At IACP (the International Association of Culinary Professionals) in New Orleans recently I attended a class taught by Rick Bayless, considered the country’s foremost authority on Mexican cooking. Chef Bayless has a warm friendly manner and prepared two seafood dishes, one with Alaskan salmon and another with Alaskan black cod. Since Alaska Seafood sponsored the session the salmon and black cod was obviously of the highest quality.
Bayless shares his enthusiasm for supporting local farmers and buying directly from them, along with his knowledge of Oaxaca, Mexico. Fresh locally produced food is one of the most important trends appearing across the country today and translates easily to Mexican cooking. I am always concerned about how spicy Mexican food will be but what I tasted that day was bursting with the briny flavor of recently caught fish and lively herbs, but very little heat.
After making a fresh tomatillo sauce he added fresh herbs- epazote and hoya santa- before serving. I am familiar with epazote, a punguent herb that has a flavor similar to fresh coriander, but had not heard about hoya santa. Fortunately he gives substitutes. Although it seems like all we do at this conference is eat, I finished every bit of both samples because of the blended flavors dancing on my tongue.
Based on this introduction to Rick Bayless’ Mexican cooking I took advantage of the opportunity to eat lunch recently at his Chicago restaurant, Topobolobampo. It was a rainy Friday lunchtime and I was amazed by the packed and noisy restaurant. The walls displayed museum quality modern oil paintings in vibrant primary colors. The tables were set with amber colored plates on hammered copper chargers and votive candles and the room glowed. The main wall in the entry highlighted photos from the staff’s annual trip to Oaxaca. It was obvious that they were having fun experiencing Mexican culture and translated to a pleasant and knowledgeable waitstaff.
It was a very expensive lunch because we wanted to try everything and the food was extraordinary. Lunch started with a freshly made guacamole, bursting with chunks of ripe avocado and ending with chiles burning in the back of my throat. For an entrée I had a moist and tender pork chop gently simmered in mole sauce and surrounded by tiny chicken enchiladas and baked balls of rice. Everything tasted unique with zesty Mexican notes. Did I mention that I started with a signature margarita that was smooth and fruity? Maybe that ‘s why everything tasted wonderful, but I doubt it. It was just great food.