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Chefs celebrate the past, look to the future of Latin American cuisine

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Global foods and flavors are captivating American palates and chefs’ imaginations, making a strong showing on menus and grocery store shelves. Eight in 10 consumers now eat least one ethnic cuisine a month and 66% of consumers eat a wider variety of ethnic cuisines now than five years ago, according to a 2015 survey from the National Restaurant Association. Diners are eagerly exploring dishes from around the globe, but Latin cuisine may have the strongest influence on Americans’ appetites.

Mexican food is one of the top three most-consumed global cuisines, according to the NRA survey, but Americans are also branching out and exploring flavors from across Latin America and the Caribbean. From Peru and Puerto Rico to Brazil and Bolivia, Latin cuisine is increasingly familiar to US diners as it finds a place on more menus and chefs turn out dishes that run the gamut from authentic to modern fusion.

The Culinary Institute of America launched The Center for Foods of the Americas more than a decade ago, and the research hub eventually evolved into the school’s San Antonio, Texas, campus, which began offering a Bachelor’s degree program in Latin studies in 2014.

Before the launch of the Bachelor’s program, the CIA offered a six-month program in Latin studies, but felt the need to expand its Latin cuisine offerings in order to give its students an edge in what has become “one of the most important trends in the US and around the world,” according to Director of Latin Studies Sergio Remolina.

Students in the program begin by cultivating an in-depth knowledge of Latin American cooking methods and ingredients, Remolina said, from beans and corn to the myriad chiles and spices that give Latin cuisine its bold flavor. Lessons progress chronologically, beginning with early indigenous foods and techniques and following the evolution of Latin cuisine until “our days, with what we would call the contemporary cuisine,” Remolina said.

In addition to providing an education to its students, the CIA’s Latin Cuisine Studies program also offers opportunities for culinary professionals and the public to experience and learn about the foods and culture of Latin America. The CFA held its first annual Latin Cuisine Summit last year, with demos and tastings hosted by a lineup of celebrated chefs. This year, the school is launching a series of five Latin Pop-up Dinners hosted in its Latin Teaching Kitchen. Open to the public, each four-course meal explores a different ingredient or region with dishes and beverage pairings crafted by students in the program. Students will present each course to the intimate group of 16 diners to “really allow them to get an education as well as a fabulous meal,” said Susan Cussen, associate vice president of the CIA’s branch campuses.

Consumers’ knowledge of Latin cuisine is growing, in part because of educational events and media coverage of influential chefs and eateries, but “immigration is also a crucial factor,” Remolina said. The country’s growing Latino population is driving an influx of authentic Latin American eateries in the US and “Americans are learning more about what Latin food is,” he said.

Another factor driving the rise of Latin cuisine is its synergy with the trends and ideals currently at the core of the US culinary scene, especially the popularity of bold, spicy flavors and the growing movement toward healthier diets based around simple ingredients.

“Latin cuisine by definition is very healthy cuisine, made with fresh ingredients,” Remolina said.

The combination of these fresh ingredients with bold peppers and piquant spices makes for very “exciting flavor,” Remolina said, and chefs around the country are gaining recognition for presenting Latin flavors in dishes that range from authentic foods inspired by traditional recipes to modern takes that blend Latin techniques and ingredients with a variety of other world cuisines.

Remolina and many others credit chef Rick Bayless as one of the driving forces behind US consumers’ curiosity about authentic Mexican cuisine that is a far cry from the Americanized dishes found in Tex-mex restaurants.

“Rick Bayless is an institution…he was the first non-Mexican making Mexican cuisine in a very authentic way,” Remolina said.

Today, the list of influential chefs and restaurants is continually growing and includes establishments from all ends of the spectrum — from small taco stands to fine dining restaurants.

Over the next 11 months, SmartBlog on Food & Beverage will take a closer look at Latin cuisine and how chefs in the US and around the world are preserving its traditions and using its flavors to inspire the menus of tomorrow.

Look out for a monthly special edition of ProChef SmartBrief the last Wednesday of each month with insights and curated news content related to Latin American cuisine, plus recipes, event coverage and resources from The Center for Foods of Americas. Sign up to receive this monthly special edition and the daily ProChef SmartBrief newsletter to stay on top of all the latest culinary news.


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