by Beverley Ann D’Cruz
The kitchen at the Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute is bustling with activity. Young students are stuffing poblano chiles, grilling quesadillas and putting the finishing garnishes on large platters of food. Amidst all the chaos, it’s easy to pick out Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo in a vibrant purple headscarf and red chef’s coat. She darts between the stove and different students, explaining how to complete certain aspects of a recipe or show them how much cream should go on top of the tinga tostadas.
As the Stratford Chefs School Celebrity Chef in Residence, Chef Arroyo was invited to spend a week at the school sharing her expertise with budding chefs. But before that sojourn, she stopped by Toronto where a few lucky high school students interested in a culinary career had a chance to cook with her at Danforth Collegiate and get introduced to the Stratford school as well. For Chef Arroyo, whom American celebrity chef Rick Bayless calls ‘one of the greats’, this was platform to introduce students to the true flavours of hometown, Oaxaca City, that’s often considered the culinary capital of Mexico.
“I want them (the students) to fall in love with Oaxacan food, and I suppose Mexican food more generally,” says Chef Arroyo, who was visiting Toronto for the second time and was making her debut at the Stratford school. “There are so many flavours, colours and textures, which are completely foreign to many people. I want to show young chefs that Mexico is much more than enchiladas and tamales. In recent years, it has appeared to me that Canadians are much more interested in Mexican food, willing to try it and experiment with it.”
And Chef Arroyo would know. Her cooking school La Casa de los Sabores in Oaxaca has seen an influx of Canadian visitors taking classes in the past five years. A natural teacher, it’s ironic that Chef Arroyo never went to chef’s school herself. Instead, she learnt her skills by helping her mother and grandmother cook before she went on to earn a degree in Food Engineering and Nutrition. Although she worked in food development for Herdez-McCormick for some time in Mexico City, she finally followed her heart back to Oaxaca where she opened her restaurant La Olla (The Pot).
Serving traditional Mexican cuisine with a focus on Oaxaca, the menu offers a range of dishes from memelitas to Mole de Fandango, soups, tortas and meat dishes – all made with the market fresh regional ingredients that come alive with clever combinations of spices. This came as a shock to many students participating at Danforth Collegiate event as they came prepared for a crash course in taco and burrito making with Chef Arroyo. Instead, they prepped and cooked an elaborate Oaxacan feast that included chiles rellenos, shredded flank steak salad, red pozole and a sweet ending of Mexican cheesecake with Oaxacan chocolate sauce.
According to Kimberley Payne, executive director of the Stratford Chefs School, the menu came as a pleasant revelation to participants. “The food was very well received,” she says. “The students were quite engaged from the outset, I believe because the ingredient list was new to most of them. They were reluctant to try the food as it was being prepared and I adored that Elizabeth Baird (of Canadian Living fame and who had met chef Arroyo in Oaxaca) was making her way around with handfuls of spoons encouraging them to taste it (as would a chef). Overwhelmingly the students loved the food and were very surprised by the flavours.”
For Chef Arroyo, opportunities like this to promote her homeland’s food and recipes are something that she thoroughly enjoys. But how would she define ‘Oaxacan cuisine’? “It’s very complex food with unique flavours,” she explains. “It’s always evolving, dating way back to colonial times when ingredients indigenous to Mexico, to my ancestors, began to be combined with ingredients introduced by the Spanish. Our food is a little spicy (of course not as spicy as its reputation), and uses a lot of fresh ingredients, because in every season there is different produce available, such as seasonal tropical fruits or a variety mushroom during the rainy season, etc.”
During Chef Arroyo’s stint at the Stratford Chefs School, she also hosted a dinner every night along with a student chef at The Old Prune so food lovers could get a taste of these traditional ingredients and techniques. Packing a full house every night, guests were treated to a daily changing menu with delicacies like crab empanadas, tortilla soup, chiles rellenos and chicken with the luscious Mexican mole sauce featured. Like the students at Danforth Collegiate, guests at Stratford wiped plates clean and were wearing the same satisfied smiles at the end of their meal. And for Chef Arroyo, there could be no better response from students she taught or the patrons who braved the frosty weather to indulge in the experience of Oaxacan cuisine.
“I enjoy promoting our food, our recipes, our flavours,” says Chef Arroyo smiling. “A way to do that is through sharing my knowledge with people from all over the world, in the hope that they will go back home and cook the same dishes, and then teach others what they’ve learned.”
Information about the Stratford Chefs School can be found at stratfordchef.com.