An Interview With David Sterling, Author Of James Beard Award Winning Cookbook Yucatán

Perhaps you haven't noticed, but we're on a Mexican food kick here at the ANY Magazine! Authentic Mexican food is delicious, full of interesting and complex flavors, and legitimately healthy. It's nothing at all like the Tex-Mex so many of us have grown up eating. 

In our quest to learn more about true Mexican food, we got the chance to speak with David Sterling, winner of the 2015 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year, for his bookYucatán. Yucatán focuses on the style and history of cooking in, where else, Yucatán, the peninsula of south-eastern Mexico. This region has its own distinct style of cooking, with influences from France, Spain, Portugal, Lebanon, Africa, and the Caribbean. Sterling is also the founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, which is the first culinary school in Mexico devoted entirely to Yucatecan cooking. 

We were curious how, as a former New-York design firm founder, Sterling went on to become a chef and food authority in Yucatán, and what drew him to this particular region. He enlightened and entertained us with his story. -The ANY Magazine

To Start With, What Attracted You To The Yucatan Region Specifically?

I started traveling to Mexico in the early 1970s, but didn't make it over to Yucatán until the late '80s. All that time I had been informally studying the Mexica (Aztec) and Maya history and cultures but had mostly focused on the center of the country – Aztec-land! By the time I came to Yucatán I knew more about the Maya world and was simply smitten with the living culture here. It is much more prominent than in the center of the country where a lot of the indigenous native cultures have been so assimilated. Here it is truly possible to see Maya people living as they did 100 or even more years ago. It is an amateur anthropologist's dream! 

What Is Your Background In Food?

I started cooking with my mother when I was about 8 years old. My father had been a baker in his younger years, so working with him to bake cinnamon rolls and other treats was a great childhood pleasure of mine. By the 1960s, Julia Child was all the rage and I watched her show religiously. I even used a little reel-to-reel tape recorder to record her because I found her voice so funny (I say that affectionately) and because afterward I would slowly play back the tape and transcribe the recipes. Soon her cookbook The French Chef was released, so I no longer had to do the transcriptions! Only later could I afford the 2-volume set of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. 

By the time I was 16 I was cooking Coq au Vin and baking croquembuche and Napoleons. The latter took three days for all the steps. I also remember making her bûche de Noël and preparing the spun-sugar "moss" that you do by waving a fork dripping with sugar syrup over the greased handle of a broom. My mother was cleaning sugar up from the kitchen floor and cabinets for days!

In the late '70s I completed my Master's Degree in Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and during those 2 years I worked part time as pantry chef in a high-end French restaurant. It was the lowest possible position, but I learned a lot, including the fact that I never wanted to work in a restaurant again. So meanwhile I sort of segued over to design, but kept cooking by operating a small catering business that serviced friends and acquaintances. I did that in my final months in Michigan and sporadically for a year or two after moving to New York. And I took a handful of French cooking classes in the city, but couldn't figure out what to do with the knowledge since as I mentioned I had decided the restaurant business was not for me and I didn't have the resources to properly launch a catering company. At that time, there simply were not the opportunities there are now (no Food Network, no food blogs, only a handful of "culinary adventure destinations," mostly in France and Italy), so my culinary quest went underground for a few years.

But meanwhile, in my design business in New York we worked a lot in the food world – for restaurants and packaged foods companies – such that I never really lost touch with it. After moving to Yucatán and realizing that there were no cooking schools devoted to the regional cuisine, it seemed like a good opportunity to open the first one. And the only way I was able to do so and achieve such instant success was thanks to the internet. My culinary education continued and expanded as I met local women who taught me their recipes and techniques – perhaps the best education I ever got with regard to food.

How Did You Get Into This Traditional Style Of Cooking In The Yucatan?

It just kind of grew on me! I always say I was weaned on Tex-Mex food (I still confess a fondness for it), and like most people, I had been unaware of the differences between it and "real" Mexican food. Most certainly I had been ignorant of the differences of Yucatecan cuisine from "authentic Mexican". And it isn't really even fair to say "Mexican" since there are so many different regions of the country, all unique. Still, I quickly noted that in Yucatán there were not the hallmarks of "Mexican" cuisine – no enchiladas, no mole, and so on – such that I felt obliged to work to parse the differences – and there are many! While we do share a lot of the same ingredients (maize, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes) with the rest of the country, that's about where the similarities start and stop. 

