Patricia Quintana
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Patricia Quintana

Jim Poris / January 2005

Food Arts presents the January/February 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Patricia Quintana, the elegant sprite who, over the course of 35 years, has become the public conscience of Mexican cuisine, past and present. Through her numerous English and Spanish language cookbooks, international cooking stints, teaching, promotional appearances, and now, at long last, a restaurant in Mexico City called El Izote, revered by cognoscenti as the country's most exemplary, Quintana has channeled Mexico's twin pillars—the pre-Columbian corn and chile culture of the Aztecs and Mayas and the post-Conquest flood of Old World ingredients and formalities—to create food that resonates with vivacious authenticity.

"I've always wanted to advance and promote Mexican culture, to show that all the ingredients we've had since ancient times are still alive," Quintana says. "I can hardly keep up with all the research that's being done on Mexican food, a cuisine of heritage and conquest. In my work, I try to show how it became one Mexican cuisine."

As spiritual guide in the 1980s to the nascent Southwest movement in the United States, she hosted the likes of Mark Miller, Stephan Pyles, John Sedlar, and Robert Del Grande for total immersion cooking/eating sessions at her ancestral ranch in Veracruz. But Quintana remained a restaurant insider without portfolio. That changed a few years ago with a brief, ill-fated collaboration with megatenor Plácido Domingo. But not even her critic-hailed food could keep the fat lady from singing at his New York City restaurant. Now, with El Izote, she's a star, a subject for glossy articles and a target of enterprising hospitality execs, such as those at the new Hotel Grand Aqua Fiesta Americana in Cancún, where her latest restaurant, Siete, has just made its splashy debut.

Spellbound as a young girl by her grandmother's cooking and insatiably hooked by the Time-Life series of cookbooks, she started out in the '70s by offering private cooking lessons in Mexico City. She hightailed it to Europe in 1982 to help her "hero" Michel Guérard open a restaurant in Madrid and learn from such luminaries as Gaston Le Nôtre, Paul Bocuse, and Roger Vergé. "I applied what I learned there to Mexican food, like slipping a mixture of butter and chipotles under a chicken's skin before roasting, using less but just enough fats for flavor, and making cream sauce reductions with chiles," she says.

Upon returning to Mexico, she gave classes under the banner Alta Cocina de Patricia Quintana. An automobile accident kept her out of commission for nearly a year. Once back on her feet, she spent six years running the popular minister's dining room at the national tourism office, a platform that launched her international exposure. And, of course, there are the books--The Taste of Mexico (1986); Mexico's Feasts of Life (1989); Festin en el Mictlán (1992); Puebla, la Cocina de Los Ángeles (1992); Cuisine of the Water Gods (1994); Un Recorrido por las Cocinas de México (1999); Antojería Mexicana (2002); and Mulli (2004)--that will be her legacy to her compatriots. For Mexicans, she is the Minister of Food.