The Stratford Chefs School is renowned for the inventive chefs that graduate from its rigorous program each year to helm admired kitchens across Canada. One of the special features of this intensive two-year immersion into the world of cookery is the opportunity for hands-on training and tutelage by prominent chefs from around the world. As part of the program, student chefs garner restaurant experience by preparing prixe fix menus at The Old Prune restaurant, week nights between December and February, under the expert culinary supervision of each week’s guest chef-in-residence.
Critically acclaimed guest Chef Pilar Cabrera Aroyo, from Oaxaca, Mexico, recently introduced student chefs to the cuisine and ingredients of Oaxacan gastronomy. Different kinds of corn, dry and fresh chilies and herbs, tamales, hibiscus, and Mescal are examples of why authentic Mexican food is not easily replicated outside Mexico–away from its essential ingredients–but Chef Aroyo brought them with her.
From January 17 to 21, The Old Prune’s menu reflected a sampling of Mexican cuisine through traditional Oaxacan dishes, showcasing the best of Mexico. All of Mexico is known for its mole, but Oaxaca has seven types, including the “black mole”, which is composed of more than 30 ingredients such as nuts and chilies, and is a harmonious balance between spicy, smoky, bitter, and salty notes. Chocolate is also used to complete the blending in order to balance the array of flavours.
Our first course is cheese and mushroom quesadillas with salsa verde, made fresh and delectable, and teasing us with the anticipation of what is to come. We sip a flute of Mescal, and are told it is rimmed with crushed worm and grasshopper. Oh… While some relish this rare liquor and its authentic presentation, we appreciate that the horizons of our palates have been broadened, and opt for more water. Avocado soup, usually served chilled, is adapted to our chilly winter air outside, and we gladly receive it hot and bedazzled with pomegranate seeds. Salad of shredded flank steak complimented by juicy tomato and crunchy topas is light, but deceptively meaty and filling.
Oaxaca was the first state in Mexico to begin making mole but, despite the requisite ingredients, its a wonder its origin was not further north where our cold climate beckons dishes with such instant warmth. Accompanied by a smooth cilantro and corn masa, tenderly sliced chicken is embraced by a kaleidoscope of flavour that emanates from the mole. The heat of the chili spice is tempered within a rich, lush sauce that entreats us to savour and scoop it all up. This is haute couture Mexican cuisine that conveys the authentic world of gastronomy beyond the unfortunate “Taco Bell” impression of so many. Symbolizing the colours of the Mexican flag, our dessert of velvety mango mouse, candy-like caramelized hibiscus flowers, and a clean mint sorbet is delicate, refreshing and, more than symbolic, is reflective of the layers and textures of an exotic cuisine in the hands of the imaginative young Stratford chefs to whom it has been introduced.
Travelers to Oaxaca often seek its unique regional cuisine, in particular the variety of seven mole sauces, banana leaf-wrapped tamales, and luscious soups all using indigenous ingredients. In addition to Chef Aroyo’s celebrated La Olla restaurant, many also visit her La Casa de Los Sabores (House of Flavors) for a complete culinary experience. “In my cooking school its just tourists” explains Aroyo. “Ten students shopping in the market and then cooking with me. It’s not a formal school, just a half day, and a nice experience to learn about Mexican food and have lunch together.” In contrast, the Stratford Chefs School students have already learned techniques, and each bring their own ideas and imagination for presentation. Praising these Stratford student-chefs she has traveled thousands of miles into the snowy Canadian winter to instruct, Chef Aroyo beams warmly, “I teach about Mexican food, but I’ve also learned from them”.