It’s not the most settling thing I’ve ever seen in a restaurant: the chef is pacing the dining floor with his arms crossed and head down. But then again, Geronimo Lopez is not your typical chef and Nao: New World Flavors is not your typical restaurant. It’s the mouth of the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, staffed by students on three-week rotations. For Lopez, their Venezuelan instructor and Nao’s executive chef, that means an “opening night” every 21 days, tonight included.
There’s another reason why I suspect Lopez is pacing. As one of America’s few pan-Latin fine dining experiences, Nao – housed behind a wood door massive enough to fortify the Alamo – is on the front lines of schooling diners like me in the next chapter of American cuisine, daring people in the Tex Mex capital to taste unfamiliar and sometimes unpronounceable Latin American flavours that haven’t yet been popularized. Think scallops with smoky panca peppers, coconut-marinated ceviche served with plantain chips, or mushrooms and malanga root broth over pork belly. Those flavours are on their way, and they’re coming fast. The National Restaurant Association named Peruvian food one of 2013’s top 10 trends and already a crop of much-hyped modern restaurants with Latin American influences have sprung up on this side of the U.S. border. That’s precisely why, in 2008, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) dug its spurs in here instead of, say, Las Vegas: San Antonio is home to a million Hispanics. If a Keller or an Escoffier is going to emerge for Latin cuisine, he or she will likely pass through this campus. San Antonio, Tex., may just be ground zero for the Latin American food revolution.
All day, I’ve been observing students shovelling fuel into the wood-burning oven and skinning cactus petals for nopal (prickly pear cactus) and queso panela (somewhat like cottage cheese) salad. Lopez, who at 38 is younger than some of his pupils, tells me that if I ordered this in Mexico I’d get looks. He elaborates: “It’s a working man’s salad.”
When it arrives at my table, fresh with grill marks and prickly pear dressing, I can confirm it’s definitely working, as one of five courses on a zealously ingredient-driven menu.
“The flavours are very traditional to what you’d find [in Latin America],” Lopez tells me. “That’s my objective: that people take a little trip.”
Over the past few years, Latin America’s best chefs have turned their attention to the foods of their home countries instead of continental Europe. CIA chef and anthropologist Elizabeth Johnson says that because Central and Southern America lack comprehensive travel and mobility infrastructure, regional cuisines have remained just that – regional – but they have a common characteristic: bold flavours requiring a lot of finessing. “We can understand cultures through their foods because the foods survive even when political forces, kingdoms, fiefdoms and empires rise and fall,” says Johnson, who was born in Honduras to American ranchers and cut her culinary chops working illegally in Mexico City. (The irony’s not lost on her, either.) What does the rise of Latin cuisine mean for America? She grins. “Reconquista.”
Though Hispanics already make up a quarter of U.S. restaurant employees, and the vast majority in Texas, most of those jobs are at the bottom of the payroll. If the CIA San Antonio succeeds, those workers may rise to the top of the kitchen and front of the house in an operation called El Sueno, or “the dream.” The man behind the program, as well as a $20-million (U.S.) scholarship donation helping many cooks realize their sueno, is Kit Goldsbury, creator of Pace chunky salsa. The salsa baron wants to help elevate Latin cooking above the populist, watered-down, Latin food that confused it. The reasons for Latin’s slow culinary rise are more complex than the popularity of nachos or salsa.
“In Europe, there’s a really long tradition of putting together high-end banquets and experiences for royalty,” says Melissa Guerra, author of Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert (a James Beard Foundation Awards finalist) and owner of a well-stocked Latino kitchen store in San Antonio that bears her name. “But in South America, the royalty was still in Europe. So [dining] remained very [rustic].”
“It’s not that it’s lesser – it’s just more humble.”
Though she used to operate 300 miles away in the border town McAllen, Guerra moved her store to San Antonio when she caught wind of the CIA’s Latin American dream.
Although it’s too early to predict exactly how the program at the CIA San Antonio will influence American cuisine, its impact on the city is as obvious to me as the habanero in chef Johnny Hernandez’s tuna chilapitas.
Hernandez, a CIA New York campus graduate and San Antonio homeboy who now owns restaurants Fruteria and La Gloria, focuses on the foods of his grandfather, not his father, who ran a successful Tex Mex restaurant. When he started thinking about opening his own restaurant he, “wanted to do something very… non-Mexican,” he says before erupting into the high-pitched laugh for which locals adore him.
After sipping mescal at Hernandez’s home base, Casa Hernan, we head to Fruteria, which is inspired by Mexican fruit stands during the day and Botanero bars at night. When a poblano stuffed with beef, covered in creamy walnut sauce and topped with pomegranates lands on our table, he explains its significance: “If your mother-in-law ever makes you chiles en nogada, you’re golden.” With about 20 ingredients it’s not meant to be an easy dish, but a celebratory one concocted for Mexican independence. It bears the three colours of the Mexican flag, but in the heart of San Antonio it’s starting to taste deliciously American to me.