When Nelson Millán, Executive Chef of San Antonio CC, had the opportunity to be a guest chef at an event in Cuernavaca, Mexico, he discovered a whole new culinary playground.
I was fortunate to visit dozens of towns in the northern part of Mexico while I lived in San Diego. I enjoyed all that the Pacific Coast and the Baja had to offer, from the spiny lobsters in Puerto Nuevo to the freshly fried churros in La Bufadora.
During those visits, I’d hear stories from co-workers on how beautiful the center of the country was, especially Cuernavaca which has been known as “the city of the eternal spring” for centuries.
Three weeks ago, I was invited to be a guest chef at the 4th annual Gastronomic Festival MITOTL—an Aztec ritual and dance that celebrates the bounty of the harvest. The best part was that it is celebrated in Cuernavaca Morelos. It was finally my chance to visit the center of this beautiful country. So I flew to Mexico City where a driver picked me up and took me to Cuernavaca.
What I experienced during that week was one of the best culinary experiences I have had since my visit to Peru last year.
Upon arrival, I felt what the Spaniard conqueror, Juan Ponce de Leon, must have when he arrive to this same place in time. It was breathtaking.
To begin, the organizers provided lodging at Las Mañanitas, a legendary hotel where the owners have managed to keep it almost frozen in time. Once you step into the lobby and then into the rooms, it’s like traveling back in time. It’s surrounded by what is basically a rainforest. It’s so green. There were a few peacocks wandering the outdoor grounds as well as a few other exotic birds hanging from the trees. I realized then that I was in paradise.
Twenty-three chefs were invited to this festival from all parts of Mexico. I was the only one invited from the USA. We all started to arrive and to get organized with the various presentations and execution we were assigned to. Being in the kitchen with such caliber chefs was an honor. The modern techniques applied to ancient and sometimes pre-Hispanic ingredients makes for a superb culinary formula that I was barely starting to discover—just like Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the fountain of youth.
In the course of only a week, I learned so much about ingredients that do not make it to the market in the USA. For example, I was introduced to huauzontle by one of the best young culinary talents Cuernavaca has to offer: Chef Ana Karina Rodriguez, Executive Chef of Las Casas Hotel. She explained how this humble ingredient from the quelites plant family is prepared in an egg and flour mixture and pan-fried and served with a light jitomate and chile pasilla sauce that turned to be a succulent delicacy like I’ve never tasted before.
I also discovered an impressive array of artisanal rustic kitchen tools. For example, there was a wheel made out of a conglomerate of dried peeled corn cobs. It is used to scrape fresh corn from fresh cobs. Simply genius!
There were so many ingredients, ancient tools and techniques that I could probably stay at least a full year to learn all that there is to learn. I ran out of time to try pulque—what locals call “the nectar of the gods.” It’s a fermented beverage from a kinf of maguey plant that is produced in a specific town south of Cuernavaca.
I’ve decided that I need to return to Cuernavaca with a more time to explore and discover this rich culture and experience more of the gracious hospitality provided by everyone. When I do, I can more confidently bring that experience back to San Antonio CC and share it with my members.
Now I truly understand why they call it Mexico Lindo y Querido—or lovely, beloved Mexico. Because it truly is.