I am befuddled by people who don’t like food. It’s partially why I hate the term “foodie” so much – who doesn’t like food? Who among us isn’t a “foodie”? But I guess it’s fair to note that some of us care a bit more than others. Not just fuel to keep us alive, food is beauty and art and love, all rolled into one. A perfect meal can be as emotional as a first kiss or a last goodbye.
Which is why I found myself sitting in Frida restaurant last week, barely able to hold back the well of tears.
Having just eaten what might possibly be one of the best meals of my life, I found myself clinging to Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo’s hand, unable to let go, uttering “thank you” over and over again. Yes, I’d had a fair amount to drink, including a gourd of mescal, but the sheer brilliance of Cabrera’s 30-ingredient authentic Oaxacan mole will likely remain one of the highlights of my food writing career.
Cabrera is in town for the month of September to cook dinners at a variety of Toronto restaurants including the dinner I attended at Frida and this evening at FRANK, as well as Veritas, Torito, The Chef’s House, and a demo at Nella Cucina.
A native of Oaxaca, Cabrera is the owner and chef of the award-winning restaurant La Olla (The Pot). She also runs a cooking school called Casa de los Sabores (House of Flavours) where she teaches others the many dishes of the Oaxacan region that have been passed down through her family. A noted student is US chef Rick Bayless, known for his restaurants featuring authentic Mexican cuisine.
Her trip to Toronto was organized by Alvin Starkman, an ex-pat Torontonian who now runs a bed and breakfast in the Oaxacan region. Food writer Mary Luz Mejia curated the events, arranging for Chef Cabrera to team up with some of Toronto’s best known chefs for a series of dinners that showcase the famous dishes of the southern Mexican state.
While Cabrera brought some ingredients with her, such as epazote and the black mole paste required for the famous mole negro, she has been impressed with the availability of authentic Mexican ingredients in Toronto. Her hosts took her to Kensington Market where she visited the South American markets on Augusta Avenue and was duly impressed with shops like Perola’s.
During the dinner last week at Frida, Cabrera tag-teamed with Frida’s chef Jose Hadad, taking turns on the dishes in this magnificent 6-course meal. The two chefs presented a corn soup, salad with cactus paddles, grilled shrimp with mango and chili salsa, steamed tamal with lamb, and Cabrera’s mole atop turkey medallions stuffed with plaintain. A Mexican goat’s milk cheesecake and truly fantastic churros made for a memorable dessert (the churros were from Chef Hadad at Frida, and are probably the best in the city – we’ll definitely be going back for more of these!).
For those unfamiliar with the term, mole can be any kind of sauce, and the Oaxaca region is famously known as the Land of Seven Moles. Because the region is in the south and has remained relatively secluded, the food has maintained its authenticity – there are no nachos or hard taco shells to be found here, although the influence of the Spanish can be seen in the variety of spices.
The mole negro is the most famous of the Oaxacan moles and typically contains 20 to 30 ingredients, including chocolate, chili, onions, garlic, nuts, and spices. It is normally made in the morning and left to simmer all day so the flavours blend and meld into a thick, rich, almost black sauce so intense and flavourful it can bring tears of happiness to the eyes of anyone who eats it.
Lest I give the impression that Hadad and Cabrera fed us rustic food, it should be noted that this is an extremely elegant cuisine, with a very natural but sophisticated presentation and intriguing flavour profiles. The heat of the chilies in many dishes never overwhelms but builds from almost nothing to a comfortable warmth. Balances of sweet, salty and acidic are quite precise, making it all seem simple, although anyone who has tried to make a dish like mole will know – it’s about more than throwing the right ingredients into a pot.
Cooking a perfect mole is part art, part skill, part devoted attention to detail, and much love. Eating that same perfect mole is an ethereal experience that every person should have at least once in their lifetime. Like rainbows, rare birds and family milestones, opportunities like this don’t come along very often.
Chef Cabrera’s dinners are selling out fast. As of publication time, only Veritas and the cooking class at Nella Cucina still have spots available. Go if you can manage it – meals like this don’t happen every day.
Tuesday, September 22nd: Nella Cucina Cooking School – Cooking class
Wednesday, September 23rd: Veritas – Dinner with Chef Brad Long
Monday, September 28th: Torito Tapas Bar – Chef Cabrera prepares a menu of “botanas”, Mexico’s version of tapas [SOLD OUT]
Tuesday, September 29th: The Chef’s House – a multi-course meal prepared with the assistance of George Brown students [SOLD OUT]
Photo of Chef Cabrera by Mary Luz Mejia.