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MEXICO CITY (Reuters Life!)- For Mexican chef Lula Martin del Campo, the way to fabulous dishes is simple: buy local, respect the ingredients, mix with abandon and sprinkle with flowers.
The executive chef at the Mexico City headquarters of an international bank, she has just launched her book "LulaChef - Mexico Contempo," a tribute to Mexican classics that range from mole, the rich sauce made of at least 20 ingredients, to huitlacoche, a black corn fungus with an earthy flavor.
With a 15-year career that took her from a family-run restaurant to designing the menus for top boutique hotels, she has earned respect in a mostly male-run field with her fresh approach to traditional dishes that have been served on Mexican tables and street corners for generations.
Esquites -- corn niblets with lime juice, mayonnaise, and grated cheese -- poblano chiles and squash blossoms are reinterpreted by Martin del Campo in 164 easy-to-follow recipes for meat lovers and vegetarians alike.
The petite 42-year-old credits much of her experience to tips shared by other cooks over the years.
"I don't believe in keeping the recipes to yourself. In the end, everyone gives his or her touch to a recipe," she said.
A big supporter of social causes, especially those helping indigenous groups, she swears by the wise words that a Huichol shaman once said to her.
"He said I had an inner light and that I should follow its guidance," she said, holding her red sequined lucky pendant.
Martin del Campo, who plans to open her new "Roca" restaurant in Mexico City in a few weeks, talked to Reuters about her beginnings as a kitchen assistant in Switzerland, her favorite dishes, her admiration for American chef Thomas Keller and mushrooms, and her top foodie destination.
Q: Where did your inspiration to become a chef come from?
A: My mom is a great cook. When she hosted family gatherings she would get me on board, mostly to prepare the dessert. It was a subconscious approach, but I liked being there to help.
Q: When and where did you get the professional calling?
A: I was 17 and went for a summer to Vevey to perfect my French. One of the optional classes was cooking. The teacher saw how keen I was to get in and asked me to become her assistant. I realized then that it was in the kitchen where I felt like a duck taking to water.
Q: What cuisine were you first attracted to?
A: Italian. I loved seeing how something as simple as pasta could mix with pretty much any ingredient. I then started blending Italian with Mexican. In my new book, I have one of my favorite recipes: huitlacoche ravioli.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge as a chef so far?
A: My current job. About 80 percent of my clients are men and I have always had a very feminine style. I don't like extremely greasy dishes and I add my signature touch: garnishing with flowers. They lighten the heart. No complaints so far.
Q: Which is your favorite recipe in the book and why?
A: Salmon with black mole. When I started working for the bank in 2006, the then CEO ate a lot of salmon and I had to come up with different ways to cook it. He motivated me to experiment a lot.
Q: Who is your favorite chef?
A: In Mexico, Martha Ortiz. She says she is a sorceress in the kitchen and it's true, and Thomas Keller. I ate at his Per Se restaurant in New York and it was a mind-blowing experience. He respects ingredients a great deal. Nothing against molecular gastronomy, but I am a firm believer that an avocado should not end up in an emulsion.
Q: Favorite ingredient?
A: Rain mushrooms. They are so versatile.
Q: Favorite foodie destination?
A: Ensenada and Tijuana, in Baja California. It is unbelievable what they're doing in the Valle de Guadalupe wine country: organic farming, the Ramonetti cheeses, rustic breads, olive oil with notes of basil. One of my favorite dishes there is sea urchin.
Q: After a long day preparing food for others, what do you like eating when you get back home?
A: A tuna sandwich.
Pink guava dessert (serves 4):
6 guava fruits
1 cup cream cheese
½ cup condensed milk
½ cup evaporated milk
1 drop red vegetable color
1) Mix all the ingredients in a blender. Sieve until smooth.
2) Serve in martini glasses.
3) Chill and decorate with fresh flowers.
Tip: you can use other seasonal fruits like mango, berries or peaches.