WHO’S AFRAID OF DIANA KENNEDY?

Eating out with a tough cookie

By David Lida

He who invites Diana Kennedy to eat does so at his own peril. In the confines of a restaurant she is unforgiving. For example, after trying the tamales at La Flor de Lis (where they have served them since 1928), she says, “What barbarity! A disaster! I can make them a thousand times better at home.” An appetizer of goat cheese with huazontle herbs in the restaurant Águila o Sol is “ridiculous” and the tortillas that accompany a main dish are “absurd.” At Izote, a venison appetizer is a “horrible distortion,” and she doubts the freshness of the house-made cold cuts at Tierra de Vinos: “Who knows when they sliced these? A few hours ago? A few days ago?”

Kennedy, an Englishwoman who has lived in Mexico almost continuously since 1957, has spent much of those years crisscrossing the country alone, from town to town, in her car, in second-class buses, or in hired taxis with unknown drivers. All of that mileage in search of authentic recipes, of the hidden joys of Mexican cuisine.

“She is a historian, an anthropologist and a curator of our food,” says writer Alma Guillermoprieto. “In book after book, she looks for the birthplace of an original recipe. She unearths the elegance of our food, and she works like a horse.”

“Because of her, Mexican food became known around the world,” says Carmen Ramírez Degollado, owner of the beloved Mexico City restaurant El Bajío. “Mexico is Diana’s great love and she’s lived with our people and our food. That’s why she’s so demanding.”

Cocina esencial de México, a compendium of three of Kennedy’s books previously published in English, just came out in its Spanish translation. The Mexican government has given her the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor it can bestow on a foreigner.

Apart from so many accolades, among her friends and colleagues Kennedy is known as a devil in restaurants. She herself recalls that in a Zona Rosa bistro she recently told a waiter that the chef should go back to cooking school. Although she lives in a ranch in Michoacán, Kennedy comes to Mexico City frequently to do business, to visit friends or go shopping. She likes to try new restaurants, although she prefers those that don’t serve Mexican food. In those, she explains, “I’m a bother to my friends. I always say that I can do it better at home.”

On her most recent trip to the capital, I invited her for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in both fashionable and traditional restaurants. She offered opinions not only about those restaurants, but about others as well, and the general state of eating out in Mexico City. She wasn’t even vaguely diplomatic or self-censoring, although at our last encounter, she said with a laugh, “They’ll never let me eat at these places again.”

If Kennedy has the strict manners of an English governess, at the same time her sense of humor tends to soften even her harshest comments. She tends to make her toughest remarks with the mischievous smile of a daring child. While in restaurants, although hardly a mouthful of food met her standards, she appeared to throughly enjoy the labor of deconstructing the flavors, textures and colors of each dish.

She reserves her harshest comments for herself. “When I complain to the waiters, they don’t even listen,” she says with a sigh. “They think I’m an old sourpuss.”

After eating with Kennedy one can never look at the panorama of restaurants in Mexico City with the same eyes. She tends to change lives: “A woman as passionate as she – for life, for love, for men, for food – deserves admiration. And imitation,” says Laura Emilia Pacheco, who has translated several of Kennedy’s books into Spanish. “Diana is the kind of person who demonstrates that the only life worth living is to dedicate oneself to one’s passions and interests, body and soul. Nothing else makes sense.”

BREAKFAST

Kennedy shows up for breakfast at La Flor de Lis (Huichapa, 21 Condesa T 5211 3040) dressed informally and elegantly: brown leather jacket, black trousers and shirt, and a scarf that makes her look like a female pilot from the 1930s. Her hair is slightly windblown and she wears a touch of lipstick. She appears completely comfortable in her body, and has so much enthusiasm that one quickly forgets how old she is (about eighty, but her friends advise that age is a taboo topic).

We begin with a dish of canteloupe and papaya. Kennedy chews with intense concentration. “Very good, very ripe,” she says. “The melon is delicious, very sweet. Often restaurants serve melons from the north, where they’re grown with so much fertilizer that they’re not so sweet. The best melons are small and ugly, but now they grow them with the American mentality – everything has to come out looking perfect, but without any flavor.

“No matter how elegant the restaurant,” she says, “normally the fruit tastes like onion. Because they cut them with the same knife. Here, they don’t do that. It’s delicious.”

A cup of strawberry atole is “terribly sweet. Extraordinarily sweet.” Her eyes shining impishly, she adds, “intensely sweet. It’s okay if you like your atole made with corn starch.”

