Today’s post marks an occasional series I’m launching on this blog called “Tastemakers.” It’ll be a series of Q&As with people doing inspiring things with Mexican or Latin cuisine, in Mexico, New York and elsewhere. If you want to nominate someone, email me.
Margarita Carrillo Arronte is among the most well-regarded chefs in Mexico. She’s traveled the world and cooked Mexican cuisine for dignitaries and government officials, and her restaurant in Los Cabos, Don Emiliano, is well-respected and well-regarded. I met her for the first time a few years ago at a Slow Food dinner focusing on tamales, and she wooed the crowd (and me) with her tales of researching tamales in far-flung pueblos for her upcoming book.
She seems busy enough — did I mention she also hosts a travel show about Puebla on Mexican TV? — which is why I was surprised to find out several months ago that she’d left Don Emiliano to open a new restaurant in Mexico City, Turtux.
Traditionally, upscale restaurants in the capital have leaned toward the dramatic side, with chefs adding vanguardist touches to traditional Mexican ingredients. The food at Turtux isn’t like that. It’s soulful and still surprising; dishes like pistachio mole, or borrego slow-simmered in a pulque sauce, or ribs rubbed with guayaba and chile pasilla oaxaqueño satisfy deeply, yet somehow have an elegant touch. A comalera also makes heirloom-corn antojitos to order on the back patio (try the bone-marrow sopes), making Turtux one of my favorite new restaurants in the city.
Carrillo’s new cookbook, Tamales y Atoles Mexicanos, is a must if you’re a Mexican food fan and you can read Spanish. The book breaks tamales down by technique and texture of the masa, and includes recipes that Carrillo says have not previously been published. A few months before I left Mexico City for New York, she was gracious enough to talk to me about her new adventure, and how she gets it all done.
I read that you’ve been in the culinary world for more than 30 years. How did you get your start?
Well, I come from a very, very traditional Mexican family in which cooking was part of family values and family tradition. I grew up cooking with my mother, my grandmother, my aunts. I wasn’t conscious that I was learning. We just cooked. I grew up like this. I went to university to study education, and then I went back to university to study culinary arts.
What is it about Mexican food that you find so interesting?
It has a lot of unique techniques and ingredients. And it’s been there for hundreds of years, for centuries. And we still, many dishes, we still eat exactly the same. Mexican cuisine is not just a group of recipes. It’s completely mingled with religion, traditions and of course our culture. I love it and I find it very sophisticated and very simple at the same time. Wherever I’ve been cooking Mexican food, it’s surprising, people don’t expect this quality of food.
You were in Los Cabos for so long. Why didn’t you just retire and live on the beach?
No, no. (laughs) I was very happy there. But I never lived there full time. It was my son who lived there full time and I went there once a month. I had my house, my husband, the rest of my family here. And I love Mexico City. Although the restaurant was my reason to go there, I loved going there, but I’m not a watersports person or beach person. I’m allergic to sun.
What are trying to achieve with Turtux? Why Turtux and not a second branch of Don Emiliano, for instance? This is much more work.
Well. One of my missions in life is to spread the world about real Mexican food. And for me, I loved the restaurant in Los Cabos and I wanted to continue with its activity. I found this group of businessmen who believed in me, and who wanted to continue with my work, to help me to achieve my mission, and that’s why we’re here.
Did you find it harder to take on this task now?
Of course. I’m 10 years older. But I love my work so much. And at this moment in my life it’s harder because it’s a lot of work to open a restaurant in Mexico City. It demands 24 hours a day from your life. But it doesn’t matter. I’m very happy and I’m glad I did it. And I thank god for the opportuity.
The menu seems so personal, which really stuck out to me. I’m not sure if you ate any of these things when you were younger, but it seems like you would have.
Of course! It’s the way I am. I have to put my heart into my work. I grew up cooking, always in my house. We were six kids plus all the extras we always had. We were 20 people to eat every day in my house. Every day was a party. …My father enjoyed it a lot. He loved his Sunday gatherings, with this elegant table wth linen tablecloths and nice china, and glassware, and always my brothers with a suit and a tie, and my mother and sisters and I always nice-looking. It was an event, every Sunday. So we grew up eating food, and the importance of the bond, the family bond. I can tell you that the kitchen in my childhood house was a huge kitchen. We could go inside the kitchen with our bicycles.
What was your favorite dish growing up?
There were so many. But my father’s birthday was on the 20th of November, it’s Revolution Day, and my mother always made — from scratch — the traditonal mole. And I loved it. And my aunts, my father’s sisters, during the whole year criaban turkeys, so we could eat them on that particular day.
And my mother always cooked them. She made the mole and our maids ground it on the metates, and my aunts cooked one turkey in a cuñete, cold, and the other in mole. I remember all the ceremony of roasting the chiles, and the almonds and things, and I remember the smells of things — I loved helping my mother, since then. She started allowing me to help her little by little. One day she said, “Now I’m very tired, you take over. I will keep an eye on you.” I was maybe 17 or 18. She said, “Now you’re ready, you do it from now on.” And I started to do it — I started to make the mole every year on the 20th of November. And when she died, I stopped making mole for five years.
Why was it so important to focus on tamales in your book?
I found out in the U.S. there are a lot of books on tamales. And I discovered, I realized in Mexico we hadn’t any, because tamales were so familiar to us. They’re always there for every celebration so we never thought, we need to write a book on tamales. I decided that I needed to write a book becuse it was our culture, our food. …It took me a long time to decide which ones I would include and which ones I would take off, but in the end, I think it worked out very, very nicely.
Was there one tamal you found particularly surprising in your research?
Oh yes, several. But one was the raw meat tamal from Guerrero. It was very surprising, and it’s so good. One recipe that’s almost lost is tamal de espiga, it’s a corn espiga, not the traditional wheat. I went this little town and looked for the lady who I knew made these tamales, and I was with her for three days, and we went to the fields and she taught me how to cut the espiga, and make the tamales in this tradition. It was rescuing this recipe that nobody makes anymore.
It seems like you’re always super busy?
Yes. (laughs) I wish I had more time to sleep.
How do you do it all?
Well the truth is, short hours. And I have a lot of people who help me. A lot of people around me who are kind to me, and help me finish my work, and in many things I give the idea and they help me with the mechanical work. I have my son, my daughter-in-law, my kitchen staff here in Turtux, and my friends who help me. But the truth is very short hours.
Meaning you get everything done in a small amount of time?
Yes. When you have to, you have to. I think like the rocker Bon Jovi: I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I don’t sleep enough but I try to make the most of my day. I sacrifice some things but it’s worth it. One thing that is very important for you to mention is, I could do all this — have three boys and do a lot of my social life and everything — because the back-up was my husband, always. He was there with the kids when I was going to school. And he was a great, great support for me. I couldn’t do everything that I could do in my life without his support.