Q&A: Chef Roberto Santibanez on balancing innovation and tradition in modern Mexican cooking - SmartBrief

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Q&A: Chef Roberto Santibanez on balancing innovation and tradition in modern Mexican cooking

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice


At his three Fonda restaurants in New York, chef Roberto Santibanez presents a contemporary take on Mexican food that stays firmly rooted in the country’s flavors and traditions. Santibanez helps educate other culinary professionals about innovative but authentic Mexican cuisine through his consulting business, Truly Mexican, and shares his passion for Mexican cooking with chefs, students and food-lovers around the world through his three cookbooks, lectures, cooking demonstrations and his work with the Culinary Institute of America as a member of its Latin Cuisines Advisory Council.

SmartBrief interviewed Santibanez on the evolution and rising influence of Latin American cuisine and how he balances tradition and innovation to create contemporary Mexican dishes.

Fonda has a focus on contemporary Mexican cuisine. What does modern Mexican cooking mean to you, and how are you inspired by traditional Mexican dishes and techniques?

The way I see this is that there is no tradition without innovation and there is no innovation without tradition. We base it on knowledge from our past, and we keep evolving things to the times, to the epoch we’re living in. So I think that basically is what is contemporary to me, is a continuous upgrading or a different way to visualize the past or the traditions. I just think some people do it very literally, which sometimes creates a little problem. Some people don’t give a lot of respect to traditions. My view there is if you’re going to create something that is about, say, Mexican cooking, it has to fit at least within this platform that we all know and consider Mexican. There is a platform of textures, flavors, colors that are used in Mexican, that’s what distinguishes the cuisine. So to create something that when you taste it you say, ‘Of course, this is unequivocally Mexican,’ not just going a little crazy and, you know, adding black beans to a salad, because that’s not Mexican…You need to look into what your cuisine really is and create along those platforms of flavors, colors and textures that make that dish uniquely Mexican.

Can you give a specific example from either your own restaurant or your work as a consultant when you shaped a dish using that approach of traditional ingredients used in a modern way?

When you create sauces, for example, in my restaurant with my team, with prep cooks and the chefs we always learn from each other. That’s the way I think of, you know, a more open, panoramic vision of Mexican cooking…I have cooks that come from Guerrero, I have cooks that come from Oaxaca, I have cooks that come from Guanajuato. So, we’re talking and we’re cooking something and creating a mole. The last one I remember was a hazelnut mole, because I love the flavor of hazelnuts. We don’t use them a lot in Mexico, but when I come here you have them in big cans in foodservice and I said, ‘Wow, hazelnuts, how great!’ And I started creating a mole based on hazelnuts. There are some hazelnut trees nowadays in the high plains of Veracruz…so why don’t we look into that region and see how they make their mole? So we took a red mole from Veracruz and starting working on it…and we all tasted it and everyone said, ‘Wow, this is delicious.’ And I said my grandma would have tasted it and nodded with approval. A new Mexican sauce, but unequivocally Mexican.

As a culinary ambassador for Mexico, what do you most want US chefs and consumers to understand about Mexican cuisine?

It all goes back to that very fine balance that exists with ingredients. The way we add spices to our sauces, the we use chiles, the respect for the techniques…[Mexican] is such a wonderful cuisine, so complex and sophisticated, and people can spoil it very easily.

Why do you think Latin American cuisine has seen such a rise in popularity in the US in recent years?
It’s very flavorful. And its very approachable. What I see it always compared to is Indian, right? Why isn’t Indian as popular as Mexican? I think its because sometimes it’s a little shocking, sometimes it’s a little overwhelming, it’s just too much. Some people get freaked out about some of these spices. But Latin cuisine is a little bit more balanced and tamed, I think the flavors are more accepted immediately. They’re great flavors, but more than anything they are accepted right away by the American public.


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