She approves of the capuccino a bit more – but just a bit. “It’s not bad but the Italians would laugh. The coffee is better than in some places, but I wouldn’t call it capuccino. I’d say it was a comforting milk drink. It won’t wake you up in the morning.”

While looking at the list of tamales, for which the restaurant is famous, Kennedy asks, “What shall we order? Vegetarian tamales? The hell with that. They won’t have lard and I won’t eat tamales without lard.” She is disturbed that there is not a single tamal made with pork. Once again she blames the U.S. influence. “In America they’ve gone crazy when it comes to fats. You must read the book Good Fats. The author, Fran McCullough, destroys the theory that everything should be low in fat and calories. It’s not true.”

As she orders various tamales, she says to the waiter in a reproving tone, “I hope they don’t heat them in the microwave. That will dry them out terribly.”

After trying a chicken tamal in mole sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf, she declares, “Not bad.” From her mouth it sounds like an enormous compliment. “The dough is good. On the menu it says it’s a ‘coastal’ tamal. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what you’d eat on the coast, but nevertheless it’s good.”

On the other hand, the chicken tamal in green sauce, “isn’t very interesting.” The best of all is made with cheese and chile peppers cut into strips. “The texture is very nice and they’re generous with the filling. They’re lighter because they´re done with a corn husk. The cheese and the peppers keep them moist.”

She nearly chokes with a coughing fit after trying the norteño tamal. “There’s nothing here,” she says. “It’s totally boring. Not worth wasting the calories. I guess this red color comes from some chile or another but I wonder if it isn’t food coloring. And where’s the beef? If you have to go foraging for it, it’s very sad. Oh, there it is, chopped. You never used chopped meat in a norteño tamal. You either use pork or beans.”

When the waiter returns, she declaims, “What barbarity! The norteño tamales are a disaster! I can make them a hundred times better at home.” The unflappable waiter answers, “How strange. They sell very well.”

After he leaves, Kennedy explains, “You have to say something to the waiter when you don’t like the food. One way or another the message gets back to the chef.”

LUNCH

Kennedy says that her appreciatioin for food began in childhood, and although her family was of modest means, her mother was a “genius” in the kitchen. “Saturdays she made cakes and desserts for the whole week. She also made jams with seasonal fruits. In those days, fish was so plentiful and cheap that we sometimes ate it three times a day.”

In 1955, on vacation in Jamaica, Kennedy took a side trip to Haiti. A coincidental revolution made the trip problematic, but in the airport she met the man she would marry two years later: Paul P. Kennedy, the New York Times’s correspondent for Mexico, Central America and the Carribean. She began to write cookbooks at the suggestion of a colleague of her husband, Craig Claiborne, editor of the Times’s food section at the time.

Mexico City has changed a great deal since she lived here between the 1950s and the 1970s. In the taxi on the way to lunch at Tierra de Vinos (Durango 197, Roma T 5208 5133), Kennedy is greatly disturbed by the numerous signs and posters at street level. “They’re intrusive,” she says. “Appalling. J.G. Ballard wrote a story about a man who goes crazy after seeing so many advertisements.”

After we almost crash into another car, she observes, “Traffic was always a problem here. The Mexicans think they’re expert drivers, and they are, but they have shameful manners at wheel. The worst are the ones with money, and the chauffeurs who take the kids to school. In the provinces, when we see Mexico City license plates, we say, ‘Watch out!’”

She says she is both moved and flattered that her books have been translated in her adoptive country. “Some Mexicans have told me that mine are the only trustworthy cookbooks.” When she arrives to a town, Kennedy tends to go to the market, or even City Hall, to ask who are the best local cooks. She has never published a recipe she has created; in her books she always gives credit to the appropriate cook.

Only once has she been denied information, she says: from Olga, the wife of the renowned painter Rufino Tamayo. “Supposedly she was famous for her yellow mole, but she ignored me. I suspect that the recipe was really her sister’s.”

While her books are almost unanimously lauded, she is sometimes criticized for being too strict. She won’t accept substitutions: If a dish calls for pasilla chiles, for example, none of the other 200 or so chiles available in Mexico will do. “Of course,” she says. “It isn’t right to substitute chiles. I want to transmit what the recipe should be. My books are for aficionados who study cooking, not for those who just want recipes they can prepare quickly. A lot of people who cook are lazy. An aficionado will find whatever ingredient he needs and keep it in his cupboard.”

