Bring back the Brazilians. Or at least give them their own TV show.
That was my one thought after encountering the three Brazilian chefs, Mara Salles, Teresa Corção and Rodrigo Oliveira, several times during the recent Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference at the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America.
Each had a winning personality that made them as memorable as the dishes they presented.
Few who saw the diminutive Salles of São Paulo will forget her talking about how one her dishes, the beef stew boarreado, evolved out of Brazilian wives’ desire to go out and party. In order to do that, however, they first had to seal in the juices of the stew while it cooked for 12 hours, which she demonstrated while chanting a ditty in her native Portuguese.
She was even funnier during the opening session, as she attempted to cook a traditional feijoada, a bean stew laden with meats and vegetables. Somehow, a number of ingredients needed for her demonstration were missing, which left the chef even more nervous than she was at having to deliver her presentation in English instead of her native Portuguese.
But she bravely soldiered on, even joking about how her hand visibly shook as she spooned up some ingredient.
Where was the oil to sauté the vegetables in? No oil? No matter. Salles imitated the sounds of onion and garlic in sizzling oil, adding the imaginary ingredients into her sample pot.
But she was really taken aback when there was no cachaça, the local firewater. Where was the cachaça, she asked several times, before turning on Oliveira, also of São Paulo, who towered over her and had his own dry, wry sense of humor. “Did you drink every bottle?” she asked him to appreciative laughs from the audience.
Smoke any tapioca lately?
Onstage at the same time was Corção of Rio de Janeiro, who provided a detailed story of manioc, the tuber that Brazilians use in countless ways.
Cooks and diners in the United States probably know it best as tapioca, but its use extends far beyond bubble tea and puddings.
The look of the leafy plant, though, is not known to many Americans. It actually resembles marijuana in its natural form, which has caused a bit of confusion over the years.
Corção’s chef’s coat contains an embroidered depiction of the manioc, and she’s had some explaining to do to customers.
“It’s not to smoke,” she tells people. “This is to eat.”
What sweet fragrance wafting through the air?
There were more wacky weed jokes during Francisco Migoya’s presentation on infusing foods with greater aromatics.
The easiest way of doing this is using a vaporizer in an enclosed environment. So, Migoya brought out his chrome-plated Volcano Vaporizer and explained its use in ways that left no doubt about its relation to another vaporizing piece of paraphernalia found in head shops.
The chef’s intention here was to intensify the aromas of chocolate and vanilla in two enclosed desserts, and the trick certainly worked. When you opened either, your salivary glands kicked into overdrive as the sensational fragrance tantalized your nostrils.
Someone in the audience announced that vanilla is an aphrodisiac, its aroma as well as its flavor, not to mention the shape of the bean, are said to promote sexual arousal. So, using a vaporizer in the right circumstances might achieve the desired results.
“And it’s perfectly legal,” Migoya cracked.
Now, that’s service
My last item is one of those stories writers love to relate, because it shows what kind of city San Antonio is.
Rita Dever, corporate chef of Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group, had asked for a couple of recommendations of places to get some great Mexican fare while she was in town. I mentioned a few downtown places including Ácenar.
And Ácenar was where Dever and two other women attending the conference ended up, she said the following day.
Though the Houston Street restaurant was only a few blocks from the women’s hotel, one was wearing high heels and didn’t want to make the walk after dinner. Because no cab was available, their waiter picked them up at the front door and drove them to where they were staying.
“It was awesome,” she said. “You hear that Texas do it big; well, they do do it big. In all my life, I’ve never had that happen.”
Dever couldn’t remember the waiter’s name – “I think it was Mark,” she said. But one thing is for certain: Three businesswomen from across the United States will never forget their taste of Alamo City hospitality.