She’s taught Mexican food guru Rick Bayless regional Oaxacan cooking, and last week she was in Canada to teach at The Stratford Chef School. Mexican Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo instructed culinary students during her first stint as Celebrity Chef in Residence, an invitation that gives the Stratford students a cutting edge, hands-on experiences with world cuisines.
Bringing chefs from around the globe to Stratford is, according to school co-founder Eleanor Kane, what sets this culinary school apart. “Providing first contact with international restaurant chefs is important in our recruitment strategy.” Stratford alumni and culinary program high school teacher Sean Miekle, and Bob Friesen, the Recruitment Officer at the Stratford Chef School, came up with this unique concept. According to Kane, “Pilar’s visit also anchors The Stratford Chef School’s objective of enriching our curriculum with ‘world cuisines,’ bringing the work of successful restaurant chefs to the School’s students, where they learn, hands-on, to craft authentic local food from that chef’s region.”
Pilar grew up in Oaxaca City, long considered one of Mexico’s culinary capitals and the land of seven moles. Surrounded by the state’s vast food traditions and ingredients – including chile dusted fried grasshoppers (chapulines) and indigenous dishes that tell the tales of ancient, native people, Pilar completed a food engineering and nutrition degree and worked in research and development for the food giant Herdez-McCormick. Eventually, she turned to her true passion – cooking, opening her own restaurant, the award-winning La Olla (the Pot) in 1994. La Olla features regional (preferably organic) produce from local farmers who help make her Oaxacan cuisine a living work of art.
Pilar also developed a growing fan-base of intrigued foodies around the world through Casa de los Sabores (House of Flavours), her cooking school, where banana leaf wrapped tamales, rose petal sorbets and Oaxacan moles have become oft-requested recipes. Oaxacan cuisine is a labour of love that requires attention, a deft hand, fine-tuned taste buds and old-world knowledge. Pilar learned the cuisine’s subtleties from her mother and grandmother.
On Friday I was lucky enough to dine as a guest of The Stratford Chef School and sample Pilar’s cooking. After a 3 hour dark and snowy drive to Stratford with Joanne and Tonya, we arrived at The Old Prune and, on entering, were immediately transported to warmer climes. The decor was so festive and the place was definitely buzzing!
We began our evening with a Dos Equis beer, shortly followed by a Hibiscus cocktail with grasshopper and agave worm salt-rimmed glass:
Beautiful presentation and interesting flavours. The hibiscus was fairly sweet which was a lovely contrast to the meaty salt around the glass. You could tell it was some kind of protein, even if you chose not to think about what it really was! I actually found the cocktail to be a little too warm for my liking especially when drinking it on its own – I would have preferred it much colder to maybe lessen the sweetness a little. However, once paired with the starter, I decided it was perhaps more of a food pairing drink as opposed to something you would drink on its own.
Quesadillas de champiñones y quesillo con salsa verde asada
Cheese and mushrooms quesadillas with green salsa
Having eaten a ton of tortilla dishes in Mexico recently, I think Neil and I have both decided that we will never eat a wheat tortilla ever again. Corn tortillas are just so much more flavourful and I love their texture. These mushroom and cheese mini quesadillas were perfect little bites and not too cheesy – a sign of authentic Mexican. Too often, food that masquerades as Mexican is overly cheesy – and our experience in Mexico proves that it’s just not necessary. Sometimes (gasp – I can’t believe I am saying this!) less cheese is more. The salsa verde was tasty with a little kick of spice and the red salsa (made from morita, pasilla and chipotle chilis) was a smokey contrast to the green salsa’s freshness.
