Cross-Cultural Mexican Cuisine: A Conversation with Chef Carlos Gaytan

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In 2012, Carlos Gaytan’s work at Mexique earned him a Michelin star – the first star ever awarded to a Mexican chef. Mexique’s French-influenced Mexican cuisine brings a unique flare to Chicago’s ever-expanding restaurant scene, and with several episodes of Top Chef under his belt, Gaytan is expanding his cross-cultural approach. He’s just launched Ha, a new restaurant about an hour south of Cancun, where the menu innovation continues. We got a chance to see the future of Mexican cuisine through Gaytan’s unique, thoughtful lens.

Q. What big picture trend shifts will we see with Mexican cuisine in 2018?

I see a lot of chefs traveling to different countries to study and cook with ingredients and techniques that weren’t necessarily part of their training or culture. We have chefs from all over coming to Mexico that don’t know how to make moles – people from fine dining, three Michelin star places who never learned the process. I’ve been going to Italy to learn how to make pasta and incorporate it into my dishes. Crossover in every cuisine is becoming more noticable.

Q. We’ve seen Latin American cuisine in America really deepen and become more authentic. Are regional dishes tipping into the mainstream?

The American palate is still not familiar with truly authentic Latin American cuisine, but we do see people slowly beginning to bring out regional nuances, particularly from Central America. For example, both Mexicans and Guatemalans stuff their tamales with pork and chicken, but in Guatemala, tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, and the chicken is bone-in. Central American cuisine might seem similar to Mexican cuisine, but people are finally beginning to notice that Central America is quite different. In Mexico we have gorditas, which are related to the Salvadoran pupusa, but again, the filling of a Salvadoran pupusa is quite different. In Mexico, we use a lot more peppers and spiciness than in Central America, while South America is heavy on steaks, not so much basic meats or sauces.

Q. Where are you looking for culinary inspiration right now?

I just got back from a bit of a tour – I went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and went to all the local markets and fish markets there. Next I did Milan, Greece, and Madrid, just to gather ideas. A big takeaway was Lake Como, in northern Italy. We did a tasting menu and all the cuisine was related to the city’s lake – I barely recognized it as Italian cuisine, because it was all about the fish and the aquatic ingredients. It was an incredible, memorable dinner.

Q. Seems you’re quite enamored with fish these days. How do you create new fish-based dishes?

I just collaborated with Chef Sean Murray in the Allium Chef Series at the Four Seasons.  Sean came over to Mexique and tried many, many different dishes and narrowed down the items from our menu. The main course is a trout – it’s a specialty of Mexico City – wrapped in corn husks and grilled on an open fire grill. It infuses the smokiness into the fish and it is really tasty.

Q. What’s your favorite dish to cook right now?

I just opened up a restaurant in Mexico in the Hotel Xcaret called Ha – it’s the Mayan word for water. One of the dishes people are raving about is the tamale with mole verde and lionfish. Normally you find lionfish in Australia, but somehow they’ve made their way to the Caribbean. They’re a really invasive species, they’re damaging the coral reefs and need to be eliminated. Lionfish is difficult to cook because of the venom and spines, so you have to be very careful. But paired with my mother’s mole and tamale recipes, it is so worth it.

Q. Tell us a little more about your sustainable approach to ingredients and cooking.

It’s simple: just going to the market and finding products that are going to be thrown away because of the way they look – they might be bruised, or have a weird shape – sometimes you can get them for free. We bring them home and cook with them. We get to be creative, it’s a great challenge, and something I think everyone should be practicing. We need to learn not to waste ingredients that are perfectly good when you’re cooking for the right dish. A lot of times throwing ingredients away creates completely unnecessary waste, and it’s also throwing money in the garbage. We need to be responsible about how we cook.

Q. What is your favorite “low-waste” dish?

I think it was tomatoes with a cheese fondue and mustard. I got some tomatoes that were not looking good – they were entirely bruised on one half, so I just discarded the bad bits. We also used partially molded cheese – a lot of people get scared about moldy cheese, but it’s not bad – it’s actually good for the cheese. We made this fondue that was really amazing.

Thanks, Chef Gaytan, for sharing your insights into the cross-cultural influences flowing in and out of Mexican cuisine, and your commitment to responsibly-sourced menus.  We look forward to tasting your amazing, sustainable creations.

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