One of Mexico’s Best-Known Chefs Discusses the Future of Latin American Cuisine and Gives a Nod to the Past
Photo by Jesús Díaz
Zahie Téllez developed a unique bond with food that can only come with having two influential grandmothers – one Arab, the other Mexican – who loved to cook and shared their passions and cultures with her. Today she is one of Mexico’s most influential chefs and is seen on the television program, Enchilarte. Travelgirl Co-Founder and Publisher Renee Werbin chatted with Zahie about the resurgence of Mexican cooking and her love of Italian food.
Travelgirl: Who influenced your career in cooking? Were your parents instrumental in your love of food?
Zahie Telléz: It was definitively my dad and my mom. I still remember going fishing on Sundays in Mazatlan with my dad and enjoying the preparation of “Zarandeado,” ceviche and grilled shrimp. I waited all week long to help prepare these family-style dinners at home where the table was set to receive family and friends.
Both my grandmothers influenced this passion. My mother’s mother influenced it with all the seduction of the Lebanese food with countless dishes and stories and my father’s mother with the Mexican traditions – long and complex preparations – and above all “sharing the table.”
tg: As a child were you interested in cooking?
ZT: My first memory as a girl was helping my mom prepare dinner at home. My father, a carpenter, built a small stool especially for me and I used it to reach into the stove and up to the counter. My baby steps began with cakes and little-by-little my mother gave me more freedom to prepare other dishes. I remember the day that my father lit up the BBQ grill and I thought that if I put a cooking pan in it that I could bake a cake.
tg: What was your favorite food when you were young?
ZT: When I was young, Asian food became mainstream in Mexico and sushi became my favorite. I also loved sweet and sour tastes on fish and seafood, and thick soups like ramen were a favorite. I was fond of all the spices that were different from the Mexican chiles that I ate. They delighted me and I just wanted to eat those spices all day.
tg: As a famous Latin American chef you travel
the world. What’s your favorite destination for cuisine?
ZT: I was absolutely delighted with the cuisine when I visited Italy. I was so enchanted that 11 years ago I searched for an opportunity to learn all about real Italian cuisine, right at its heart. I became enamored with the variety of ingredients used, their simple but well thought out preparations and the respect for the culture. These aspects of Italian cooking are always in my heart. The food is always exceptional and diverse. Whenever you travel in Italy the regional foods are different; the cuisine changes from the north to the south.
tg: How does cooking in different areas of the world influence you?
ZT: I always have had the belief that when you travel you will learn new techniques that you can use in the kitchen when you go home. In the end almost all countries have the same proteins, vegetables and some universal fruits but preparations and spices that are local, as well as the techniques and the use of ingredients, excite me. Every time I return from a trip I bring back small things that enrich my creativity and I then spend days combining new flavors with my native cuisine.
tg: When you travel do you shop for food and cooking utensils or clothes and shoes?
ZT: Both, no questions asked. I try to bring home the ingredients that are not available in Mexico as well as utensils and other things that help me stock my kitchen. At the same time, I enjoy fashion, shoes, purses and looking at the new trends. It’s a reflection of how restless and open I am to experience new things, including those found not only in the kitchen.
Every time I return from a trip I bring back small things that enrich my creativity and I then spend days combining new flavors with my native cuisine.
tg: I love the photos of your little boy, especially the ones that show him helping in the kitchen.
ZT: Ever since Mariano came into my life I wanted to involve him with what matters most: cooking!!! Mariano is not afraid of cooking, on the contrary, he is always playing in the kitchen and helping with whatever is being prepared at home. He prepares his own breakfast, well sort of; he is only four and does the best he can for his age. He has a curious palate and is willing to try new things.
tg: Do you cook at home? What’s your family’s favorite meal?
ZT: When I am in Mexico I try to cook for my family since I consider it a genuine way to show how much I care. Homemade fresh pasta is the most frequent dish I prepare since my family loves it.
tg: How do you define Latin American cuisine?
ZT: Latin American cuisine is wide and diverse and has many things in common like lime, liberal use of spices and different kinds of chiles. Latin American cuisine is greatly influenced by Europe, specifically France and Spain, and uses ingredients, traditions and techniques from the 1400s and 1500s. In the 20th and especially 21st centuries we have recognized the importance of taking this traditional cuisine as a base for creating our own identity, and that is one reason for our success in the contemporary gastronomic scene.
tg: When you are packing for a trip where you will be one of the chefs, what one cooking item do you always take with you – that you never leave home without?
ZT: My knives, I think a good knife will always make a difference. I’m flexible and always try to cook with whatever utensils are present so I can also enjoy the experience of cooking outside of my home.