Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hollywood and Moctezuma's Pie

Recently I catered a dinner for a crowd from Hollywood. A well-known producer was celebrating her husbands significant birthday with a few close friends in one of San Miguels most stunning homes. They wanted Mexican food, which pleased me tremendously, as this is when I am in my element.

The celebratory evening began with a callejoneada that included mojigangas, a tequila burro and mariachis, followed by dinner. Hollywood was impressed and had a blast!

The following day, before the group returned to California, they were served a taquisa (taco bar) in the casas gardens. As the visitors returned to their rooms to pack, a guest came over and told me that when he was a youngster a famous Mexican actress had cooked dinner for his family in Los Angeles. It was the best Mexican food that he had ever had. My interest was piqued. Who was the actress and what had she cooked? He could not remember. Dolores del Rio or Maria Felix? No, it was not them. Then he remembered. Her name was Lupita, and she had been featured on a postage stamp.

After the group had departed, I asked my friend (who had planned their stay) who had I been talking to? He was the son of William Wyler. No wonder he had had a famous actresses cooking for him! William Wyler was a director, screenwriter and producer, a master craftsman of cinema. 

A few of the films he directed were Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, Funny Girl, How to Steal a Million, Mrs. Miniver, Roman Holiday, Wuthering Heights and Jezebel.

That Lupita had been cooking Mexican food for such a Hollywood giant sparked my curiosity. This dinner must have occurred in the mid-fifties or early sixties, and at that time, Mexican food was rarely considered befitting for upper-class dinner tables. My friend, Diana Kennedy, an award-winning expert on Mexican cuisine, told me that she learned this when she moved to Mexico City in 1957. Invitations to dinners in private homes included mostly European cuisines but not Mexican.

How did Lupita Tovar, her stage name, born in 1910, in the small Oaxacan town of Matias Romero, make it to Hollywood? At least I understood why she had cooked Mexican food for her friends in California. Oaxacans take great pride in their culture and food has always been integral and still is to this day.

While researching Lupitas background I discovered a personal telephone interview with Michael G. Ankerich on his blog  Close-ups and Long Shots, where she told her amazing journey.

Ankerich asked if she had had ambitions to become an actress. She replied: Going to a school of nuns, you dont think about being an actress. I had no ambitions about being an actress. Then, when I was about 16, I went to another school. The instructor taught dancing, gymnastics, which we didnt have with the sisters. I loved it. That was my first ambition, being a dancer.

 Robert J. Flathery, a very successful documentary filmmaker and with Fox Studios, was in Mexico and spotted Lupita in a school play. He made some screen tests of her and entered them into the studios competition. Lupita won, and was awarded a contract with Fox Studios in Hollywood.

Her father would have none of it. However, after his family and village counsel persuaded him that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime educational experience, he caved in, giving Lupita his blessing, but only after declaring that her grandmother would be her chaperone.

From then on, Lupitas life became a roller coaster Hollywood ride. I started out making $150 a week. They paid my grandmother $25 a week for being with me. My father had never seen so much money. Of course, I sent all my money home, I just kept very little. We lived very modestly.

Lupita took her new life as an actress very seriously and worked ardently at it. I started taking dancing lessons from Mr. Cansino (Rita Hayworths father, ever wonder why she was such a good dancer?). I tried to learn English and do the best I could. Then a big change happened to the film Industry, the “Talkies” films with sound. Lupita was fearful of the change because of her accent. However, Universal Studios began dubbing films into Spanish to expand their market into Latin American countries, this gave Lupita the opportunity to continue working. Then the studio began to make films with Spanish actors, also featuring Lupita, on the same lot.

Lupita returned to Mexico for the premiere of The Cat Creeps (La Voluntad del Muerto) with Antonio Moreno and she became an instant celebrity. Universal offered her more roles, and against her fathers will, she returned to Hollywood. She had come to enjoy her independence.

Hollywood was on a roll, literally. They decided to shoot the film Dracula with English-speaking actors during the day and Spanish-speaking actors at night, on the same set. This was very, very difficult because I always needed my sleep 10 hours. It was a complete change because I had to sleep in the daytime. I was actually frightened by the sets. I would go to work about an hour early and sit there and try to concentrate. It was very dark and scary. We had our dinner at midnight. We left in the morning before the English cast came in. Imagine a Mexican having to eat comida at midnight? Que horror, I can so feel for her.
Lupita came back to Mexico to star in Santa (1931), the country’s first talking film.

