Last month, Loco Gringo received word that the Yucatan’s very own Chef David Sterling, owner and head chef of Los Dos Cooking School in Merida, Mexico, is under contract with the University of Texas Press to publish a cookbook. Publication date is scheduled for September 2013.
If I had to give the “elevator pitch” for the book, it would be “Epic Travelogue with Recipes,” says David of his cookbook with the working title “YUCATÁN: A Culinary Expedition.” Part of his goal for the book is to preserve the Yucatan’s ancient foodways, yet balance it with more recent culinary arrivals, like Pastel de Queso de Bola – cake with Edam cheese, yum!
These days, Chef Sterling is traveling frequently through the peninsula, learning recipes from locals and discovering little out-of-the-way places where amazing things are being created, but Loco Gringo had a chance to catch up with David to find out what makes this world class chef cook.
LG: You moved to Merida, Mexico, founded Los Dos Yucatecan cooking school and now your cookbook in progress is described as a “culinary expedition through the Yucatan.” How did the Yucatan and its food become such a passion for you?
DS: I have traveled through Mexico since 1972. During all those years, I also studied Mexican culture, specifically art, archaeology and cuisine. My earliest understanding of ancient Mesoamerican peoples had exclusively to do with the Aztecs and a few other groups elsewhere in Mexico. My first visit to Yucatán was in 1989 and I was struck by the cohesiveness of Maya culture. Not only was it more ancient than the Aztec culture, but also more timeless somehow. The Mayas were enormously inventive and shared many concepts – and foods – with the Aztecs. While the Aztecs had a taste for chocolate, it was supplied to them by the Mayas who cultivated and sold it throughout Mesoamerica. And because the Maya culture is so ancient and so enduring, I believe there are many more ancient dishes than you will find elsewhere in Mexico. So many foods are primal blends of simple maize, beans, squash, tomatoes and chiles. Again it is that timelessness that fascinates me.
LG: Please share with us a particular experience you had or discovery you made during your travels of the Yucatan that stands out in your mind.
DS: I was blown away when I found out that the Mayas cultivated cacao trees as far north as Valladolid. Cacao is enormously fragile; it needs jungle canopy above for shade; rich soils; lots of water, and cooler temperatures. None of that characterizes Yucatán. But the Mayas figured out how to cultivate cacao plants in cenotes – the limestone sinkholes found everywhere here. In them are all the right conditions. There are three or four of these “sacred groves”, as Fray Diego de Landa called them, near Valladolid. I haven’t seen them (they are in ejido property and difficult to access); but amazingly, a Belgian chocolate consortium has purchased land in the Ruta Puuc and are cultivating cacao there. They have about 11,000 plants so far, an immense irrigation system, and they are planting fast-growing trees like yuca and banana to create the shade needed. This is big news, since Maya cacao has finally come home!
LG: What is your favorite Yucatecan dish?
DS: Venado en Pipián Rojo. That is venison in a squash seed sauce, stained red with achiote, thickened with masa, and given a bit of tartness by the Yucatecan ciruela (Spondias purpurea). This rustic dish is so layered with flavors: acidity, smoke (the venison is typically prepared in the Maya pib or underground oven), and earthiness from the squash seeds.
LG: Who do you admire most in the culinary world and why?
DS: Living: Diana Kennedy. She was a real maverick, riding through the rocky roads of Mexico in the 1950s, doing things a woman wasn’t supposed to do. She documented so much of Mexico’s cooking I’m wondering what’s left for me!
Deceased: Julia Child. Another female maverick. She herself marveled at her success and said “I was the right gal for the right job at the right time.” She was brilliant, a good cook, but she was also humble to admit that so much of it was timing.
LG: Do you have any words of wisdom to share with aspiring chefs?
I think the biggest trend in cuisine nowadays is to know the source of our food. But that shouldn’t be just about knowing the farmer who grew it. It should also include knowing a story about the history of the dish. Which culture produced it? How did it evolve? These stories enlighten us, and I’m convinced, aid digestion!