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Get to Know Chef Pati Jinich

The host of PBS's Pati's Mexican Table celebrates the traditional flavors and techniques of classic Mexican dishes, while offering fresh takes on old favorites.

In our October issue story about Day of the Dead ("In Good Spirits"), we asked chef and host of Pati's Mexican Table Pati Jinich to share some of her favorite traditions from the holiday. The program, which is part travelogue and part cooking in Pati's kitchen, aims to share the fascinating world of Mexican cuisine with American viewers — and has been recognized by the James Beard Awards and the Emmys. Pati and her team just wrapped up shooting the sixth season, where she travels to Oaxaca to explore places and stories not known outside Mexico, such as the towns of Tlaxiaco and San Dionisio Ocotepec and festivities like the Mayordomia. Along the way, she learns about the world of mole sauces, and the origins and makings of the famous Mexican chocolate as well as other native foods to the region. We recently caught up with the Mexico City-born and now DC-based chef to talk about how her upbringing has influenced her cooking style—and how she meshes time-honored techniques with new inspiration.

You recently shared with us some of your favorite traditions from Day of the Dead [celebrated November 1 and 2]. What's your earliest memory of this holiday? How do you celebrate in your home today?

Oh, the food . . . eating sugar and chocolate skull candies with my friends, and fresh, fragrant pieces of pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread, which we would stand in line for at the bakery. While we waited, we would share the calaveritas we had learned at school. Calaveritas are a kind of poem where the author describes a fictional encounter between a person and La Catrina—the elegantly dressed female skeleton that personifies death in Mexican culture—and tells how the person would defy and trick death. Calaverita poems are sarcastic, raw, honest, and irreverent but most of all full of humor. Pan de muerto and skull candies have the same defiant tone to them.

These days, at home, we celebrate with the same traditional foods as we did in Mexico—and, of course, pan de muerto that we make at home. After moving to the US, I quickly realized there weren't panaderías in the US selling these items, so I tested the best way to make them in my kitchen.

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You've said you come from a family of "accomplished cooks and food maniacs," and you attribute your love of food and cooking to growing up in Mexico. What's your favorite food memory from childhood?

Indeed. I was born and raised in Mexico City, a place brimming with fascinating food at every corner. A place where life totally revolves around meal times. I think my favorite food memory from growing up is a mischievous one. I vividly remember sitting on the kitchen counter at home, eating a fluffy concha—a sweet yeast-based bread with a shell-shaped sugar cover—stuffed with refried beans. Oh, the taste! The sweet, airy, fluffy concha contrasting with the savory and earthy beans. I remember feeling so happy and victorious after faking a tummy ache—with my nana playing along—so I could skip school and go with her to her daily errands, which included going to the bakery to get fresh bread. I don't know how many times we did this—it took a while for my mom to figure it out because she worked full-time and then some.

How would you describe your approach to cooking? How has it evolved from the early days of teaching friends and neighbors to now teaching thousands on your PBS show, Pati's Mexican Table?

My cooking approach has become more of what it originally was—very enthusiastic, open, and accessible. I'm a transparent and curious cook, so I enjoy sharing everything I like (and don't) and everything that I know or learn that is useful (as well as what is not, so others can skip those mistakes). I have the same approach everywhere, whether it's my recipes at patijinich.com, my cookbooks, or my TV series: my kitchen always remains a place for nurturing and adventure. I take pride in honoring and passing on all the knowledge, techniques, and recipes from Mexican gastronomy that I have been lucky to inherit. But I also like to test the boundaries for new possibilities, to expand the uses of certain ingredients or techniques. I have a deep respect for the past but also leave a door open for the future.

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How do you fuse Mexican and American cooking styles? Are there any combinations of Mexican and American ingredients that you particularly like, or prep techniques that you borrow from one tradition and apply to the other?

Great question. And absolutely, Mexican and American can go so beautifully together. To get a glimpse of that, all you need to do is take a stroll down any town or city in Mexico and you will find a taco stand right next to a hot dog stand. Just like there's Taco Night in the US, Mexicans have been head over heels over American classics for over a century. And we have made them our own by adding our spin. I have learned from that.

If I apply a Mexican ingredient or technique to an American recipe, or vice versa, I do my research: I am very respectful of the soul of the dish, the recipe, the technique, to bring about the best of both cultures, so that it is not a crazy mashup with an indistinguishable personality, but a delicious dish. And it's not only me—so many Mexican chefs and cooks have their takes on burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, pastas. Mexican cuisine has a way of embracing new elements and giving them a new very Mexican twist.

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What other types of cuisine have you tried? How have they influenced the food you make today?

I don't think there is a cuisine I don't like. At home, we have a weak spot for Italian and Thai. As the years have gone by, the more I research and experience Mexican cuisine throughout the country and with Mexican communities abroad, the more I realize that Mexican cuisine is much more of a mosaic than one would think. Think of a tapestry that has been woven with different threads. There were the native Mexican regional cuisines that existed before the Spanish conquered Mexico, and then there was a deep intermarriage between Old World and New World. But along the way, there have been strong immigration waves of Africans, Asians, Lebanese, Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans—even Americans! As the different groups have made Mexico their home, they have brought new techniques, new ingredients, new dishes. As they have adapted and grown roots in Mexico, they have enriched the Mexican repertoire. Realizing the depth of this diverse and rich history has influenced my approach deeply in that I increasingly value the traditional foods from different parts of the world as well as their adaptations in new lands.

How do you think your career as a political analyst has influenced your relationship with food?

So very much. The fact that I was trained as an academic, with an emphasis on delving into the complexity of history and applying thorough research tools, has deeply influenced the way I approach what I cook. I like to do my homework—research the origins of a dish, its cultural and historical context, how it has evolved—and of course test it in my kitchen looking for the best possible rendition. Along the way, I really enjoy telling the stories. I find the stories behind food to be beyond fascinating. Food is a delicious lens from which to view the world.

Pati's Mexican Table has been nominated for two James Beard Awards and two Emmys. What's been your all-time favorite Mexican dish and drink to prepare on the show?

That's a tough question! I get just as excited when I share a dish I grew up with and make regularly for my boys as when I share new dishes inspired by my travels. But if you are making me choose one, maybe it's carnitas. My boys just adore them. Whenever we have guests over, that is what they ask me to make. And the cooking process is fascinating—it's so simple and yet you end up with a pot of meat that is succulent, citrusy, and caramelized. Perfect family food, to be served family style, which is my favorite way of eating.

See Pati's Recipe for Pork Carnitas in Our May 2016 Issue

What's one cooking rule you live by? And one you think is worth breaking?

One cooking rule I live by is don't be afraid to try anything. Food is food anyway. If the results aren't spectacular, you won't be wasting anything; just tuck it into a taco and try again.

One cooking rule that is worth breaking: don't let anyone tell you there is just one way to make something. There are always alternatives.

Thank you, Pati!


Learn more about Pati and her cooking show, Pati's Mexican Table, at patijinich.com.

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