Food and Drink
8:37 am
Tue November 10, 2009

Beyond Enchiladas: Mexican Restaurant Owners Meet in KC

Chefs and restaurateurs from around the continent met in Kansas City to encourage the spread of more authentic Mexican fare.

Kansas City, MO – It was the first annual conference of a new national organization, which aims to provide culinary advice and business tips to encourage the development of more authentic Mexican restaurants.

At this conference, lunch is one of the key sessions. And today, chef Patricia Cabrera is responsible. In a black chef's jacket, she chops a pile of garlic and explains what she's making.

CABRERA: One avocado salad, and also I will have a callo de hacha cocktail. It's a scallops cocktail. Want to try a little bit of the tequila dressing?

It's tangy and unusual with a strong kick of liquor. When Cabrera opened a restaurant in Portland, Oregon six years ago, she didn't want to make a typical Tex-Mex enchilada, smothered with cheese.

CABRERA: This Mexican food that I see in this country is not the Mexican food that I grew up. I try to introduce the flavors that I grew up.

SYLVIA: Cabrera's restaurant is one of some 90,000 Mexican restaurants in the United States. But not all of the owners have her culinary expertise. At lunchtime, Salvador Guzman says he started working in the food industry the day after he immigrated to the United States. He's worked his way up and now owns nine restaurants in Nashville.

GUZMAN: The first Mexican restaurant in Tennessee was opened in 1989. Now there's maybe 500 or 600.

It's a story that food lawyer Angela Galvis has heard before.

GALVIS: They worked at an Italian restaurant and learned the business, and learned English.

Her voice is hoarse from directing people around at the conference.

The training is the school of learning as you go. Mistakes are made, because there has been in many times no formal training.

Sometimes cooking is the easy part. Owners might add a few traditional family recipes, to a more basic template for American-style Mexican food. The business side can be more difficult.

GALVIS: This is not the guy that goes to the Chamber of Commerce. This is not the guy that belongs to National Restaurant Association. This is the guy that is kind of floating out there, but needs some representation, whether it's in the industry or politically.

Angela Galvis helped found the Mexican Restaurant Association three and a half years ago. It grew out of a series of trips to Mexico sponsored by the Mexican government, to introduce US-based restaurant owners to more authentic cuisine.

PRADO: Mexican food and Mexican gastronomy is part of our national identity.

SYLVIA: That's Jacob Prado, the Mexican consul in Kansas City.

PRADO: I mean all the Mexican restaurants in this country are actually ambassadors of our culture.

In a lecture hall, Dallas chef Felipe Gaytan demonstrates how he adds shrimp and fresh mango-black bean salsa to a spinach and crab enchilada. And now, Gaytan says, you have a new product. Not just cheese enchiladas with chili.

GAYTAN: In my speciality I work a lot with fruit, and peppers.

Gaytan says he's aiming for a light, nutritious menu.

GALVIS: Their menus really cannot be stale, they have to be constantly changing to attract public.

That's why at the conference, Galvis wanted a full range of restaurants represented - from hip bistros to taquerias and Tex-Mex.

GALVIS: The super-chefs are coming here to actually tell a restauranteur: place a couple of tortilla chips and a little color and a tomato in a certain way, and you can charge a dollar more, because of the presentation. And our members didn't think about it.

In a kitchen upstairs, chef Jorge Alvarez shows how he cuts banana leaves in circles, to line the plates for his cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatan peninsula. Alvarez runs a cooking school in Mexico City, where he researches traditional recipes, even from the original Aztec and Mayan cultures.

Alvarez says when people leave the country, they forget the flavors.

But not according to David Suro. He owns a high-end restaurant in Philadelphia, and produces a specialty brand of tequila.

SURO: I always mention to my colleagues in Mexico to better watch out because, what I see all over the United States is a cuisine that is truly evolving. It's bringing Mexican food to levels -- if not the same as Mexico -- some chefs I can say are even, above.

Still, haute cuisine is not always what customers are looking for. At one session, a chef from Gladstone asks, what do you do when the customer wants to top your special dish with sour cream and cheese?

Chef Jorge Alvarez says it also helps if your waiters can talk about the history and flavors on your menu. Arturo Cabral owns El Patron on Southwest Boulevard. His mother helped him develop the menu, which includes seafood specialties and a traditional mole sauce. But he also has the more typical Tex Mex.

CABRAL: You have to give what's in demand. I mean Kansas City loves that kind of food. I love that kind of food. So you have to have that.

Cabral's starting the local chapter of the Mexican Restaurants' Association. As it gains members, the organization is trying to balance the pursuit of culinary excellence, with maintaining the livelihood of Mexican and Mexican American business owners.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.