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Centro Cocina Mexicana: The Early Years

Fifteen years have passed since we served our first Cochinita Pibil at Centro. Many have asked me questions about how it all began. Although it was many margaritas ago, I believe it went something like this:

Sometime in the mid eighties, I acquired a copy of Diana Kennedy’s Cuisines of Mexico. I was instantly fascinated and seduced by the exotic sounding dishes described on its pages: Spicy Crab Soup, Squash Flower Soup, Pit Barbequed Pork, Pork in Green Mole, Fresh Corn Tamales, Chicken cooked in banana leaves. It was Mexican cooking that was entirely foreign to me. I attempted to cook from the book but I had no idea how the food was supposed to taste. A year or two passed and somehow my path led to Marilyn Tausend, director of Culinary Adventures, inc.. It turned out Marilyn was a one woman show who led tours way off the beaten path to the most interesting and little touristed locations in Mexico. Each stop on the tour culminated in a cooking demonstration led by Diana Kennedy, the internationally recognized authority on regional Mexican cooking. Marilyn, an ex child rodeo star, and a natural born sales woman, convinced me I should join her on the next trip to Oaxaca. That first trip was a series of revelations about the food, culture, and people of Mexico. This was not Mexico for the timid, but Mexico in all it’s primal glory. Food markets filled with an endless array of chiles, exotic fruits and vegetables, and the unrefrigerated hanging corpses of freshly killed animals. Marilyn gained access to village homes where we watched women cook over wood fires in kitchens with dirt floors. For me, it was an opportunity to begin to acquire taste memories of authentic Mexican cooking from the most basic to the exotic: tortillas of freshly ground masa baked on a clay comal, quesadillas of pork drippings and cheese, light as a feather steamed tamales, dried grasshoppers, iguana, armadillo…And the tutelage delivered from Diana was, at once, harsh, direct, passionate. You were to learn the right way to cook the region’s food, her way. When I first met her, she immediately let me know I was to keep my mane of shoulder length hair under control during cooking sessions. There would be no talking. Focus. Listen. Pay attention. Her cooking, the culmination of her over 40 years of travel and exploration through the back roads of Mexico in her battered, dusty, little white pickup truck, remains some of the best I’ve ever experienced, anywhere. I was hooked. Year after year my travels continued and would eventually include the states of Michoacon, Yucatan, Campeche, Veracruz, Hildalgo, Tampico, and Mexico, DF. Each location providing new insight into the striking differences between the ingredients and cooking found in each region.

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When Randy and I opened Centro in 1994 we experienced our growing pains as all new restaurants do. Especially those restaurants which have no real predecessor to model themselves after. In my naivete, I thought we could cook like they do in Mexico. After fifteen years, it turns out we can. It just takes a group of hard working, passionate, and dedicated men and women. Gracias a todas las personas de Centro Cocina Mexicana!