Photo by Michael Ventura
, a Mexican chef with a television show on PBS, almost spent her career as a Latin American policy analyst. (Which is crazy, because she's excellent on TV: warm, charismatic, approachable.) Then, about eight years ago, while working for a Washington D.C. think tank and researching a paper on Peru's Sendero Luminoso, she found her mind wandering to ceviches. She told herself: “This is nuts.” She quit her job and entered L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where she earned a degree in Intensive Culinary Skills. In March, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published her first cookbook, Pati's Mexican Table
, which carries the same name as her television show. The book combines personal stories from Jinich's life -- growing up in Mexico City, living as a newlywed in Dallas, and later, putting food on the table for her husband and three boys in Washington D.C. -- with the nuts-and-bolts of Mexican cuisine. She describes the flavors of common dried and fresh chiles, and emphasizes that not all Mexican food is spicy. The cookbook also includes lesser-known recipes from classic Mexico City restaurants, such as Bellinghausen
and El Bajio
. Pati and I have followed each other on Twitter for years, and we recently got a chance to meet in person. Over coffee in Chelsea, she told me why she wanted to do a cookbook, what jumpstarted her love for Mexican cuisine, and where she likes to eat when she's home. Here's an excerpt from our conversation, which I've edited for length and clarity. Lesley:
I love the book. Pati: Yay! It feels really personal. I thought it was well-written and there were some great phrases in there, like, woo, I want to underline that one.
P: (Laughs.) L: It struck me that there isn’t a cookbook out there that’s written by a Mexican chef, by somone who was born in Mexico and grew up in Mexico, but aimed at an American audience. I guess my first question is -- have you felt any pressure at all to be one of the few visible people, trying to translate this cuisine for the masses?
P: No pressure at all. I wouldn’t describe it as pressure. I would describe it as the opposite. I’d describe it as me really wanting to do it. The American palate has changed incredibly from the time I moved to Texas 15 years ago to now. The American palate is so much more adventurous and willing. People not only want to go out for enchiladas and tacos once in awhile -- people are now doing taco night at home. They’re not only going to eat Mexican out, but they’re bringing Mexican ingredients into their home. I think many people see the ingredients in the grocery store, but they’re not really sure how to buy them, what to do with them. They know that salsa verde is made with something called a tomatillo, but they see it in the store, they don’t know what it looks like. I’m trying to connect the dots and be as useful as I can. Rather than pressure, I want to do more, more and more. L: One of the stories that resonated with me, because I think we were sort of in the reverse situation, was when you got to the U.S. and you were newly married and you were sort of like, “I don’t know what to do with all this stuff.” Can you talk a little more about that time period in your life? It seems like that was a really pivotal point that has led you to where you are today.
Nostalgia is a really powerful thing, I think. I was a newlywed. How old were you when you got married? 26.
I got married around 24. And I thought I was this grown up, mature woman. I was such a baby. I was super shy. I went from my mom’s house, you know the Mexican tradition. I came from my mother’s house with my suitcase, to my husband’s apartment. I grew up with food all my life, eating and playing with food, my family is obsessed with food, all of my sisters are into food, my parents are wonderful cooks. But I wasn’t a good cook at all. I was a good eater. And when we moved to Dallas, you know, it was just -- it felt so close to home and so far away, because there are so many Mexicans in Texas, but you’re in the United States. I kept wanting to have the same interactions with people that I had in Mexico. I was six months in Mexico when I first got married, and I started food shopping for us. I’d go to the same pollera con la que iba mi mama, mi abuelita, la Sra. Lucy who saw me when I was three years old. And I would buy my fruits and vegetables with the same guy whose father atendió a mi mama, y te tocan la fruta, “Para cuando quieres el aguacatito?” [“What day will you be eating the avocados?”]
You know. Sí.
I’d go to Texas and I’d talk to the cashier: “What’s your name?” And they were gonna call the police. I’d want to know people’s names and I wanted to connect. I wasn’t getting that. It was very frustrating. My husband was traveling like crazy, so I was by myself in a rented duplex typing my thesis on Mexican governors and the Mexican revolution. I have to tell this story about a dream, because I had it for months, the same dream. I would walk up the stairs and there would be Tochito [the Oaxacan nanny who raised Pati]
, making her chicken broth, which we used to make every week to start the week, which I do now at home. I would smell the caldo de pollo fresco and a big pot of refried beans, and in my dream, it was painful. I’d smell the smells and remember the feeling of not wanting to wake up. I’d wake up and I would close my eyes, like, don’t wake up, don’t wake up.
Pati Jinich's Pastel Azteca (Aztec Casserole). Photo by Penny De Los Santos.
So I started trying, like a madwoman, to cook all those things. I’d go to the Latino stores, and many Asian stores, because in Texas many Asian stores had Latin ingredients. And I’d talk to anybody que se dejara -- and I would, like, how do you say, que los persigues? Follow them?
I’d stalk them. “You know how to make Mexican rice?” I’d take notes. And that’s how not being in Mexico, I started cooking Mexican, in the kitchen in Texas. I’d call my mom, and I’d call my aunt, cuando era la época de chiles en nogada, I’d call and test different recipes. And my husband started telling me, “Pati, you should do something with food.” I flirted with the idea of going to El Centro College
because they had a food program, which was not a chef degree, but a food and science thing. I went and interviewed with the director and was really tempted to do it. But then I thought, estudié in the ITAM
. When I talked about food, my dad was like, “Te vas a meter en la cocina para lavar trastes? No entiendo.” I worked for a little time as a cooking assistant on KERA in Dallas [on New Tastes of Texas with host Stephan Pyles]
. I never thought I’d be on the screen -- in fact I never even considered it. It was helping them set up interviews on topics for episodes, trying to research who was the best mole person in the town of whatever. It sounds really fun.
It was the best job I ever had. It was going back to Mexico, deeply nostalgic about Mexico, and going as a translator of the Mexican culture to people. I felt so useful and at the same time, again, I think the jobs that eventually meant the most are the ones I’ve been humbled with. It was like, interpret Mexico to these gringos, none of whom spoke Spanish. And at the same time I was learning so much about my country by researching for them. I loved that experience. My husband kept saying you should do food, you should do food. But I thought of it como un splurge. You know, work is serious. Where do you like to eat in Mexico City? What’s the first place you go?
Always, always El Cardenal
. They have the best guajolota ever. Guajolota, como sandwich de tamal?
Yes. At El Cardenal?
Yes. Pero en El Cardenal, you know what they do? Porque, many street stands, abren una telera [a flat sandwich roll]
y te meten un tamal. In El Cardenal, they bake the tamal, in the bread, in the oven! So it’s like, all combined. Ohhhh. Yum.
No no. Lesley. It’s like an empanada de tamal.
It’s outrageous. You have the crust, the telera crust. It’s unbelievable. One of my sisters told me many years ago, because I used to go for the guajolotas on the street all the time. And she was like, you haven’t tried El Cardenal? I love everything in El Cardenal. El Bajío with my dad. Their plantain and refried bean quesadillas are unbelievable. Yeah, I love those.
Then, Los Panchos for tacos campechanos, que tiene la gordita de las carnitas de chicharrón. Kills me. I’m a sucker for El Farolito
. I know they’ve become sort of a chain, but it brings so many memories to me. I always order the same thing there. Their salsa especial kills me. I know they now sell it in a bag. So what’s next for you?
I keep wracking my head with all the things I didn’t include in this cookbook. So I would love to write the next one. We said we were going to do 100 recipes, and at the time this was the best that I could compile, but as the process has closed, I'm like, oh, I wanted to add these. I'm thinking of a different spin. But I’d love to do another.