They called her the “Sweetheart of Mexico.” The soundtrack for the film was composed by Augustin Lara and his haunting song “Santa” is still popular today. The film propelled Lupita into Mexican movie stardom, which included the honor of her image on a postal stamp.

Lupita settled in Los Angeles after her marriage to Paul Kohner, the founder of the most successful talent agency in Hollywood.

Kohner and William Wyler had emigrated together on the same boat from Europe to the United States, the land of opportunity, which they found with daring and innovative ideas and hard work. They were life-long friends and this is why, one evening, Lupita and her sister were cooking Mexican food for the Wyler family.

After some e-mails, I heard back through Lupita’s son that the dinner most likely had been “Pastel Moctezuma and huitlacoche.” This was helpful, but still vague. However, it inspired me to create a variation on Moctezuma's pie dedicated to Lupita, “Pastel Lupita de tortillas y huitlacoche.”

The date that Ankerich had interviewed Lupita by phone was July 28, 2013, she was 103 years old. This July 27 she will be 104! When he asked her how she was doing she answered: Carrying on. Keep carrying on wonderful Lupita and have a very happy birthday!
This article was printed in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende, Friday June 20. 2014
It was also printed in Spanish, which I translated with the help of my Spanish teacher Concepción Perez, and it was edited by Jesus Ibarra, editor for La Atención.

Hollywood y el pastel Moctezuma

Recientemente ofrecí un servicio de comida(banquete) para un grupo de (personas provedentes) de Hollywood. Se trataba de la fiesta de cumpleaños que una renombrada productora de cine, organizaba a su esposo, con algunos amigos en una de las más magnificas casas de San Miguel. Pidieron comida mexicana, lo que me agrado tremendamente, pues es mi “mero mole”.

La celebración inició con una callejoneada que incluía mojigangas, el burro con tequila y los mariachis, seguida por la cena. El groupo estaba impresionado y eufórico.

Al diá siguiente, antes de que regresaran a California, tuvieron una “taquisa” en el jardín de la casa. Al terminar uno de los huéspedes se me acercó y me contó que cuando él era joven, una famosa actriz mexicana había cocinado para él y su familia en Los Ángeles – “Fue la mejor comida mexicana que jamás he comido”dijo. Logró picar mi  curiosidad. ¿Quién sería esa actriz y qué platillo habría cocinado? El hombre no pudía recordarlo. ¿Dolores del Río o María Félix? No. No era ninguna de ellas. se acordó. Su nombre era Lupita Tovar, y había un timbre postal con su rostro.

Depués de que el grupo se había ido le pregunté a mi amiga, que había organizado la estancia quién era la persona con que había yo estado platicando. Me dijo que su nombre era David Wyler, hijo del director William Wyler y que no tenía idea de que una actriz Mexicana huhiera cocinando para él. Algunas de las películas que él dirigió fueron: Ben Hur, 1959. Los mejores años de nuestra vida (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946). Jezabel La loba (The Little Foxes, 1941). Cumbres borrascosas (Wuthering Heights, 1939).

Qué Lupita hubiera preparado comida mexicana para un gigante de Hollywood aumentó mi curiosidad. Esta comida debió haber ocurrido a mediados de los 50 o inicio de los 60, y, en aquel tiempo, la comida mexicana raramente era considerada apropiada para las mesas de clase alta, según me dijo mi amiga, Diana Kennedy, experta en cocina mexicana y ganadora de imortantes premios.

¿Cómo fue que Lupita Tovar, nacida en 1910, en Matías Romero, un pequeño pueblo de Oaxaca, habia llegado a Hollywood? Investigando acera de Lupita descubrí una entrevista con ella, realizada vía telefónica por Michael G. Ankerich en su blog “Close-ups and Long Shots”, (“Tan cerca y tan lejos”) donde ella le contaba su increíble trayectoria.

Ankerich le preguntó si ella había deseado ser actriz. Ella respondió: - “Cuando vas a una escuela de monjas, no piensas en llegar a ser una actiz. Jamás me pasó por la mente. Después cuando teniacomo 16 años fui a otra escuela en donde un maestro me enseñó danza y gimnasia lo que nunca había tenido con las monjas. Me encantó. Fue mi primera vez quise ser bailarina”.

