Grande dame and world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy, is an Order of the Aztec Eagle, prolific author on the subject, and a force like no other. Her dedication to the traditional flavours, cooking, and ingredients of her adopted country is inspiring; her energy and spunk contagious.
To hear her talk about the true flavours of Mexico is like seeing a black-and-white film suddenly change to Technicolor. She has so much wisdom; and has spent more than fifty years researching and travelling through Mexico to gain it. I appreciate it (and practice the same too although my experience and exposure pales in comparison to Kennedy’s). Kennedy is one sharp cookie and tells it like it is. She’s a champion of the environment, especially for sustainable living, and is particularly heated about the use of genetically modified crops. She’s vehement about details. You know, instinctively, that there’s nothing that would slip past her.* I love that. It’s like a breath of fresh air.**
She’s also incredibly cool.
The night I met Kennedy, it was for a special dinner held in her honour at Cava. The then 89-year-old waltzed into a crowd, wrapped by a stylish leather ensemble, putting the rest of us conservatives to shame. I remember noting to myself that I want to be just as fashion forward when I’m 89, to outshine my contemporaries, and be so bright in the mind and eager for adventure that it would give any young person a run for their money. But I digress.
What I admire most about Kennedy is how she pushes for diner education.
“…nobody’s saying ‘No.’ They just sit down to eat.” She tells writer Daniel Hernández, “You’ve got to educate people. I say, you’ve got to have classes for eaters. People who never want to cook, but when they go out to restaurants, how can they choose what’s right? So you have classes for them, and you prepare a thing in a bad way, mediocre, and good. And you point out the difference, and build a palate.” Yes, yes, yes.
Which brings me back to the dinner at Cava. It was a memorable evening and honour to be among a crowd of serious food enthusiasts who were able to secure tickets to the limited seating fundraiser.
I have great respect for Chris McDonald, a chef-restaurateur who has been a key player in driving Toronto’s dining scene, especially during my early years as a gastronaut. His restaurant, Avalon, celebrated for its tasting menus frequently topped Toronto’s best restaurant lists, holds a special place in my heart for being an institution of refinement and ambition back when the city saw more surf-and-turf than tuna tartare tacos. Before my time in Toronto, McDonald had also successfully introduce the flavours of the southwest and Mexico to the city. This, I didn’t know of, until I heard he was hosting a dinner to celebrate the publication of her latest book,Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy.
I recall Chris being extraordinarily nervous about the dinner, rubbing his hands, slightly distracted and a bit on edge, as guests – top Toronto chefs, gourmands and loyal diners – started to pile into the space. I had never seen the generally confident chef – one of the most acclaimed in the city – like this before. It was only after, that I learned of his first meeting with Kennedy: as a young chef cooking in Mexico, he had served her a dish that she was quick to tear him apart on. (The story is wonderfully recounted in Mark Schatzker’s piece for Condé Nast’s Traveler linked below.)
The dinner, captured in this Flickr Gallery, featured five courses, all cooked to Kennedy’s specs, peppered with anecdotes from both McDonald and Kennedy. It was also a revelation to understanding the true, and widely varied, flavours of Mexico that is well beyond the Americanized stereotypes littered across the continent, and a mission that I’d set for myself to learn more about since 2010.
It was here that cocoa-allergic me learned that not all mole has cocoa/chocolate in it! In fact, mole is like curry in that it is a blend of various ingredients, anywhere from 20 to 30, and that each region has their own blend. So it is possible for someone like me, a life deprived of mole, to finally taste its magical flavours.
That night, I had my first. An Oaxacan pork and chicken mole.
It was thick, tomato-based stew, that was ragu-like, and reminded me of beef rending (which I love) without the familiar sweet coconut and warm spice flavours. It was a little nutty grittier, but richly flavoured with more tang (from the raising and olives), but equally as satisfying when sopped up by the accompanying side of rice.
It left me even more curious about how chocolate would add depth to the flavours, and about the other permutations and combinations of flavour possibilities!
I checked in with Chris at the end of the evening: he looked relieved, relaxed. Apparently Kennedy liked the food that night, and commended the ceviche. His emotions might have been restrained, but I could tell inside he was jumping for joy.
* Kennedy confesses to MAD that “My feeling is if you criticise a dish you have to have explain why and have suggestions for improving it. It is all very well to produce a dish beautifully but it has to be delicious. If it is a classic or ethnic dish it has to have the original balance of flavours lent by the correct herb or chile. In Mexican food, for instance, you should NEVER mix a chile habanero with Serrano, etc, etc.” And when Beth Kracklauer asked Kennedy about her being critical of her own or anyone’s food, the incomparable lady is quoted saying: “Oh absolutely, absolutely! That’s how you learn, that’s how you build a palate. I am hard on myself in all ways, actually. When it does come off, I will tell people. And when it doesn’t, I will tell people.”
** She’s forthright: just check out what she had to say in this Munchies article from 2014 (you’ll also see what I mean by the lady has spunk).
Date of Dinner: November 2012
Gallery: Diana Kennedy Dinner at Cava
Read more about the night in this article by Mark Schatzker in CNN Traveler: Dinner with the World’s Top Authority on Mexican Cuisine. In Toronto
MAD Spotlight: Diana Kennedy
Video from MAD3 (2013): Diana Kennedy on Sustainability
Beth Kracklauer’s interviews in Saveur’s Mexico Issue (September 2012, Issue #149):
The Interview: Diana Kennedy (web only)
A Life in Letters (all of Kennedy’s works to date on Mexican regional cooking)
Daniel Hernández for Vice Munchies: You’re Eating Fake Tortillas, and Diana Kennedy Is Pissed About It