aprons into the upper deck full of culinary students. Obviously, this went over very well.
Rodrigo Oliveira and the audience members he invited onstage to taste his Brazilian-style tortilla.
1) Legendary Chez Panisse restaurateur Alice Waters was one of the closing speakers of the day, though her presence was felt throughout the festival from judging René Redzepi's culinary student cook-off, partnering on Mexican educational programs, and being one of the few headliners to sit in the audience rather than in the greenroom to listen to other chefs' presentations.
2) In her half hour lecture, Waters talked about the "pervasive and toxic global presence" of fast food culture, which she says is causing people to lose their connection to the land. She discussed how her love of gardens stemmed from raising Victory Gardens in wartime as a child, praised the idea of gardens in government buildings (such as Michelle Obama's White House garden), and well as on city streets. Waters cited a number of programs around the world that are doing good work and notes that she has recently come to an even deeper understanding of the idea that "we truly are what we eat" when we're eating fast food. Stay tuned later today for a recap of The Quotable Alice Waters.
3) Oh, and at the end of the presentation, Waters tossed some produce into the audience. Apples, rainbow chard, people ran up to the stage for it all. Of course. Never change, Alice Waters.
David Thompson and Andy Ricker
Australian chef David Thompson of Nahm in Bangkok offered insight into his expertise of Thai cuisine in the last real lecture of the day. And he brought a surprise guest: Pok Pok's Andy Ricker, whom Thompson described as "far more successful than me." Together, Thompson and Ricker (with Ricker mostly playing the part of an interviewer) explained to the audience how, as Ricker put it, "Thai culture is food culture."
On Thai food culture
Thompson said it's not that food itself is sacred in Thailand, but that it can help you achieve karmic improvement as a means of showing generosity to your neighbors and building closer ties with your loved ones. That's with traditional Thai food, which is to be shared at the table.
Thai street food, however, is not to be shared but rather eaten quickly. Thompson also points out that street food is Thailand is usually mixed with cuisines from other cultures. "So what you're saying is Thai food is fusion food," Ricker said.
Thompson and Ricker.
On the history of Thai street food
"You can track a nation's history through the street food," said Thompson, who then ran through the history of street food in Thailand. He explained that, as Bangkok began to industrialize, workers could no longer go home to eat during the day. So the need evolved for casual, cheap options outside of the home.
Ricker said he thinks the Thai palate has changed as people have gotten more upwardly mobile, meaning that now they can afford more meat and that has become a bigger part of the Thai diet. The way that Thai people cook and eat has changed "dramatically," as Thailand hitched onto the global economy, Thompson agreed. "The public stomach has turned inside out," he said.
On Pad Thai
Although people in the United States tend to think Pad Thai is "an ancient dish of Siam," but really the history of the dish stems from the 1940s when there was a national competition to find a dish that joined aspects of Chinese cuisine and Thai cuisine. "This one dish that has become the symbol of Thai street food," Ricker started before being interrupted by Gelb: "…is not representative of it."
On the regionality of Thai cuisine
Ricker said that Thai cuisine "is not monolithic." Rather, it's regional. Thompson agreed and disagreed, noting that there are a lot of common dishes across the country that are actually Chinese dishes "that have been Siam-ized" like khao man gai. The more traditional Thai food is where you find the regional variation, he said, not in the usual street food fare.
On the influence of foreigners
Thompson says he noticed the impact foreigners have had on Thai food a few years ago when working on "that silly book that I scribbled." Because foreigners couldn't get a lot of the jobs in Thailand, they turned to cooking. That's why Ricker says you can now find things like sushi stands in the Thai countryside.
1) Unfortunately, Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb was unable to make the conference, but he sent a short video talking about his fascination with sushi chefs and how the filmmakers were inspired by Jiro's work ethic as they tried to perfect what became the highly acclaimed film.
2) Festival director Sasha Correa introduced her co-director and Pujol chef Enrique Olvera by noting his excellent taste in music. Olvera selects all the music that plays in his restaurants, she says, and has been known to unplug a DJ's turntable and plug in his iPod.
Olvera and Cafe Tacuba.
3) Olvera then came on stage with a little surprise. Given his passion for music (he would listen to the Bee Gees if he knew he was about to die) and his interest in joining disciplines, Olvera invited Mexican band Café Tacuba onstage to play while he and his Pujol team cooked a few dishes. As the band played, Olvera fed them and passed some dishes out to the audience as well.