Robert J. Flatherty, un exitoso productor de documentales de los estudios Fox, visitó México y puso su ojos en Lupita durante una obra escolar. Le hizo algunas tomas y las metió en un concurso Que Lupita ganó, siendo premiada con un contrato para los estudios Fox en Hollywood. Su padre no estaba de acuerdo. pero la familia lo persuadieron de que sería una experiencia única en su educación. Al fin le dio la benedición a Lupita con la condición que su abuela fuera con ella de chaperona.

La vida de Lupita en Hollywood fue como una montaña rusa. –“Empecé ganando 150 dólares a la semana y le pagaban a mi abuela 25 dólares a la semana por acompañarme. Por su puesto, yo enviaba todo mi dinero a casa, sólo me quedaba con un poquito. Mi abuela y yo vivíamos muy modestamente. Mi padre nunca había visto tanto dinero junto.

Lupita tomó muy seriamente su nueva vida como actriz y empezó a trabajar incansablemente. “Comencé tomando clases de danza con el Sr. señor Cansino (padre de Rita Hayworth). Traté de aprender inglés e hice lo mejor que pude. Entonces hubo un gran cambio la industria del cine: las películas habladas y con sonido. Lupita tenía miedo del cambio por su acento. Como sea, los Estudios Universal empezaron a doblar las peliculas al español para expandir su mercado dentro de los países latinoamericanos; esto le dio a Lupita la oportunidad de continuar trabajando, puez se empezaron a la par versiones en español de las peliculas con actores latinos, incluyendo a Lupita.

Lupita regresó a México para la premiere de “La voluntad del muerto” que hizo con Antonio Moreno y se convirtió de inmediato en celebridad. Los estudios Universal le ofrecieron más papeles, y a pesar de la oposición de su padre, regresó a Hollywood, empezóando a disfrutar de su independencia.

Hollywood la envolvió literalmente. El estudio decidió que filmara “Drácula” con actores de habla inglesa –Bela Lugosi- durante el día y con actores de habla hispana –Lupita y Antonio Moreno- en la noche, en el mismo set. –“Esto fue muy difícil porque yo siempre he necesitado dormir 10 horas y ahora tenía que dormir durante el día. Fue terrible. Comíamos a media noche y
salíamos en la mañana antes de que el elenco americano llegara”.

Lupita regresó a México para protagonizar Santa (1931), la primera película hablada en el país. La llamaban “la Novia de México”. La música para la película fue compuesta por Augustín Lara que incluyó su melancólica canción “Santa” popular aun en nuestros días. La película lanzó a Lupita como estrella del cine mexicano, lo cual le valió la inclusion de su imaginen en un timbre postal.

Lupito se instaló en Los Ángeles depués de su matrimonio con Paul Kohner, el fundador de la más exitosa agencia de talentos en Hollywood. Kohner y William Wyler habían emigrado juntos en el mismo barco de Europa a los Estados Unidos, en donde ambos desarrollan ideas atrevidas e inovadoras y trabajaron muy duro. Fueron amigos toda su vida y por eso, una tarde, Lupita y su hermana Sarita cocinaron comida mexicana para la familia Wyler en su casa de Bel-Air.

Después de algunos correos electrónicos, el hijo de Wyler obtuvo respuesta del Pancho Kohner, hijo de Lupita y productor de cine quien le dijo que los platillos que probablemente haya cocinandoLupita aquella tarde, fueron el la comida que más le había gustado, fue Pastel Moctezuma y huitlacoche. Esto arrojaba alguna luz sobre el asunto pero era aún muy vago. De cualquier forma me inspiró para crear una variación del “Pastel Moctezuma” dedicado a Lupita, “Pastel Lupita de tortillas y huitlacoche”.

Ankerich entrevistó a Lupita via teléfonica  el 28 de julio de 2013. Ella tenía 103 años, ¡Este 27 de julio ella cumplirá 104! Cuando él le preguntó a ella qué estaba haciendo ella contestó – “viviendo”-. ¡Continúa viviendo maravillosa Lupita!y pase un muy feliz cumpleaños!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Up close with Rick Bayless

This article was published in "La Atención" San Miguel de Allende Mexico, March 21. 2014
Rick Bayless - Kirsten West
Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless will be in San Miguel de Allende to participate in Mesa Abierta, a three-day culinary festival to be held here in various restaurants and locations from March 19-21.

Before I permanently moved to SMA, I was living in Chicago and had the dream job of being the Test Kitchen Director with Rick Bayless for 8 years, testing thousands of true Mexican recipes, oh yes and testing and testing and one more time back to the stove.

