John Sedlar, chef/owner of Rivera and Playa, once thought that Mexican food would take over the world. Now, the world is taking over Mexican food, he says. And this is not a good thing.
Today's hot young Mexican chefs want to show that they can compete on an international level. In their eagerness to shine, they are drawing away from their Mexican-ness, he laments. "Where is the epazote? Where are the calabacitas?" he wants to know.
Named Esquire's chef of the year for 2011, Rivera was mulling over what he saw at the recent Baja California Culinary Fest 2011, which brought chefs from all over Mexico to collaborate on showcase dinners.
"They are super talented," he says. "They have great composition on the plate. Their flavors are vibrant." But their cooking is modernist, almost sanitized of its Mexican character.
This is not all bad. "In Mexico, the cuisine is in evolution. It's a very natural step that the chefs want to explore the cuisines of the world," Sedlar says. Eventually, he thinks, they'll look at their own cuisine with fresh eyes and come back to it.
Although innovative, his own restaurants are solidly grounded in Mexican tradition. During the festival, he prepared a salmon mousse tamal with fines herbes sauce for a lunch in the Guadalupe Valley. Then he contributed two courses to a four-chef dinner at Mision 19 in Tijuana. Both were original, yet classically Mexican.
One was his signature corn flan topped with black quinoa and served tamal style in rose-tinted cornhusks. This he paired with Mexican white bass in a delicate curry sauce with cumin, coriander and orange puree. The fish came from the restaurant and seafood market Erizo Cebichería, owned by Tijuana chef and restaurateur Javier Plascencia.
The other was grilled Guadalupe Valley quail accompanied by an Anaheim chile stuffed with mushroom duxelles. Plascencia, who owns Mision 19 and also cooked at the dinner, provided the quail, which Sedlar marinated with tarragon, basil, cilantro, red chile, honey and orange zest.
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Sedlar says he falls back on safely mild Anaheim chiles when he doesn't know what wines will be paired with his dishes. The wine for both his courses was Pao Pijoan's Doménica 2009, a Grenache blend from the Guadalupe Valley. The Anaheims came from Los Angeles.
"I do believe all eyes are on Mexico right now for its cuisine, its historic cuisine," he says. "People are opening up to everything Mexican -- the fashions, the music, the food. The food is very colorful. It's very nourishing. It's very fresh, and it has great story and history."
Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.EatMx.com, www.TableConversation.com and @foodandwinegal.