Sofrito Magazine Interview with Chef Alejandro Ruiz
Sofrito Magazine (SM): Chef Alejandro, it’s a pleasure meeting you. Is this your first time in New York or in the United States?
Chef Alejandro Ruiz (AR): Yes, [it’s my] first time in New York. I have been in the U.S. four times before.
SM: How has the Food Network Wine and Food Festival been for you?
AR: Well, first of all, to be in New York is a personal triumph in itself, or so I consider it to be. I believe that every cook has to come to New York at least once in [a] lifetime to know what is done here on a daily basis, how the gastronomical world moves here. I am working with two incredible, professional Mexican friends, who have knowledge from our Mexican kitchens. The wonderful staff of Great Performances has been super-attentive. Anything we ask [for] or need is given. We have a solid group of volunteers, many of them Mexican. I believe what really unites us is love for food, and the desire to serve and do things right. The experience thus far has been a good one.
SM: When and why did you decide to become a chef?
AR: I did not attend culinary school; I am self-taught. I have a rural upbringing; my parents are farmers, and I was raised in Zumatlan, Mexicountil the age of 12. We planted onions, garlic, chilies, and tomatoes; in the backyard we had chickens running freely. There was an area with herbs that my mom used in her cooking.
[From] childhood I developed a good palate concerning flavor and fresh ingredients. I developed different techniques and simple ways of cooking, enhancing flavors. And that is who I am.
When did I start in the restaurant business? At the age of 15, I started washing glasses behind a bar, became a waiter, then wait staff supervisor, and [then] manager. I fell in love with the art of service and food. I cooked for my brothers―and did a good job. When it came time to decide [on a] career, I decided to become a chef. At 19, I opened my first restaurant―with only five tables. My brother took care of the dining room and bar while I cooked.
SM: What is the greatest culinary impact from the Mexican kitchen?
AR: I believe Mexico City is a point of reference in the world of gastronomy. Mexican cuisine is highly valued, so much that Chef René Redzepi is perfecting the tortilla, [and] Chef Albert Adrià in Barcelona and Chef Alex Stupak in New York City [are] among many chefs bringing Mexican cuisine to the world. I believe that Mexican cuisine is going to keep positioning itself on the highest level worldwide; we all know it’s good, and extensive in flavors. I started in Oaxaca, where I now have two restaurants. A year ago I opened one in Polanco, Mexico City, with the plan of offering the flavors and traditional styles of Oaxacan cuisine to a metropolis.
The next step? New York, London, Tokyo? I don’t know. Maybe the whole world―as long as we do it right and with authentic products.
SM: Talking about authenticity and doing it correctly no matter where in the world you are, does this mean you are not going to try to fuse your food with other cuisines?
AR: It all depends on what people are looking for and what you can offer; there are amazing cooks out there [who] insist on doing what they want, [but] if clients don’t understand where [the chefs] are coming from it’s difficult for [the chefs] to succeed. There are two ways we can go with this. One [way] is using traditional, authentic ingredients, the herbs and spices confronting the complexity of the dish and the logistical challenges. The other [way] is to fuse the food, which most chefs do now. You find local ingredients that could work as a fusion with our products, or you can export. The ideal way is to stay as authentic as you can.
In Mexico, each region is composed of little gastronomical countries: Baja California, Oaxaca, Michoacán, Veracruz, [and] Puebla, to mention a few―and they have a lot to offer the culinary world.
SM: Talk to me about the importance of family culture and food, especially around the holidays. How do you keep this alive?
AR: You know that in Mexico, the kitchen is the most important aspect [of] the family. You don’t live in a house, but you do live in a home, and that big difference is the warmth and the love of family that for the greater part starts in the kitchen. At least in Oaxaca, we all gather around the kitchen table to have our coffee, to talk about our day, our problems, the good [and] bad things―and to cook while [we’re] at it. In my town of Zumatlan, we don’t create rugs or art; we gather to create food.
What do we eat during the holidays? On Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), we eat mole: Tamales with black mole in a plantain leaf with chocolates, and candied squash (calabaza en tacha) are the preferred dishes. While one person is cooking, [another] is preparing the plantain leaves, [another] is cooking the chicken, and another is preparing the mole. It’s an excuse to unite the family feel the conviviality, your grandparents, your siblings―the greatest pretext to be united under one roof. And that applies to Christmas and all other holidays. What we eat during Christmas depends also on the [finances] of the family. There is turkey or codfish, due to our Spanish influence and Asiatic and pre-Hispanic heritage.
SM: Thank you so much, Chef Alejandro. It’s been a pleasure to speak to you on behalf of Sofrito Magazine
AR: The pleasure is all mine, and thank you for the opportunity.