De vanguardia: Is the Tri-State ready to savor the flavors of Latin American haute cuisine?

CINCINNATI - As we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15), WCPO contributor Grace Yek asks two local chefs about the emerging new Latin American cuisine.


Peking guinea pig with purple corn crepes (cuy pekines con crepes de maíz morado). Smoked baby corn with coffee mayonnaise dusted in salty ant powder (elotitos tatemados con mayonesa de café y polvo de chicatana).

Both dishes grace the menus of restaurants in Latin America today. Culinary wizards like Gaston Acurio (Peru), Alex Atala (Brazil) and Enrique Olvera (Mexico) are re-mixing our notions of Latin American cuisine and taking food to new heights, on par with French haute cuisine. Recently annointed the top chefs in Latin America by William Reed Business Media (the folks that publishes a host of "50 Best" lists) they are now getting the world's attention.

But you don't have to travel to Lima or Rio to get an insight into what's cooking. 

Latin American Chefs, Close To Home

Jose Salazar, the former executive chef at The Palace in downtown Cincinnati, knows a thing or two about haute cuisine. A Colombia native, Salazar moved to New York early in his childhood and subsequently began his career in one of the most fertile culinary grounds in the world. 

Salazar is pleased the new Latin American cuisine is getting the attention it deserves. 

"Latin American food was never elevated into an art form like the older cuisines in Europe and Asia. There is little pomp and circumstance, but the food has always been good and flavorful," he said. 

Lourdes Leon, born and raised in Jalisco, Mexico, echoed that sentiment. 

"The food is delicious," she said, as she described the elaborate ingredients and intricate flavors of molés. Leon, who started Taqueria Mercado in Fairfield 13 years ago, is enthusiastic about how these avant garde chefs are transforming Latin American food.  "It's a good thing," she said. 

Let's go back to the Peking guinea pig (cuy pekines) for a moment. The guinea pig is not food many of us would choose to eat, but it is a staple in certain regions of Peru. Acurio, in his whimsical brilliance, describes the dish on his menu:

"Tired of being rejected by the world, the guinea pig decides to disguise itself as a Peking duck, dressed with rocoto and purple corn crêpe. It got a standing ovation from everyone."

Traditional Tastes, New Twists

Before you swear off Latin American haute cuisine, rest assured: not all creations involve ingredients you would associate with a bizarre food show. This is, after all, the same land and culture that gave the world cocoa and vanilla. 

More mainstream dishes, often made over with modern culinary techniques, also find their places on menus.  Atala, for example, offers dishes like sweet potato with yerba mate béarnaise, and skate (fish) with manteiga de garrafa' (Brazilian butter), lemon thyme, smoked baroa potato, broccoli and peanut foam. 

Olvera delivers his rendition of Mexican street food in barbacoa tacos, made with pit-roasted sheep, complete with avocado cream and spicy serrano chilies, all snuggled up in a poblano pepper tortilla.

While Latin American food may not have always held center stage, it comes with a history that runs thousands of years deep. It is borne of cultures that are diverse, and comes from a part of the world where the variety of food is the envy of many nations.

"It looks like the chefs are exploring with their indigenous ingredients," Salazar observed, speaking of the newly minted top chefs in Latin America and their use of ingredients like cambuca fruit, canjiquinha (a type of white corn) and tucupi juice (wild manioc extract). 

In fact, Salazar did not even flinch at the talk of ant powder, roasted guinea pig and grasshopper salsa.  

"It's not uncommon to eat chocolate-covered ants in Colombia," he explained. 

Believe it or not, a number of the top chefs in Latin America--at one time or another--felt they had to cook fine French or Italian food to touch haute cuisine. For many, reconnecting with their roots also meant a turning point in their work. 

"These Latin American chefs are achieving new heights while maintaining their identity. They are applying global techniques to indigenous ingredients," said Salazar.

Next page: A new restaurant arrives

Are We Ready For La Vanguardia?

Might the Tri-state be receptive to the haute cuisine with roots in Latin America? Although Leon was not sure, she said Tri-state palates have evolved since the inception of Taqueria Mercado. 

"We used to only offer three menu items--tacos, tortas and burritos--when we started, because those were the only things the customers looked for," Leon recalled. 

Her eatery has since developed a full menu and added another location downtown, an indication of a growing customer base. Leon noted her customers are becoming increasingly diversified. 

"The world is changing, and people are becoming more global," she said. 

As the cuisines of Latin America continue to evolve, the vast and diverse terrain of the region ensures an abundance of food sources, many of which may not even be known to the world at large yet. 

Salazar remarked, "I wouldn't be surprised if there are ingredients yet to be discovered."

Tri-State foodies will discover a new Latin American restaurant in Over-The-Rhine this fall when Salazar opens his Salazar Restaurant & Bar on Republic Street in the Nicolay Building. Will it feature haute cuisine? Well, maybe a taste: a news release on the 3CDC website lists delectable dishes that will likely be at the forefront of what many Tri-Staters considers Latin American cuisine:

"Entrees will include such items as sweet corn ravioli with pole beans, parmesan, heirloom tomatoes and purslane, or duck leg rillette, pickled onions, jalapeno jam and toasted blue oven bread."

This new breed of chefs are smoldering with raw talent, and fearless with their use of indigenous ingredients.  Armed with world class culinary training, they are unleashing new interpretations of the cuisines of Latin America.  And many of them are looking in their own backyards for inspiration.

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