Does authenticity matter? This is a question that was presented at the5th annual Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference, held at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus in the burgeoning Pearl Brewery complex October 3-5. It is a concept I have thought about extensively in regards to Latin American restaurants found outside of Latin America.
The conference brought together some of the greatest minds in Latin cuisine, from Fonda (NYC) owner Roberto Santibanez to Argentine parilla specialists, Nikkei chefs from Peru, culinary anthropologists, and research and development directors at nearly every major American restaurant chain. Framed by the CIA’s Latin certificate program at the campus, the only one of its kind in the world, and the recent opening of their New World restaurant NAO, the three day event explored new trends and ideas in Latin food through recipes, presentations, and tastings.
Moderating a panel of speakers, Rick Bayless, part of the CIA’s Latin Cuisines Advisory Council Executive Committee, stated that when he opened Frontera Grill in 1987 he tried to be as authentic as possible, importing every chile pepper and every herb from Mexico that he could. Yet, “bringing in ingredients from far away always felt wrong,” he said. Authenticity is a question he has been battling with for years and his ideas are constantly evolving.
“Could I still cook with the local agriculture around me with the Mexican spirit?” he asked. Bayless’ latest tasting menu features five courses utilizing all local ingredients Recently he found a woman selling fresh locally raised chilies in a Chicago market. They do not necessarily taste exactly like the ones grown in Mexico and no one would say that the sauce made from it is similar.
“It’s an expression of time and place,” he said. “It’s a Chicago sauce. It only could have been made in Chicago. Some would say that’s not Mexican food. I would say it’s the most authentic. It’s the personal expression of where I live and where I cook.”
“I’m not interested in authenticity,” said Mark Miller, the cookbook author, anthropologist, and founder of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, among other restaurants. He is more interested in recreating the experience achieved when eating a meal in a foreign place. There’s an emotional reaction that occurs when, for example, you are eating chiles en nogada in Puebla. Physically you cannot be eating authentic chiles en nogada from Puebla in San Diego (unless they are frozen and shipped, which completely changes the texture and flavors of the dish). “How do I expand your consciousness?” said Miller. “How do I help you understand something about yourself?” In other words, how do you recreate that experience?
Through the CIA’s 30-week Latin certificate program students (of which the first class graduates this month) learn Latin Culinary techniques like making fresh ground corn masa by hand. Others may spend years in top kitchens around Latin America, perfectly learning every possible technique, the reasons behind it, and the exact ingredients they need to execute it. As talented as a chef may be, authenticity is always going to be a question they will have to face.
Is recreating the experience an issue of finding the correct ingredients? If so, what are the correct ingredients? Are they the ones that are imported from far away, which may alter their physical makeup and flavors? Or are they the ingredients grown locally, which will also result in changes in flavors and textures?
The only real way to have a 100% completely authentic experience when dining is to travel to that place where the food is from. So does authenticity matter? I think it does. However, is it possible to recreate authenticity? I don’t think so. How is it possible to, for example, to recreate a cochinita pibil from the Yucatan, when that cochinita pibil relies on a vast network of ingredients that in them have the terroir of that place? How can you recreate the sound and intensity of the rain in the jungle that has some effect, if ever so small, on the growth of a particular group of pigs in Merida? You can’t.
It has taken Bayless decades to develop the network of local suppliers to be able to create a menu of Mexican dishes using all local products. It’s not a concept that is easy, yet it is something worth striving for. What you can do is make something your own. Rather than make a dish the most authentic it can be, make it taste as good as it can.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.