Next up, an item whose mere name provoked many questions about how this dish would work…
Sopa caliente de aguacate
Hot avocado soup
I know – avocado soup is one thing but a hot one? None of us were entirely sure about it. Until it arrived. Gorgeous presentation, and the taste? Like nothing you have ever eaten. If you didn’t know it was avocado, you might not guess. It had a lovely freshness which paired beautifully with the earthy avocado leaf powder on the plate for you to sprinkle on. So smooth and creamy, though I am betting there was no cream in there. And so surprisingly flavourful – we all agreed that a green soup has a lot of potential for blandness but this soup dispels that belief! I have had cold avocado soups before but this was way better – the heat really brings out the flavour of the fruit. Paired with the flinty Château de Cruzeau Blanc 2007, which worked well to contrast the fruity freshness.
Our third course was one I had my eye on since I saw the menu for the first time:
Salpicón de res
Shredded flank steak salad
I love flank steak – it’s such a great, versatile cut of meat (one of my favourite ways to use it is in Ropa Vieja), yet not so expensive. This salad was served cold with some tortilla chips and cherry tomatoes on a bed of lettuce with radishes. What a great combination of flavours and textures; the sharp radish with the sweet tomatoes, the melt-in-your-mouth beef with the crunchy tortilla and lettuce. I enjoyed this a lot, however (and I feel like I am on Top Chef here), I feel it could have used just a hint more citrus – as I was telling my dining companions that night, cut limes are served with everything in Mexico – it’s a ubiquitous condiment, if you like – and I really feel this dish would have benefited with either a hint of lime zest or a squeeze of fresh lime. That said, all our plates were clean when we had finished 😉
I was very excited to taste the next course:
Mole amarillo de pollo
Yellow mole with chicken
Yes, a yellow mole! We brought home spices and mixes for green and regular (brown, I guess) mole sauce from Mexico but I had not seen a yellow one. Served with sliced chicken breast, green beans, chayote squash and the most amazing little cilantro masa dumplings, this was a home run. If you’ve ever tastes a mole dish and thought “Meh”, this is the dish to change your mind. The sauce was light, not at all glutinous (my biggest complaint with a lot of moles I have tasted outside Mexico) and it had a nice spice to it – not overpowering and making you reach for your glass of water – definite flavour as opposed to simple heat. The cilantro dumplings were a revelation – like Mexican gnocchi or gnudi – and I will be on a mission to recreate these. What a wonderful, light starch to serve that doesn’t weigh down or take away from the main dish.
And then, because we hadn’t had enough (these *were* small portions, in case you were wondering), there was dessert. Whilst we were in Mexico, we didn’t much eat dessert, mostly because we were too full but also because we never really saw anything that we got that excited about. Had we seen this dessert, we might have… It sounds innocuous enough:
Mousse de mango
Not your usual mango mousse though. No this was more cheesecakey – and a little denser than a traditional mousse – more like a flan consistency. Served on a sweet biscuit base the mousse was sweet without being overly so – you could definitely taste the mango. Those little odd shaped things next to it are dehydrated (in a low oven for about 2 hours) hibiscus flowers. Um – YUM! I have never had these before and absolutely fell in love with them. Their crunchiness complemented the texture of the mousse perfectly. The mousse was served with a mint sorbet – the ultimate palate cleanser, also accompanied by hibiscus flowers – crushed, again providing the crunch that I find a sorbet needs.
With our coffees and teas, we were served:
Mexican petits fours
This was an outstanding meal and I am so envious of the student chefs who got to work with Chef Pilar last week – what a way to expand your culinary horizons! If you’re interested in checking out what upcoming events The Straford Chef School is hosting, click here. I hope it won’t be long before I am back there! In any case, it looks like things are looking up in terms of finding authentic Mexican in Canada, according to this article in the Globe and Mail. Exciting times!
Thank you to The Stratford Chef School for extending the dinner invitation, Chef Pilar and her assistant, Chef Francisco Alejandri and the students of the School for a wonderful evening and a lovely break from the snow, even if just for a night!
The Old Prune Restaurant
151 Albert Street
Stratford, ON N5A 3K5
Congrats to Judy (aka Hot Polka Dot’s Mom) who won my Tassimo T20 giveaway!
Random.org picked her comment as the winning one: