I met Chef Wilson Alonzo in the patio of Restaurante Frailes, plucking flowers from the chile xcatik bush, a bright orange chile the shape of a tiny christmas light, with flowers so delicate they looked like they could easily fly out of his ceramic white bowl.
Chef Wilson is the executive Chef at Restaurante Frailes, as well as the President of the new Gastronomic Association of Yucatan. He invited me to sit and interview a few of the member chefs about their work and their goals. They each drove a few hours after work to meet with me. He, like his colleagues are teaching at universities throughout the state, in addition to running their own kitchens or businesses.
Their goal? Develop regional gastronomy through the academic, business and social sectors. In other words, promote and study Yucatecan food.
What does Yucatan taste like?
Smoke from an underground oven
You’ve mentioned the word rescue, why does Yucatecan cuisine need to be rescued?
It’s not necessarily rescuing Yucatecan food, because we’re not superheros, it’s more about reconnecting with it and preserving it.
When we say rescuing, we’re talking about the indigenous dishes in small towns throughout the state. There are many family recipes that are disappearing and we’re not documenting them. We want to promote them so that people know about the variety of gastronomy in the Yucatan that you don’t see in Merida. Our cuisine has been dumbed down just to salbutes or banana leaves.
We got used to foreign cuisine, and only appreciating our own food when someone from abroad validates it. Now you see foregin chefs making Yucatencan cuisine, but as Yucatecans we haven’t had the courage to do it ourselves. We should be the ones making it and learning about it from top to bottom.
How do you plan to promote Yucatecan cuisine, not just to outsiders, but to people here who are going into cooking?
The biggest problem in Yucatan is access to education. Even though we’ve studied in government schools and have attended less-expensive universities, we had to work very hard to get there. Most of our students are first generation college students, and it’s very hard for them to pay for it. Now that there’s the first generation of gastronomes in the state, I think we’ll start to wake up.
One of our goals is to sponsor students and give scholarships. There are people who want to study and just don’t have access.
Another one of our goals is to go to universities and give workshops about Yucatecan cuisine. We see there’s a deficiency in our educational programing in that there’s no regional cooking classes— it’s all focused on technique, but we can teach both.
What do you see for yourselves and for this project in the next three years?
We hope to have a section dedicated to Yucatan in the national conservatory of food. I think that will give Yucatan the spotlight it deserves.
I hope we’ve published our dictionary of Yucatecan ingredients.
I hope that in three years the people that are our students now are doing what we’re doing. That alongside us there’s an army of cooks making Yucatecan cuisine, bringing Yucatecan cuisine to the world, and loving Yucatecan cusine.
Follow their work here.