A Oaxaca culinary ambassador: an interview with Chef Pilar Cabrera

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen
Chef Pilar Cabrera at her La Olla restaurant and cooking school in Oaxaca © Douglas Favero, 2011
Chef Pilar Cabrera at her La Olla restaurant and cooking school in Oaxaca © Douglas Favero, 2011

On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I had the pleasure of speaking with Pilar Cabrera, chef, cooking instructor and, most recently, participant in Iron Chef Canada.

Chef Cabrera kindly took time out from her busy schedule to sit down and discuss the influences that led to this career, as well as her cooking school, ever-changing menus at her restaurant, La Olla, and experiences in helping to bring the cuisine of Oaxaca to Canada. Mexico Connect’s interview with Chef Cabrera was a learning experience in what it revealed about some of the lesser known ingredients used in Oaxacan cooking.

Mexconnect: We’ve enjoyed several meals at La Olla, and have been impressed with the freshness of the ingredients and the creative way they’re combined. How long have you been a chef and when did your interest in this career begin?

Pilar Cabrera: I studied ingeniería en alimentos (food science and nutrition) at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, and after graduation went to work for Herdez-McCormick in sensory evaluation. I worked in their test kitchen, combining and evaluating flavors. It was not until I returned to Oaxaca that I had the idea of opening a restaurant. Nobody in our family had restaurants before, although we cooked and ate traditional Oaxacan dishes.

Mexconnect: What were the most important culinary influences in your development as a chef?

Pilar Cabrera: The most important influence was my grandmother, who was a traditional Oaxacan cook. She was the one who inspired me regarding food and cooking, and it was my mother, with her interest in art, décor and colors, who influenced my emphasis on the attractive presentation of food.

Mexconnect: What characteristics and ingredients distinguish the cuisine of Oaxaca?

Pilar Cabrera: First of all, corn. This has been our principal food since ancient times, and we use all varieties — purple, blue, black, white and yellow. Beans are important as well, and here in Oaxaca we prefer black beans. Chocolate is used in both beverages and moles.

Then there are the chiles. Oaxaca has several chiles that are not found in other parts of Mexico but that are important in Oaxacan dishes. Chile de agua, a very hot chile, is often stuffed, and a chile relleno in Oaxaca may be made with this instead of the much less picante chile poblano. Another chile that can either be stuffed or used in salsas and other recipes is the pasilla oaxaquena. This is different from the pasilla mexicana, both sweeter and hotter. It comes from the Sierra region of Oaxaca, where it is smoked over the wood of the guava tree, which gives it its distinct flavor. Others are chile amarillo, essential to Oaxaca’s yellow mole, chile chilhuacle, used in chichilo, one of our lesser known moles, and chile tusta, which looks like a small habanero and is used in salsas.

We also have several herbs that are characteristic of Oaxacan cooking. Chepil, epazote, hierba santa and hoja de aguacate (avocado leaf) are used frequently. Chepiche is used in sopa de guías, the seasonal squash vine soup, and hierba de conejo (Indian paintbrush) is used in cooking beans. Pitiona, from a bush with small purple flowers, is deeply flavored and used in yellow mole.

Mexconnect: You incorporate many of these traditional ingredients into your cooking, as well as using more modern and diverse culinary elements. How long have you been in business here at La Olla?

Pilar Cabrera: Since 1995. La Olla will be 16 years old on the 19th of March, 2011.

Mexconnect: What can you tell us about your professional visits to Canada to promote the cuisine of Oaxaca?

Pilar Cabrera: Two years ago, at the suggestion of Alvin Starkman and with the help of Mary Luz Mejia, a food writer and food television producer, I went to Canada and prepared Oaxacan meals at various restaurants. I was asked to represent Mexico at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre International Hot and Spicy Food Festival, and I participated in the Iron Chef cooking event.

My recent second trip to Canada was at the invitation of the Stratford Chef School, as part of the Celebrity Chef in Residence Program. I taught Oaxacan recipes, and the students were observed and graded by their teachers. (Note from Mexconnect.: This prestigious program has featured world renowned chefs such as Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Eric Ripert, among others.)

Mexconnect: Thank you for sharing your knowledge of Oaxacan ingredients. We would very much appreciate it if you would share a couple of your recipes with our readers.

Published or Updated on: March 25, 2011 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2011
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