I clearly remember the moment when I spotted Rick’s first cookbook “Authentic Mexican” in 1987 at the fabulous Italian “Rizzoli” bookstore in posh South Coast Plaza in California. When I took he cookbook of the shelf and looked through it, I knew I had found a treasure trove of recipes. I immediately started cooking from the book. This chef from Oklahoma City and me, the curious and passionate cook from Germany, I realized have one thing in common: we really love Mexican food. My love for Mexican food had begun many years earlier in Mexico where I literally fell in love at first bite.

Years later as fate sometimes has it, I got to meet Rick Bayless when a mutual friend introduced us on a visit in Oaxaca. We became family friends and a few years later I moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to begin the said dream job as Test Kitchen Director.

As Rick tells it, when he was a teenager his family took a vacation trip to Mexico City where he fell in love with the vibrant culture and cuisine of what was then the largest city in the world. Over the years many more trips on his own followed and his honeymoon was spent crisscrossing Mexico and living in the country for 5 years as well, relentlessly culling recipes from market vendors, home cooks and restaurants for his first cookbook, which was published in 1987, the same year he and his wife Deann opened their restaurant “Frontera Grill” in Chicago.

Since then he has won every possible Culinary Award from the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the culinary world; chef of the year, best restaurant in the US, humanitarian of the year, and the list goes on. A TV show “Mexico-One Plate at a Time” on Public Television followed, now in it’s successful 14. Year.
President Barak Obama invited him to cook a Mexican dinner at the White House for visiting president Felipe Calderón. He was awarded the order of the Aztec Eagle (Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca) in 2012, which the Mexican government bestows on foreigners promoting Mexican culture aboard.

Whenever I mentioned my work with Rick, many times the response to this was: “How lucky that he became so famous “.
Let me tell you, and this I can tell from having been up-close, luck had very little to do with this.
In Hollywood they call it the 10-year overnight success when suddenly an actor appears in the limelight after many years of hard work. This truly applies to Rick and his wife Deann.

They started with driving a U-Haul from Oklahoma City loaded with used restaurant equipment, bought from his family, to Chicago. They rented a small storefront in a then derelict area of Chicago and with Deann’s family helping them making it as inviting and cheerful as possible. When some of the artwork Rick had collected in Mexico looked too lost and small on the walls, they painted large colorful frames on the wall around them to make them look bigger.
Rick trekked to the produce market early in the morning and then cooked on the line until late at night. It did not take long after the first diners had tasted his food for the word to get out about his delicious food and guests braved the trip into the not so great neighborhood. From the start Rick began to employ and train his staff to make sure they understood they were not serving cheese smothered combination plates but true Mexican cuisine. To deepen his staffs understanding of Mexican culture and cuisine, he began once a year, and still does to this day after 26 years, intensive 4-5 day culinary learning tours to different regions of Mexico. In-house training session with the kitchen staff and front of the house are still ongoing on a weekly base. This has resulted in a highly trained, well-informed and loyal staff at his restaurants. Not only that, but also a highly engaged staff, as cooks are encouraged to contribute suggestions to the monthly changing menus. For research, they have free access to the cookbook library, which houses probably the largest private Spanish language cookbook collection in the US.
Rick also began to encourage local farmers to bring their products to the restaurant. If it was something that did not fit into the Mexican menu, he passed on the foods to his staff all the while urging the growers to try growing vegetables and fruits he could use on his menus. Today he receives an abundance of fresh products at his door, the most amazing ones probably are tomatillos, grown by Amish farmers and the highly prized huitlacoche which one his former executive chefs, with the initial instructions of a mycologist (the corn fungus used to be only occurring randomly), is now able to grow on her farm.

Two years after the opening of “Frontera Grill”, Rick and Deann added the white tablecloth “Topolpbampo”, which took Mexican cuisine to new heights. 22 years later “Xoco” (the little sister) came along, serving tortas, caldos, churros and chocolate, Mexican street food at its best. All three restaurants are in the same building and as long as Rick is in the house, he never stops making sure all is as it should be.

This is the kind of  “luck” it takes to become one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in the US, to turn a derelict neighborhood into Chicago’s Restaurant Row and to help farmers to provide many restaurants with their products, which mean they can make a living being full time farmers.

To become successful as a chef or in any profession, it takes hard work and keeping standards high, only this way can the world be spared from mediocrity.

To find out more about Rick’s dinner go to http://www.mesamerica.mx/2014/en/mesaabierta/