FROM ENFANT TERRIBLE TO CHEF INSTRUCTOR: CHEF ILIANA DE LA VEGA
We had a beautiful life. It was like magic," Iliana de la Vega says, remembering her family's charmed life in Oaxaca City, Mexico. There, de la Vega and her Chilean-born husband Ernesto Torrealba owned El Naranjo, a restaurant serving modern Oaxacan cuisine to an international following, carefully built over eleven years. With their two daughters, they enjoyed the cultural vibrancy of Oaxaca, until political unrest, stemming from a teacher's strike in 2006, threatened their happiness.
The strike, punctuated by violent clashes with the state militia, disrupted both their business and family life. Schools were suspended. Tourism trickled to a standstill. The local economy veered toward the edge of collapse, while the national government faced a widespread civil rebellion, which erupted after the 2006 presidential election. So when the opportunity arose, de la Vega and her family decided to leave their home and start anew in Austin, Texas, where they reopened El Naranjo ? this time, in the form of a food truck parked at the site of what they hope will one day be the future home of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The truck serves Mexican dishes from across their native country (Oaxacan dishes remain El Naranjo's specialty), and de la Vega is proud of her authentic preparations. "What people know about Mexican food is still very limited, even though we are so close and share a huge border. So I chose to showcase traditional foods, and the reception has been good." The menu selection is not extensive, but changes regularly, with offerings such as Salpicón de Res Taco (a cold beef salad taco), and Swordfish Escabeche (a pickled fish popular in Veracruz). De la Vega also prepares signature moles, traditional dishes composed of complex sauces made by blending many ingredients and served over meat and rice.
De la Vega kept the name El Naranjo, but its incarnation in Austin is a marked transformation from the original establishment. And despite the restaurant's acclaim, its contemporary interpretations of customary dishes met with resistance from native Oaxacans when it first opened. "The perception was that I was from out of town, a Mexico City girl, not an Oaxacan. How dare I cook Oaxacan food?" De la Vega was, in fact, born and raised in Mexico City, but she grew up learning to cook with her family, who are from Oaxaca.
Also meeting with resistance was de la Vega's decision, for both culinary and health reasons, to prepare the traditional moles of the region without lard ? a decision regarded as "almost sacrilegious," says de la Vega. In the early days, prominent members of the community would return dish after dish to the kitchen, without even a taste. It almost ruined the restaurant; but eventually de la Vega carved out a reputation for herself, and these days, she is amused to see many cooks of the region following in her footsteps.
Her radical reputation in Mexico notwithstanding, de la Vega now holds the position of Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, and is an acknowledged authority on Mexican and Latin American cuisine. True to her upstart past, however, she confides that she doesn't believe culinary training makes a chef: "Going to culinary school does not make you a chef; it will give you the tools to become one. The title of chef you have to earn in real life, from spending hours in the kitchen, and gaining respect for your work and knowledge. You will learn a lot of techniques and methods, but the taste comes from the extra passion, not from school. It's in you or it's not."
It's clear that de la Vega's passion springs from her homeland. "Oaxacan cuisine is very creative and very unique ? it's a blend of native ingredients and techniques with those from other cultures. With just a few ingredients, you can have a lot of flavors." This is aided in part by the fact that Oaxaca is the most biodiverse region in the world for chilies ? the quintessential Mexican ingredient. There are over 150 known species of chile plants, with a wide range of flavors beyond mere hotness; most, in fact, are not particularly spicy, but instead produce earthy, smoky notes. The chiles also take on different characteristics depending on whether they are used fresh or dry, making the art of mastering chiles an ongoing one. "I am still learning," says de la Vega. "Every time I go back, I find something new. There is always something I have never heard of before."
When pressed, de la Vega admits that if she could choose, she'd rather be working in a brick-and-mortar restaurant instead of a truck, where space is limited and the temperature can quickly rise to 120 degrees. However, at the end of the day, both restaurants and food carts aim for the same goal ? "empty plates," she says. "That is the best thing."
And she's certainly proud to join the ranks of street vendors, a celebrated position in Mexico: "There's a wide variety of street food in Mexico, from tacos to empanadas to tortas," she says. "It's more than food; it's a cultural expression. One person makes one thing, and he or she is the master of making that one thing." If de la Vega's rapidly rising street cred is to be believed, she has undeniably achieved the status as a master of Mexican cooking.
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Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.