As part of Savour Stratford Perth County 2014 Culinary Festival‘s exciting line up for September 21st and 22nd, Mexican-born Toronto Chef Francisco “Paco” Alejandri will be presenting a demonstration to highlight his highly personal take upon the cuisine of his homeland.
With his much anticipated new restaurant Agave y Aguacate opening very soon, we were most happy that he was able to take some time out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions for Good Food Revolution.
Good Food Revolution: Being a Stratford Chefs School graduate what drew you to Stratford originally? What makes Stratford such a special place for you?
Francisco Alejandri: What drew me to the Stratford Chefs School? We can say it was “QUALITY”. from the curriculum to the culinary background of the Chef instructors, down to the passion and commitment that they have towards the students, they really want you to learn in that they play their part very well and the rest is up to oneself.
I took a culinary program in Mexico and work in different hotels throughout the country. I came to Canada to better myself. I hold the School up high because it re-enforced my foundation and taught me the ropes that gave me confidence in my trade.
GFR: And what will you be doing at Savour Stratford this year?
FA: This year I will be doing a very simple dish but one that is full of flavour, textures, and colours. It is called Shrimp Chalupa. Chalupa means boat in Spanish and it does resemble that! I`m using locally sourced produce and the shrimp that I am using comes from within Canada via Toronto’s Hooked.
GFR: September is Mes Patrio (patriotic month) in Mexico, a festival where one can celebrate the very best of Mexican food. What would you say are the most emblematic ingredients of Mexican cuisine?
FA: I will say that the most emblematic ingredients are chiles, whether fresh or dry you find them everywhere, in every market or corner store.
Mexico has an intense variety of chiles, we use them often for their colour, flavours, piquancy and texture. They can be stuffed, charred, turned into a sauce, a paste or simply eaten raw, they to me are the quintessential item in Mexican cuisine.
GFR: Will you be utilising any of the bounty of local ingredients during your presentation? Do you have a favourite local and seasonal ingredient?
FA: Yes I will be using fresh cilantro, parsley, garlic and tomatoes that are locally grown. The quality of the produce here is great, the flavours are there, the price is better and at the same time we support the local farmers. to me it is a win/win situation.
GFR: Who were the most important influences in your career as a chef?
FA: Every time someone asks me this question my answer is always the same. In Mexico I learnt from Chef Cesar Fregoso the basics, the foundations of cooking. He showed me how to marry flavours together, how to train my palate to be discerning
My second influence was Chef Neil Baxter from the SCS. I learned so many things with him, through him I reinforced the basic knowledge of cooking I had and not only that, I learned to love what I do more than ever. I understood what simple cooking is (finally) and also learned what commitment and dedication can do to your career if you stick to them.
GFR: Mexican food is ridiculously fashionable these days. What do you think its new found popularity is down to?
FA: I believe it was time for Torontonians to realize the potential of Mexican cuisine, we are still along way from seeing and experiencing the many flavours of the different regional cuisines of Mexico here in Toronto, but with this new interest in it, I hope that Mexican Chefs and restaurateurs realise the great opportunity and responsibility that we have to represent our cuisine… and now more than ever we should all feel very proud of it and do it well… with our hearts.
GFR: And what do you think are some common misconceptions that people have about Mexican food?
FA: I believe that many of the misconceptions of Mexican cuisine here in Toronto come from the States where not in all cases the cuisine has been bastardized.
Yes! we have Burritos in the state of Sonora, Nachos close to the border, Enchiladas and the ubiquitous Taco, but like I always say, the moment you try a Taco or an Enchilada, the way they should be prepared you will understand that what we get here was meant to satisfy the North American palate.
The other thing that I don’t understand is why most restaurants are focused on Mexican snacks and not the real cuisine. I had the opportunity to travel throughout Mexico and to meet great Chefs and people who were willing to share recipes, tips and techniques that I now consider invaluable. Nothing comes easy, we have to pay our dues.
GFR: For you, what makes Mexican food authentically Mexican?
FA: Getting your ingredients right from the source, working with the seasons, understanding the many dishes of the region you are in and the simplicity of the cuisine. There is no big fuss about Mexican cuisine. When asked I always say that my cuisine is some-what authentic because most of my products and some produce come from Mexico, the rest I source it from local farmers whenever I can.
GFR: Are there certain areas of Mexico whose foods are particular favourites of yours? And why?
FA: Yes I would have to say the regions of Central Mexico, Oaxaca and Yucatan, because of the vast array of dishes, the different products and produce available, you cannot hope to get grasshoppers in Guanajuato (though you could), or achiote seeds. Each region has its climate and they sit on different altitudes and latitudes, this benefits the regions in many ways thus giving the cuisines the different flavours that are characteristic of the place.
GFR: For people that haven’t had the opportunity to try your food before, can you describe a dish that you think reflects what the restaurant is about? What characteristics and ingredients distinguish the cuisine of Francisco Alejandri?
FA: Every dish represents the restaurant and the restaurant represents the cuisine. the food is simple and yet elegant with a sophisticated taste based on the freshness and quality of the ingredients. The food is colourful and vibrant, it awakes your taste buds and gives you a sensation of happiness.
the decor of the restaurant is also colourful, and regal we have used bold colours without being tacky. Overall we want Agave y Aguacate to be a destination that becomes an experience and satisfies every one of our senses. we are located on 35 baldwin street and opening day is coming soon.
GFR: Stratford has always been one of my favourite culinary and cultural destinations. As well as presenting your session at Savour Stratford what else do you hope to do with your time there?
FA: I agree and I have to say and people that know me can corroborate this…”I love Stratford” as it’s my second home and I’m proud to have lived there for four years and to see how much it has grown.
I mean Stratford is not only the theatre capital of Canada but also a culinary destination and also the place for the Savour Stratford festival, which has become one of the best culinary festivals. It is a great opportunity for me to be a part of this since the festival reaches out to thousands of people.It is good exposure for chefs, farmers, and people who want to show case their products. After the event I am going to go visit all the stalls and sample the many great things they offer.
GFR: Thank you for your time Francisco, we look forward to seeing you in Stratford!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And you’ll see him at Francisco’s session on Sunday September the 22nd at 2pm on the Toronto Star Culinary Stage.