By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Some people come to the Oaxacan beaches to swim. Some to snorkel or dive. Others to simply relax. But one activity almost all visitors share is tasting the wonderful food.
There are so many restaurants to sample, but one question that few people even think about is where does this supply of chefs come from? Even the most casual tourist quickly learns that many talented chefs arrive in Oaxaca from distant cities and countries – Montreal, Argentina, Austria, France and Italy to name just a few. But the vast majority of restaurants serve traditional Mexican food, and scores of chefs and sous chefs are needed to staff them. Fortunately, Chef Nestor Roman realized the need for training young local people for those positions and started a cooking school, La caXona del Chef.
Our first contact with the school and students took place a few years ago when friends who frequently join us at top-notch places for comida (mid-day dinner) decided that we should try the dishes prepared by the La caXona students. We were, to say the least, a bit suspicious when they led us through a small door in a metal fence located behind one of the bus stations in Huatulco. The plastic chairs and tables, and the arrangement of serving dishes sitting out in the heat on a buffet table did not alleviate our misgivings.
But we quickly realized that the cold dishes were surrounded by ice and the hot dishes were brought out from the kitchen as we were ready for them. Everything was sparkling clean, the aromas were wonderful, and when we began to taste the dishes, they were perfect. Trepidation gave way to greed. We ate so much that we barely had room for the creamy flan; but after one taste we made room for the entire dessert. We were prepared to forget about the other places we normally chose for comida and just go to this one, but soon after our visit, Chef Nestor stopped serving the general public the students’ creations.
Our next visit to the school, last winter, was prompted by our friend Edith, who is a language teacher (Spanish, French and English). Chef Nestor had decided that it would be advantageous for the students to learn English along with culinary skills. Edith was their English teacher, and she asked us to put together a group of native English speakers who would attend a cooking demonstration where the students could have a chance to practice their English.
She told us the students were practicing using English to describe the food they had prepared and were willing to try to answer questions we might have about the preparation. She asked us to speak to them only in English.
Pulling together the native English speakers to be at the school at a specific time was like herding cats, and convincing them to just use English was not much easier. Some people got very lost trying to find the location and then the door in the metal fence. A couple of people who had agreed to come decided not to. And all of us, except for one person who spoke little Spanish, kept lapsing into Spanish. But once the formal activities began, the afternoon was absolutely delightful.
Each student introduced her- or himself, told us where they were from (most very local) and their age (ranging from late teens to late twenties). They then demonstrated cooking various dishes, describing the ingredients as they went along. And then, one student who had lived in the US for a short while and had the firmest grasp on English invited us to sample the dishes and ask any questions.
Ask questions we did, but we quickly realized that many of the students who charmingly used English to introduce themselves and describe their preparations had absolutely no idea of what was being asked. Part of the problem was the variety of English accents we presented – accents from coast to coast and north to deep south. Another problem was full mouths–
the food was so good that rather than just sample we unabashedly stuffed. One question they all learned to understand was, “May I please try more …guacamole, salsa, sope, tostada, tortilla, quesadilla.” They were so delighted with our enthusiasm that they seemed willing to keep cooking as we “sampled” more and more. Chef Nestor graciously stepped back and let the students take over. Only when one of the guests asked the ingredients in a delicious green sauce did he come forward and tell us that the sauce was a secret recipe known only to graduates of La caXona del Chef.
Chef Nestor caters many events in the area, including an onsite dinner for large groups followed by folkloric dancing. If you are interested, you can find more information at: http://www.casareyes.com.mx