MARICEL PRESILLA on GRAN COCINA LATINA
Maricel Presilla is having quite the year. In May the grand dame of Hoboken’s celebrated Cucharamama and Zafra restaurants and Ultramarinos Latin store, who is also a scholar of medieval Spanish history and a cacao expert, was named 2012 Best Chef Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation. (Only the second NJ chef ever to achieve this milestone.) Then in October her 901-page cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina (W.W. Norton, $45), was published – and was instantly hailed as a groundbreaking, landmark magnum opus.
I interviewed Presilla about the book shortly after it was published (but before Hurricane Sandy damaged, but did not destroy, her restaurants). Part of the resulting Q&A is in the December issue of New Jersey Monthly, but because she is such a generous and genuine interview subject, our conversation far surpassed my allotted word count. So below is more of Presilla-on-Presilla, including how she went from medieval scholar to restaurateur, where the beautiful artwork that graces her book comes from, and her thoughts on the cuisines of Cuba – her native land – and Peru, the Latin flavor of the moment.
(Fans take note: On Wednesday, January 16, at noon, Maricel Presilla will be at the Beard House in Greenwich Village for a reading of Gran Cocina Latina. Books will be available for purchase and light refreshments will be served. Suggested donation is $20; the event is free for culinary students. Details aren’t up yet, but should be soon at jamesbeard.org.)
With everything you have going on professionally, why did you take on such a time-consuming, all-encompassing project as the book, which included travel over a period of three decades to 20 countries?
It was the other way around! The book came first, and led to everything else. I didn’t have my restaurants or store or even the cacao business when I started the research for this book. The book truly represents my life story; everything flowed from that. In my travels for what I thought would be my history book, I would collect recipes simply because I was a home cook and wanted to make them. I did this not knowing it would become a cookbook.
So then how did the restaurants come about?
The history book led to recipes which led to restaurants. My medievalist scholarship is how I got into cooking. When I decided I wanted to cook professionally, I wound up training at the Ballroom in New York. My mentor there was Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. His restaurant was the first full-fledged tapas bar in the U.S. – also the first to have quinoa on the menu. He died in 1991 and after I mentioned him when I won the Beard Award, a scholarship was established in his name. Through my work at the Ballroom I met my first well-known food writer, Paula Wolfert. I cooked Cuban conch fritters for her. She and I began talking about them, and I included the history of their ingredients and their evolution from pre-Colombian to creole – this was just part of our discourse. She then said I would be perfect to talk with Suzanne Hamlin, who was then a food writer for the New York Daily News. This was in 1983, and that was my first major exposure. Until then I didn’t realize I knew so much! I didn’t realize that it was part of my natural technique to include information like where a certain plant came from and why and how it became an important part of the diet.
Besides the sheer comprehensiveness – 500-plus recipes and a wealth of stories and historical background behind them – what sets Gran Cocina Latina apart from other Latin American cookbooks?
As big and scholarly as the book is, it brings traditional recipes into the modern home kitchen. Although they are my recipes, I don’t transform them into something unrecognizable. There are steps you go through when you bring the jungle into your kitchen. You have to tame it. It must still taste delicious but respond to the needs of the home kitchen. Another difference is that today we have a wealth of Latin ingredients that were not readily available before. I remember the days at the Ballroom when Felipe would have to settle for Mexican peppers when he was making a Peruvian aji dish.
Where will cooks be able to get the more exotic ingredients used in some of the recipes?
The food pictured in the book is all from New Jersey! The cover may look like it came from the jungle, but it’s from our New Jersey jungle! I love it that the Latins found a home here. It would have been impossible for me to find all the ingredients for the recipes in the book if I had been in, say, Mexico City or even Lima, and not as easy in Miami, where I would have had to drive for hours because the markets are so specialized. I mean, we are it! Here it’s more concentrated; we have more density. I have my choice of three small stores or one big one, like Food Bazaar, for one-stop shopping. It’s actually harder in New York, because it’s not as compact.