Kennedy becomes animated as she enters the Spanish restaurant Tierra de Vinos. She loves the contemporary décor, the long bar, the flattering light and the wine cellar that surrounds the dining room. “This could be a place I frequent,” she says. She adds that the harsh volume of the piped-in music is a shame.

“Why do they put goat cheese in everything?” she asks rhetorically while going over the menu. “The bread is delicious. It’s what bread ought to be. Particularly the ciabatta.” It’s accompanied with a sauce of chile oil, almonds and dried tomatoes that she also likes.

Once the food is served, she becomes less enthuiastic. A wooden board with house-made cold cuts lacks freshness. She believes the serrano ham was sliced hours, if not days, earlier. “The chorizo is good but the fuet isn’t. Nor the cecina.” Roasted red peppers are “nice,” but the filling of butifarra (a chopped sausage) “isn’t very interesting.” Boquerones – anchovies marinated in vinegar – are good, but “probably they’re from a can. The Spaniards like everything out of a can.”

She orders the special of the day, lasagna stuffed with crabmeat. “It’s pleasant but not exciting. The pasta is nice but the filling … “ She makes a moue. “In one of my books I’ve got crabmeat with cilantro and chile. That would be good here but of course it’s Mexican and not Spanish.”

According to Kennedy, the most successful dish is the “salad of different tomatoes.” It is composed with sliced marinated tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and dried tomatoes over lettuces. The dressing seems to be made of oil, vinegar and dried tomatoes. Nothing’s perfect: She feels the salad hasn’t been sufficiently tossed. Despite this complaint, she calls the dish “innovative.”

Poring over the menu to decide what to have for dessert, a waiter offers suggestions. She sends him on his way: “I’m not interested in other people’s recommendations.” She chooses a puff-pastry tart with cream and “forest fruits.” The latter turns out to be two raspberries and three transparent slices of strawberry. “I would have liked more fruit,” she says. “And there is too much cream. And too much ‘snow.’” (She’s referring to a small mountain of powdered sugar.) “I guess this puff pastry comes from El Globo,” she says, referring to one of Mexico City’s largest bakery chains. “It’s competent.”

At the end of the meal she offers what is perhaps her most extravagant compliment. “I’d come back here.”

DINNER

Kennedy believes that Mexico City’s residents are primarily to blame for the problems with their restaurants. “Sorry,” she says, “but there aren’t many cultivated palates here. The situation won’t change until the people learn to taste food and not just swallow it. The Mexicans aren’t like the French. With few exceptions, they don’t go out to eat seriously. They go out to have a good time, in search of sensations and to be with their friends. If they think the food is bad they don’t want to ruin the evening by saying anything against it.”

Before dinner in the “nouvelle Mexican” restaurant Águila y Sol (Moliere 42, Polanco T 5281 8354), Kennedy says, “I don’t usually eat like this. You’re going to make me fat. I usually have a very light dinner, a bit of bread and cheese or something like that. I have to watch my figure. I have this little belly from standing in front of the stove all my life. That’s my figure. Everything pops out in front.”

(It’s worth noting that she is in better shape than many much younger women. Before posing for pictures, she says, “Women my age are more or less invisible. We come and go and no one sees us.” To the photographer, she adds, “I’m ready. It doesn’t matter if my face isn’t ready. Not too much light, it’s very early. How does my hair look? I bought this necklace yesterday. Would you like me to change my scarf?”)

As she sits and looks around at the décor of Águila y Sol, she asks, “It’s a bit affected, isn’t it?” A young, handsome and impeccably professional waiter offers her the choice of a glass of a Spanish Ribera del Duero or a Mexican merlot. After tasting each Kennedy chooses the Spanish. Looking over the menu, she says, “No mole amarillo. I’m doing a book on Oaxacan cooking.” The choices provoke mistrust. “There’s too much. It can’t all be fresh.”

We begin with an appetizer of goat cheese in a parmesan crust with pasilla chile and the herb huazontle. She isn’t impressed. “There’s too much cheese. It overpowers the huazontle. Ridiculous! If you put huazontle on the menu, you’ve got to be able to taste it. And it’s a bit greasy, no?” A “drum” of octopus with oregano and corn tostadas doesn’t inspire her either. “It’s too mixed up. The octopus is delicious but the other flavors compete against it.”

Dinner rolls, filled with cheese, mole, chiles or beans, provoke her wrath. “All of these flavors are competing with the dishes! The essential concept of bread is that it should be neutral.”

