Chef Alejandro Ruiz is widely regarded AS the unofficial ambassador of Oaxacan cuisine.
He heads up a small empire; Casa Oaxaca, a boutique hotel and group of restaurants that celebrate the complexity of Oaxaca’s culture and traditions. He is the founder of ‘El Saber del Sabor ’ — ‘The Knowledge of Flavor’ — a festival in Oaxaca celebrating the marriage of art and food, and, in March 2018, his cookbook was published.
He’s obviously a busy guy, but not entirely inaccessible; he loves to connect with his guests, to share meals and stories. How I met him, myself, was — I like to think — entirely fate.
In March of 2017, I‘d reserved 5 weeks to explore Oaxaca, wanting to learn more about its regional produce. Previously, I had made an overview of the more ubiquitous and essential foods to include in my ebook, and Oaxaca being one of the more biodiverse States, it begged much more of my time. Plus, you know… Oaxaca is magical. So, despite the heat and general overwhelm that I experience in massive markets, I was duty-bound to explore the labyrinthine Central de Abastos (having meditated beforehand).
Oaxaca City’s Central de Abastos is the distribution hub for all produce going into, and out of, Oaxaca. It is where local chefs, cooks and vendors from smaller markets in the city come to stock up on produce from within the region as well as from elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. It’s also considered a ‘Mecca’ for food-lovers who visit Mexico. Wafts of ever-changing aromas from sweet and musky mangos and guavas to the smokiness of the region’s chiles fill your nose. Jewel-tone fruits might be cut open to display their succulent flesh, and the sometimes impossibly tall or wide pyramids or vertical stacks of the many shaped food items are impressive. Chiles are strung, greens piled into mounds and insects piled high in handwoven baskets.
Chicatana ants are not a snack food
Two pesitos (the vendor emphasized how few pesos) was the payment requested for the trio of tiny chicatana ants now sitting in the palm of my hand. As a sustainable protein and a traditional food in this part of Mexico, (and plant food lovers themselves) I’m a keen supporter of insect-eating.
Unlike chapulines (grasshoppers), chicatanas are not a snack food. This, I learned the hard way. Once I’d cracked the thin, dry carcass between my teeth, glass-like shards and little legs proceeded to scratch their way down my throat. Tears filled my eyes as I tried not to sputter. A bottle of water appeared in front of my face and a tall smiling man asked was I ok. I choked – now with a mix of surprise and glee. I glugged some water and quickly composed myself.
“Chef! I had been hoping to meet you!”
Oaxaqueños are very warm people — he placed his hand on my shoulder. “Really?” he said with a big smile. He thought he was merely saving a silly gringa from choking on chicatanas.
This was my moment!
I tried to remember my 30 second elevator pitch. I didn’t have to tell this guy that Oaxaca was more rich in diversity of edible plants of any place I had been to, but i did. And to let him know how invested I was, I explained that I had created an eBook for foreigners like me who come to Mexico with little or no knowledge of the breadth of Mexico’s plant foods, nor the hows and whys of using them and their value to the culture. From there, the conversation was easy.
Next thing, we were in his car, driving out to the Casa Oaxaca farm. He vaguely mentioned there would be some sort of filming going on, but for me, it didn’t matter; I was happily along for the ride.
Rick Stein’s On the Road to Mexico
It turned out that the filming was for a BBC program: Rick Stein’s Road to Mexico. Rick is a chef from the UK and a downright affable fellow. Alejandro and his family set about cooking while the crew filmed and recorded his stories. I pitched in with prep as his members of his family prepared the fire and the beautiful clay comal that much of the meal would be cooked over.
Out in the field, we harvested various greens and herbs for salad. Alejandro explained that they grow some of their own produce, like lettuces, to ensure the restaurants have consistent supply, and he sourced as much as possible from people of the community for the most seasonal and regional, foraged for in the mountainous regions around Oaxaca.
At the end of the day, as the equipment was being loaded into vans amd we were saying goodbyes, Alejandro offered: “If you ever want to do anything together, we can collaborate.” His intention was to build the farm into an enterprise that would give his family employment as well as give back to his local community.
A Collaboration is Born!
Now, 18 months and some earthquakes later, we are preparing to do just that, as the project that began with the aforementioned eBook has evolved into ‘Frutas y Verduras Plant Food Lovers’ Experiences’. On November 8, we will present A Day of Traditions with Chef Alejandro Ruiz. This market to table experience will focus entirely on the plant foods of the region.
This is a unique offering, and a special opportunity for Alejandro, himself, to take a fully plant-focused approach to his food traditions. He’s as excited as we are. Together we’ll visit the market in the village near his farm, to learn about, taste, and shop for ingredients. Then, on to the farm, where we’ll meet his family, and share in the preparations. Cook, taste, relax, repeat… all culminating in a 4-course meal plus the requisite mezcal — the agave of this region giving us this most valued plant-based drink.
Suzanne Barbezat, Oaxaca contributor to Afar.com and TripSavvy.com, author of ‘Frida Kahlo at Home’ and our Frutas y Verduras Oaxaca guide will be accompanying the group and I’ll be there too. We’re looking forward to this day of fresh-food discoveries in the countryside of Oaxaca, with Chef Alejandro, his family and the chirping chapulines.
Knowing Mexico, you could say, starts with its food. The foundation of any meal begins with what the earth offers. Ask Chef Alejandro Ruiz: ‘El Saber del Sabor’, the knowledge of flavor, begins with an appreciation for the plants and herbs.
This is a small-group event. Please get your ticket now, to avoid disappointment. Book here