Chefs put Mexico’s culinary heritage on the menu with heirloom corn

Chefs and restaurants around the globe are raising the profile of Mexican cuisine with modern interpretations that honor Mexico’s culinary heritage by highlighting traditional methods and high-quality ingredients. One such ingredient -- heirloom corn -- is now easily accessible for the first time to chefs outside of Mexico thanks to the work of pioneering chef and entrepreneur Jorge Gaviria. His company, Masienda, helped create a market for Mexico’s ancient varieties of corn that chefs process in-house to create tortillas that are a cut above those produced with commodity ingredients.

Rodriguez, Gaviria, Samayoa and Yonan at the Smithsonian Associates panel
Rodriguez, Gaviria, Samayoa and Yonan (Photo: Tricia Contreras)

Gaviria and chefs from two top Mexican restaurants in Washington, D.C., discussed how this high-quality corn helps support Mexico’s farmers and honor its culinary heritage at an event hosted last week by Smithsonian Associates. Washington Post food writer Joe Yonan led a panel discussion that began with an explanation by Gaviria of the ancient process known as nixtamalization, which softens the outer hull of hard field corn and allows it to be turned into nutritious masa. The process is time-consuming, but one that all the panelists agreed is well worth the effort.

Most tortillas produced in the US for commercial sale and in many restaurants are made from a processed corn flour called maseca, which Gaviria referred to as “the Bisquick version of that process...it cuts out a significant amount of work, but at the expense of flavor and nutrition.” The majority of field corn used in the production of commodity products is engineered for cattle feed and ethanol production rather than human consumption, Gaviria said, whereas Masienda sources corn from Mexican farmers who grow the heirloom varieties as a subsistence crop.

Processing corn from scratch “takes finesse,” but results in a “phenomenal end product,” with discernable difference in flavor and aroma depending on the type of corn used, said chef Omar Rodriguez of Oyamel Cocina Mexicana by Jose Andres.

Chef Alexis Samayoa of Espita Mezcaleria agreed, describing the difference between making tortillas with maseca and making them with Mexican corn as “like [going from] driving a Honda to a Ferrari. It’s really night and day.”

Samayoa and his staff process about 150 pounds of corn each day and he said the hands-on process helps him feel connected to his restaurant. The nixtamalization and grinding process, which is mainly the responsibility of several staff members Samayoa affectionately refers to as “my girls,” also helps connect his operation with Mexico’s culinary traditions.

Once the corn has been nixtamalized, it’s ground by hand to a consistency that prep cooks judge based on looks alone -- a complex process that some of Samayoa’s employees learned while living and working in Mexico.

One of the women who joined Samayoa’s staff in the restaurant’s early days used a communal grinder in her hometown in Mexico that was “almost identical to the one in the restaurant,” he said.

At Oyamel, the cooks responsible for making the tortillas have been instrumental in refining the restaurant’s process. “It was subtle adjustments. We learned from them...we don’t claim to know what we’re doing," Rodriguez said. “I grew up in the United States and I’ve never had to do that in my entire life, so to get their opinion on the matter is great. I learn from my cooks,” he said.

Masienda supplies corn to some of the country’s most celebrated restaurants, and Gaviria said many of them draw on the knowledge of prep cooks from Mexico and other Latin American countries when it comes to traditional tortilla making. “I’ve seen some of the best chefs in the country kind of scratch their heads looking at this process and being totally daunted by it,” he said.

As US chefs become familiar with the process, they are branching out by experimenting with different varieties of corn. Each variety has a unique flavor and aroma, with colors ranging from white to blue and purple. Samayoa said he has used six or seven different varieties at his restaurant and likes to switch to a different type every month or so.

Gaviria founded Masienda in 2014 after becoming “obsessed” with corn, and he’s passed that obsession on to the chefs who turn to his business as a source of high-quality corn that lets them put a piece of Mexico’s culinary heritage on their menus.

“Chefs have been the best ambassadors for what we do, and the coolest thing is to see how each story unfolds in each kitchen.” he said.

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