CIA San Antonio's Classes for Chefs and Enthusiasts
In addition to chef-training programs, the CIA in San Antonio offers periodic hands-on classes – some for culinary professionals and some for amateur "food enthusiasts" – that cover various facets of Latin American cooking. While not exactly the same as taking lessons in Mexico or Peru, these classes are the real deal, and they're practically in the neighborhood.
Last fall, I had the good fortune to attend a professional-level antojitos (Mexican small plates and snacks) class taught by Iliana de la Vega, former chef/owner of the internationally renowned Restaurante el Naranjo in Oaxaca, Mexico. In addition to teaching professional and enthusiast-level courses, de la Vega (who now resides in Austin) is hard at work compiling a comprehensive catalog of Latin American cooking for CIA's archives.
My classmates were a dozen working chefs from San Antonio, Austin, Laredo, and Santa Fe, N.M. On each of the course's five days, we gathered at 7am for an hourlong lecture on the culinary traditions, ingredients, and cooking practices of a different region of Mexico. Then, in the school's spacious, light-filled kitchen, we worked in teams to prepare scores of antojitos from the region of the day. Under the chef's guidance and exacting eye, we made norteño-style chilorio, uchepos from Michoacán, Jalisco-style tortas, tlacoyos from Pueblo, and garnachas from Tehuantepec. We parsed components and combinations for myriad salsas, got comfortable with dozens of fresh and dried chiles, and learned the textures, fillings, wrappings, and flavors for properly made tamales from all corners of Mexico. We prepared varieties of ceviches and refrescos and masses of masa-based snacks. At day's end, we sat down together with at least 20 different regional dishes to taste, critique, and then devour with gusto and a hard-earned new appreciation.
De la Vega says that new classes are in development (such as Peruvian cooking) and that, while the enthusiast classes are shorter and less intense, her mission is always to impart to students a deep understanding of the studied cuisines and preparations.
Me? I came away with an exponentially increased comprehension of Mexican cooking traditions as well as an invaluable, fat notebook of recipes, food history, flavor profiles, and ideas. While not on a physical visit south of the border, our class reaped great benefit from a hands-on, skillfully guided journey through the culinary regions of Mexico.