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MEXICO CITY — When bureaucrats here ordered the closure of the feted restaurant Aguila y Sol in 2008, the A-list executive chef, Martha Ortiz, smelled a rat. The pretext was that the eatery’s 90 parking spaces fell short by one spot. Ortiz, however, suspected another reason: She was a powerful woman whose white-clothed tables attracted ministers and corporate chiefs.
Undeterred, Ortiz opened another establishment in the same swanky Polanco neighborhood, this one even more acclaimed than the last. She named it Dulce Patria, or Sweet Homeland, because a motherland transcends politics and sweet is feminine. The logo sports a woman on a horse, wearing a big sombrero and brandishing a freedom flame. Signature dishes are defiantly girly, with names like Mary Goes to the Flower Shop and garnished with purple flowers.
Ortiz, whose rail-thin elegance calls to mind Audrey Hepburn, does not fear being feminine, although gender can complicate matters when helming an upscale kitchen. Many of the country’s leading restauranteers are women, who in fact paved the way for men in Mexico’s relatively new celebrity chefdom. But it takes cojonesto head an internationally recognized establishment in a culture where women rarely run businesses.
“I said, ‘I will open another one, and if they close it, I will open another and another,’” Ortiz recalled over a lunch of velvety duck mole dotted with pink salt. “A new restaurant was an act of bravery, something to be proud of that would inspire other women.”
Mexico has a rich culinary heritage, complex sauces that require two days’ preparation and corn tortillas flattened by hand. A dozen varieties of hot peppers, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, hyancinths, squash blossoms and even insects flavor the plate. Traditionally women did all the cooking, learning from grandmothers how to feed 11 siblings or prepare a village feast. They worked as mayoras, or cooks in simple restaurants, but fine dining occurred primarily at exquisitely set tables in the house or in elite clubs. The rich rarely ate out, and when they did, it was Continental fare.
That all began to change about 30 years ago, when a sisterhood of affluent women united to forge a new haute cuisinewith indigenous elements. They wanted to show the world that tacos could transcend greasy Tex-Mex and that there were more to chilis than Tabasco sauce. These gastronomy ambassadors wrote cookbooks and founded culinary institutes. They won UNESCO recognition for Mexican dishes. They went abroad to learn pastry making and braising and returned home to merge refined techniques with pre-Colombian ingredients.
Alicia Gironella launched the trend with El Tajin, an elegant oasis that reimagined cactus and fish wrapped in banana leaf. The doyenne of this new upmarket approach was Patricia Quintana, whose landmark Izote put a classy spin on corn smut and ant eggs. Food writer Diana Kennedy, a transplanted Brit, introduced foreign readers to hundreds of traditional recipes. Another den mother, Carmen “Titita” Ramírez Degollado embraced the folkloric in her much-decorated El Bají.
The pendulum has swung more to the middle. We opened the jungles with our machetes.
Chef and Mexico City restaurateur
Ruth Alegria is an American expat of Nicaraguan descentwho runs culinary tours in the capital. She sees a parallel with the American South, where there’s a long tradition of women in the cooking profession. “As a girl, you had to know how to cook or you would never get married. Families are big, and you have to know how to plan menus for 18. Wives on estates could be in charge of feeding 300 farmhands and then went into the food business when fortunes turned.
The alta cocina pioneers grew up in cosmopolitan families that spoke several languages, vacationed in Europe and had social connections, noted Rachel Laudan, a food historian and the author of “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.” That gave them the means and sass to succeed. The field was open, because at that time Mexico lacked men who wanted to be chefs.
“These women were confident entrepreneurs who didn’t need to prove they were serious. They didn’t have to break into a club, like in France,” she said.
Still, even those who could afford to apprentice in Paris faced the struggle of female chefs everywhere: punishing hours that put strains on parenting. Mexican mothers are expected to shoulder child raising, with little help from Dad.
Mónica Patiño runs four capital favorites, including the upscale deli Delirio in the boho-chic neighborhood of Roma. Now 59, she opened her first restaurant at age 22 with no business experience. Supervising a kitchen from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. while bringing up four children made her feel “like a cockroach under the world.” She didn’t know how to manage staff and felt bad giving orders. She blamed herself when the sous chef left for a job that paid double.
Today, sharing a plate of slow-cooked lamb with pasilla chili and flipping through her latest glossy cookbook, Patiño has achieved serenity in Casa Virginia, a French-themed venture in a restored 1914 mansion. She takes care of the cuisine and has handed the commercial baton to her youngest daughter, Micaela, who feels more comfortable than her mother did at her age.
“The pendulum has swung more to the middle,” Patiño said. “We opened the jungles with our machetes.”
Ironically, the sorority also paved the way for the opposite sex, which traditionally shunned the kitchen. Buoyed by food shows and personalities, the new milennium saw a surge of machos who now wanted to head restaurants. Today the biggest names are male, most notably Enrique Olvera, who runs Pujol, Mexico’s most celebrated restaurant. His new venture in Manhattan, Cosme, took the American foodie world by storm.
The boys’ club annoys many ladies.
“They self-promote,” griped Patiño.“The highest point of Mexican cooking comes from the convents,” asserted Ortiz. “The moles are so sensual because it was a way to channel libido. Men can’t cook like that.”
Says Iliana de la Vega, a self-taught chef who has won plaudits on both sides of the border, “I can beat any man making a mole. My mother as well. Tortillas. How many times you ask a man, ‘Can you make tortillas?’ For all those traditional techniques, they will have a female cook in the kitchen.”
Yet some younger women cite an affinity with their males contemporaries. Elena Reygadas, 38, the award-winning executive chef of the capital’s Rosetta, a mecca for restrained Italian, regularly consults with Olvera and others on techniques. They like to eat together socially.
Still, she concedes that she’ll never get ahead like him. In the spare minutes between supervising the line, she rushes home to see her kids.
“It’s never going to be easy for female chefs,” she said with a sigh.