As I got into the cuisine, I learned that there are many very old – even ancient – dishes here that still bear Mayan names: sikil p'aak, papadzules, sak k'ool, tobijoloch. And by extension, the recipes themselves are ancient. I have found considerable scholarly research that indicates that many Maya foods are among the oldest in the country. This is partly because of the isolation of the peninsula, and partly because the Mayas have worked deliberately – and proudly – to keep their culture and cuisine intact.

It was the palpable passion of the people that hooked me. People here love to talk about food. Not "foodies" – there really is no such thing here – just the average person on the street. Almost every day I get into animated discussions with taxi drivers, herb sellers, shoppers in the market, about certain dishes, flavors, ingredients.

Most Current Cookbooks Are All About Saving Time And Adjusting Recipes To Be Super Quick. You Focus On Recipes In Their Traditional, Time-Consuming Form. What Made You Go This Route?

To be blunt, I am "Food Network" averse! I've never taken the easy way out of anything in my life. (That's not boasting. Maybe I'm just too dim to know how to do it!) Note my story above about making the Napoleons and the bûche de Noël! Cooking is fun, so why take shortcuts?

OK, if you have kids and and a job, and you are looking for quick, easy things to make for the family then maybe you should receive special dispensation. But let's face it: no one is going to think "Hmmm I think I'll make the kids some Yucatecan food for Tuesday night dinner in front of the TV!"

I realized early on that the recipes in this book would be for special occasions more than anything else. So I gave myself permission to include recipes that are done the way it is really done here. Quite a few foods in the book would traditionally have been prepared for ritual purposes, so of course short cuts were not an issue – quite the opposite. Another reality of cooking Yucatecan cuisine is that many dishes are prepared by repurposing leftovers – so if you want to make Dish No. 3 in my book, you also must pass through Dishes No. 1 and 2. There was no way around that if I wanted to adhere to the way things are really done here.

All that said, be sure to check out the Cocina Económica section of my book. There you will find a lot of recipes that are much faster to prepare. That is because in the cocina económica – a small family-run restaurant – preparation starts in mid-morning and meals are served by noon or so, such that by their nature the dishes are quick, easy, and inexpensive to prepare. Finally, I founded the Yucatecan chapter of Slow Food here in 2009, so that should tell you something of my philosophy regarding cooking.

Who Did You Write The Book To Appeal To?

If you read the book cover to cover, you will see that I take the reader on a journey. It is a journey through space – we cover almost the entire peninsula – and a journey through time – there is a wealth of historical information in the book. So naturally I wrote it to appeal to people who like to hear those kinds of stories while they cook and eat. (My father was a big storyteller during dinner!)

Similarly, it's for people who like an adventure in cooking: as noted above it really is for those who appreciate the time it takes to prepare a truly memorable meal, for those who enjoy the journey from step one through step twenty! It can also appeal to "arm-chair" travelers who enjoy a vicarious experience of traveling through Yucatán. Finally, it was for that growing audience of people who are keenly aware of and interested in the regional cuisines of Mexico; previously there had been no authoritative book on the subject of regional Yucatecan cuisine so this book was intended to fill the gap on the library shelf.

Here In The Us, There May Be Certain Ingredients In Your Recipes That Are Hard To Find. Do You Have Any Suggestions On How To Work Around This?

Actually, unless something slipped by my attention, there is nothing in my recipes that cannot be acquired – or for which I did not suggest substitutions. The "ingredients" section of the book of course has many foods that are common here but that you will not find elsewhere – but I took particular care either not to include those in the recipes or to make suggestions for substitutions.

And don't give up! You'd be surprised at how many things are either readily available in markets (supermarkets in the "ethnic" section, or in Mexican or even Asian markets) or that can be ordered online. And new imports are arriving all the time. I am constantly thrilled to hear from my students that this or that "rare" ingredient is now at their local supermarket. I remember the "old" days when epazote could not be had anywhere in the U.S. Now it can be found fresh in the produce aisle, at farmers' markets, or even grown in the backyard! It even survives frost and reseeds itself every year.

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