The epic journey of a Oaxacan chef

A short break while working in Toronto

Mary Luz and Mario, eating Sechwan with Pilar

Pilar Cabrera’s world had changed – how she taught her cooking classes, how she ran her restaurant, her vision of her gastronomic future – and she had only been back from her month-long visit to Toronto for 10 days. But outside influences have always played an integral part in the history of Oaxaca’s rich culinary heritage, dating back at least five centuries to the melding of native Zapotec traditions with the import of Old World ingredients during the Spanish Conquest.

In a similar fashion, throughout the course of Chef Pilar’s sojourn to Southern Ontario, she impacted the way many Canadians view Mexican cuisine – now as more than tacos and enchiladas. And at the same time Pilar provided those who already had a palate for pozole, pescado Istmeño and pay de requesón with Oaxacan chocolate, with fulfillment of yearnings they had secretly held since their last visit to Oaxaca.

Pilar’s Canadian excursion provides an example of how Oaxacans can make their mark upon other countries, with no financial support from their own state government. But more importantly, it is yet another illustration of the positive impact which can result from one native woman’s willingness to take a risk, and with the encouragement of family and friends to move outside of her comfort zone. In the case of Pilar there was more: the aid of receptive Toronto restaurants and culinary academies, an enthusiastic public including food experts and aficionados of diverse gastronomic traditions, a keen media, and the unwavering assistance of a food researcher, writer and consultant.

It all began during the winter of 2008 / 09, in Oaxaca, with the chance meeting of Torontonian Mary Luz Mejia, partner with husband Mario in Sizzling Communications, and this writer, a Oaxacan resident and former Torontonian – yours truly lamenting how all too often US and Canadian media gravitate towards showcasing all that is American, even when it comes to promoting aspects of foreign cultures – cooking and cuisine a case in point.

“Look at Pilar Cabrera,” I exclaimed, “a native Zapotec chef who learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, and then supplemented that knowledge with a university degree in food sciences and nutrition. Can you find a better pedrigree, or ambassador of Oaxacan gastronomy? And she has a restaurant and a cooking school to boot. She even mentors the likes of Mexican food guru Rick Bayless, an American who brings his staff to Oaxaca on almost an annual basis to learn from Pilar. And here you are, in Oaxaca to film still a different American chef, because according to your production company, that’s what Canadian viewers want.”

Then sometime in April, that first email arrived from Mary Luz:
“I would love to have Pilar in Toronto and to arrange a few events for her here. I can see her cooking at Nella Cucina [culinary school] as I know the culinary director there (does she speak English? If not, I can be with her to translate), at George Brown College [its Institute of Culinary Arts] where I know the head of the college, and a few other places.”

Over the next three months that “few other” turned into 11, including participating in Iron Chef events.

Pilar had always shunned traveling outside of Mexico to work her magic, despite offers to teach in the US. And the thought of making mole negro or tamales de amarillo in thirty minutes before an audience and on camera both frightened and intimidated her; it was hardly what a believer in “slow food” would welcome.

Upon completing her university education Pilar began working for the research and development division of food giant Herdez, McCormick. After three years she left Mexico City to return to her home in Oaxaca. She subsequently opened her restaurant in the centro histórico, La Olla, and then her cooking school, Casa de los Sabores. Despite critical international acclaim in print media such as Bon Appetit and The New York Times, Pilar remained modest, with an almost exaggerated humility – until that April opportunity arose.

After discussion with husband Luis, only the closest of family, and this writer and wife Arlene, she agreed to travel to Toronto to promote Oaxacan cuisine – during September, a time when the tourist trade in Oaxaca is traditionally very slow and everyone in the business can use a little help to pay the bills. But the initial plan of a two week trip quickly turned into three, as more restaurants than anticipated wanted to promote their establishments with the honored presence of a foreign guest chef. Then Mary Luz herself, as well as a foodie friend, invited Pilar to grace their homes to prepare special menus for private dinner parties; and Nella Cucina wanted a commitment for two evenings instead of one. And of course, given the time of year, what an opportunity for a Catholic from Oaxaca to have the opportunity to spend the first night of Rosh Hashanah dining with a Jewish family, my family.

Dates, times and provisional menus fell into place during June, July and August. Accommodations were generously offered by friends, two Toronto couples who had previously visited me and my wife in Oaxaca; Pilar would spend the first half of the trip with one couple, and the second with another. As recent empty-nesters, each now had bedroom space available.

The efforts of Mary Luz resulted in time slots being allocated for media appearances. Blog activity began in early August:
I began my email campaign about the same time.

Then one day in mid-August, as our September 10th departure date loomed near, Pilar received a call from the Liaison Officer of Community Affairs, Consulado General de México.

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