Join Chef Jojo as she recounts her favorite memories from the ICA’s Culinary Learning Journey in Mexico.
As a board member of the International Caterers Association, I love being able to take culinary learning journeys with colleagues who have turned into great friends.
These trips have touched every part of the globe, with the latest taking place in Mexico in January. Since my mum couldn’t go, we decided to invite my dear friend and fellow catering chef in Los Angeles, Jennie Cooks.
Mexico has beautiful scenery, proud people, amazing food and fabulous mezcal. What more could we ask for?! Not to mention, my friends Janet Woodson and Mark Baldwin joined Jennie and I as we met up with 30 of our colleagues.
New friendships began and others were deepened. It turned out to be a trip we will remember for quite a while. Given the last couple of years, it was a revitalizing experience.
We had so many amazing moments, so I’ll highlight a few that were particularly special and will stick with me as I return to the Good Gracious! headquarters to serve our guests and inspire our team!
One of the activities I really enjoyed was making authentic mole with the self-proclaimed “Mole Mayor,” a spunky and sweet woman who made the experience incredibly enjoyable. In fact, we were the first group she has hosted since COVID.
She explained to us that mole comes from a family of sauces prepared throughout the Oaxaca and Puebla regions of Mexico and is characterized by a complex, layered flavor derived from intricate blends of dried chiles, spices, fruits, and seasonings.
While quite laborious to make, our teacher made the 4-hour process exciting and rewarding. One by one, each flavor—both dried and fresh—is added to the pot and simmered delicately. The labor of love is worth it because the final product is an intricate harmony of flavors. When we were finished, we used the different varieties of moles we made as dipping sauces and marinades.
The second highlight of our trip was making authentic Mexican table chocolate also referred to as Mayordomo Chocolate. Unlike many other commercial chocolates, Mayordomo includes only four ingredients: sugar, roasted cacao beans, almonds, and cinnamon.
These ingredients are ground and blended to form a paste that is pressed into bars and discs. Due to its undissolved granulated sugar and its rough and gritty texture, the table chocolate is not meant to be eaten like a chocolate bar, although Mayordomo bars can be eaten out of hand. We learned that it is primarily used to make hot chocolate by dissolving the chocolate squares in hot milk on the stove and whisking the cocoa.
Here I am sipping my delightful Mexican hot chocolate, which if you know me, you know I quite prefer it to a hot cup of coffee. So, I was in heaven!
One day in the middle of our trip, we visited a highly-regarded and family-owned Mezcal distillery located in Oaxaca’s Central Valley called Real Minero.
The family learned from their ancestors the conditions of yesteryear and how challenging it was in the mezcal trade. It was not possible to dedicate themselves to another activity, so, this work was done out of mere necessity because it represented the only source of income to acquire what they did not produce.
Once we met each other and toured the centuries-old facilities, we went on to making Real Minero Mezcal alongside the family. They showed us the entire process. From growing the agave to pounding it by hand with a mallet, to earthening it in a kiln, and the final step–distillation in a clay pot.
We ended the tour with a lovely lunch outside and finally the best part, a Real Minero Mezcal tasting!
I really appreciated how they shared their story with us and how the family seeks to carry on their ancestors’ traditions in the process of making and bottling Real Minero Mezcal.
Chinampa: Floating Gardens
Another day, we visited and learned about the history of the Chinampas. Our amazing host explained they were invented by the Aztecs. Sometimes referred to as “floating gardens,” chinampas are artificial islands that were created by interweaving reeds with stakes beneath the lake’s surface, creating underwater fences.
Some of these floating islands are still in use today, and we were able to learn about these ancient agriculture methods. We took a boat trip out to see some gardens and watched a demonstration of traditional harvesting practices.
Produce foods such as lettuce, cilantro, spinach, chard, squash, parsley, coriander, cauliflower, celery, mint, chives, rosemary, corn, and radishes are in abundance on these agricultural plots and are harvested for restaurants all over Mexico City. We drank wine and feasted on fresh salads featuring produce harvested here for lunch.
I loved how these present-day farmers honor their ancestors by keeping these traditions alive, while providing opportunities for professional chefs like us and students around the world who visit to learn from their work.
Dia de Los Muertos
Another highlight came at the very end of our trip when we threw a Dia de Los Muertos celebration on the ranch. The Mexican holiday involves family and friends gathering to pay respects and to remember friends and family members who have died. These celebrations are often lighter than the name might suggest as celebrants recall fun events and memories about the departed.
Our Shaman welcomed us to the land and encouraged us to commune with the departed. We dined under big tents in the middle of a field for both lunch and dinner. In between these lovely family style meals, we honored love ones who have passed away with traditions new and old.
We dressed up and painted our faces, which made for fun photos. Perhaps the deepest part of the celebration came from making mini altars, where we honored our loved ones through bright colors, photos, candle, paper, and marigolds. I helped my friend Jennie make one for her parents.
We followed up these symbolic rituals with a parade, and we danced for hours with the locals. It was a renewal of sorts that I will never forget. I must extend a big thank you to our hosts for planning such a wonderfully successful day!
Overall it was a fabulous trip full of learning, food, fun, and love! I cherished my time seeing old and new friends in the industry and getting re-inspired to get back into the kitchen. Thank you to Jennie for being the best travel partner I could ask for!
I would love to hear if you’ve been to Mexico recently. Is there anything we missed? I am definitely counting the days until I can go back again and enjoy some more Mezcal with friends.