How long did the book take to produce?
You mean after the writing? One and a half years for copy editing the manuscript. There were three or four passes, plus photos, illustrations, etc. I wrote the book in different stages. Each chapter took months. It took a long time. There was a period of intense work for two to three years when I wrote every day or nearly every day. Then I spent two years testing the recipes in my home. And retesting. And adding new ones as I discovered something new, as I myself changed and as I became a better writer.
Organizing this vast amount of material must have been daunting…
In this way, too, I drew upon my scholarly work. Medieval writers were organizers; they put things into categories, they labeled vast amounts of information – it comes out of Middle Ages scholasticism. I have this same spirit of how-do-you-make-sense-of-this. Every chapter has its own index. I focused on the underlying principles [of Latin cooking]. Because I wanted people to be able use the book in their kitchens, it’s classically structured. To tell the truth, I had a completely different organizational scheme in mind but my editor demanded that we use somewhat conventional categories. Still I asked, ‘Why should drinks appear at the end? We don’t serve them at the end of a meal, or only at the beginning, we drink with the meal! [“Drinks” is the eighth of twenty chapters.] I didn’t want rice to be in a chapter on side dishes or an afterthought. Rice is central to the meal! And those introductory chapters on the layers of Latin flavor are laid out just as people cook and eat. In a conventional cookbook, these would be the back matter. The structure behind the meal – that is basic to understanding. That theme was behind the organization.
The book’s artwork – photographs, line drawings, etc. – is stunning…
I have a room in my house devoted only to the photo materials for the book. Everything that was photographed, illustrated and used in the book is mine. The cover? All my stuff. I bought the basket from a woman in the Amazon. Bookcase after bookcase is filled with slides, old prints and maps, video and voice recordings – anything I thought we could use. I could open a foundation with all the objects, all the research materials!
Is Cuban is still your favorite cuisine?
It’s not really a personal favorite. Of course, the food of where you come from shapes you, and that’s a good thing. And Cuban food has a backbone – a history of contributions by the Arawaks, African slaves and a lot of Mediterranean influences – and this backbone is helpful. It gives you a key to understanding similarities and differences of what’s going on in this vast universe [of Latin food]. I remember the first time I was in Honduras, having just come from Colombia. A Honduran chef was making comparisons to and contrasts with Colombian cooking, and that helped me understand. As I continued to travel to all these countries and experience the cuisine, it all became clearer with each step. For example, experiencing Orinoco River cooking and then going to the Amazon – all of a sudden, you see the similarities and the particularities.
Peruvian cuisine seems to be having its moment in the spotlight…
It should have been better known long ago. It’s here to stay. What happened was, the food first had to be rediscovered by the Peruvians themselves. There are now wonderful young Peruvian chefs coming to the U.S., and I am proud to say that I was the first to bring them here, through the annual Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA was instrumental in putting Peruvian food on the map.
I predict that Gran Cocina Latina will win major cookbook awards this year…
Well, I worked hard. It has the precision needed to make it a classic. My editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, would not allow it to be any other way. I appreciate her stern hand. This book made me who I am, sent me in all these different directions. My base had been Cuban-Caribbean. Now I’m more complete as a scholar, a cook, and a person.
Food Network’s Tyler Florence at Wegmans, Princeton
My personal favorite Food Network chef is coming to the Wegmans market at Nassau Park Boulevard for a book signing and discussion on Tuesday, December 4, from 5 to 7 pm. Guests will be able to buy an autographed copy of his new cookbook, Tyler Florence Fresh, which is being published that very day.
Details are sketchy, but it appears you must sign up in advance, in person. From Wegmans: “Reserve a spot to meet Tyler Florence for his book signing. Pick up your FREE book-signing voucher at the Service Desk. Limited vouchers available. One voucher needed per family(2 adults and children). Books MUST be purchased at Wegmans to attend the book signing.” To phone the Princeton store: 609.919.9300.