A main dish of corn-crusted salmon with clams and corn, made with árbol chiles and the herb epazote, is, in the first place, cooked beyond medium-rare, the way Kennedy ordered it. Worse still, “There’s too much, way too much, sauce. It’s a good idea, with the cream and the corn. I like a creamy sauce with salmon, but I would have preferred something less citric. It’s a mess.”

Things go from bad to worse when she tries a filet of beef with a sauce of chipotle chiles and aged cheese. “The meat is good but there is too much cream in the sauce, too much cheese. And why to they put so much chipotle in the mashed potatoes? If they already have chipotle in the sauce for the meat, why don’t they leave the poor potatoes alone?” The waiter brings flavored tortillas to go with the dish. To Kennedy, flavoring in a tortilla is a greater blasphemy than filling in bread. “It’s absurd! It´s irritating!”

After dinner, Kennedy says that Daniel, the attractive waiter, was “el número uno” of the entire experience. “He deserves four stars. But the food is amateurish, not serious. Too many flavors, too many ingredients. What is its

raison d’être?”

Kennedy points out that among the worst problems in Mexico City restaurants is inconsistency. In many, one has to know which dishes are worth ordering, as some are good and others not. Or worse, the same dish that was sublime on Monday can be barely edible the following Wednesday. “The famous chefs have this temptation to travel around the world and appear at events,” she says. “No one’s in charge at the restaurants. They’re supposed to have a chef de cuisine but they’re not always on top of things”.

Despite all that food, Kennedy is still full of energy. She says that only other people make her feel old. “They say to me, ‘Watch out for the stairs.’ Or they can’t believe I’m going to drive to Oaxaca by myself. So I say to them, ‘Do you think I’m too old to drive?’ I can be quite aggressive when I want to.”

“Sometimes the waiters don’t even pay attention to me. They think I’m just an old bitch.” She laughs. “It doesn’t matter. If you’re demanding you’re always going to bother someone.”

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

While she can be a merciless critic, there are a few restaurants in Mexico City that Diana Kennedy admires. Here, her recommendations, and a few more she believes are not up to snuff.

Bistrot Charlotte (Lope de Vega 341, Polanco T 5250 4180): “It’s a very friendly place. Charlotte is always there to welcome you. The prices are fabulous. The other day I had a wonderful artichoke salad and a duck liver mousse. The portions are very generous. I had to ask for a doggie bag for the leftovers.”

Bakea (Sierra Ventana 700-5, Lomas de Chapultepec T 5520 7472): “Delicious and eclectic meals. The chef has done his basic training. He knows Spanish and French food. Everything is well seasoned. “

Contramar (Durango 200, Roma T 5514 9217): “A very high standard, very well-prepared seafood. I love the tostadas with fresh tuna.”

El Bajío (Av. Cuitláhuac 2709, Azcapotzalco T 5341 9889) “There’s nothing better than a Veracruz breakfast there.”

El Cardenal (Hotel Sheraton Centro Histórico, Avenida Juárez 70, T 5518 6632). “Very honest, very authentic.”.

Rincón Argentino (Mazaryk 177, Polanco T 5254 8775): “Rigorously professoinal. The steaks are extraordinary. And I love the empanadas with cheese and chile strips.”

L’Olivier (Presidente Mazaryk 49, Polanco T 5545 3133) : “I love the atmosphere and the open kitchen, and the way they throw foie gras on top of everything. I’ve had an excellent fish there. Sometimes they’re a bit careless. It’s better at night than in the afternoon.”

Izote (Presidente Mazaryk 513, Polanco T 5280 1265): “The tamales are a joke. The venison dzik is a horrible distortion of what it ought to be. They gave me a poblano chile that was raw, stuffed with squash flowers, but you couldn’t taste it because of something in the tomato sauce. When I was there, the chef, Patricia Quintana, was away. Who knows if it’s better when she’s around?”

Pujol (Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco T 5545 4111): “Beautiful, with good ideas and attractive presentation. They need to work on intensifying the flavors.”

Bistrot Mosaico (Michoacán 10, Condesa T 5584 2932): “I had the worst piece of quiche there. At another table they were eating a Moroccan plate that looked good.”

Tezka (Amberes 78, Zona Rosa T 5228 9918 ext. 5067): “It’s fantastic, if you’re not hungry. They do all those experiments that the Spanish chefs love to do. The technique is marvelous and the dishes are works of art. But only if you’re not hungry.”

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Posted in — admin @ 7:05 pm @ March 21, 2008