By Tami Ganeles-Weiser
Overseeing the burgeoning Dos Caminos empire, Corporate Executive Chef and devotee of regional Mexican cuisines Ivy Stark doesn’t seem like she would ever have the time to travel, to delve into the peoples and study food cultures of the world. Then again, this Colorado native doesn’t seem like she would be a dyed-in-pinstripe wool NY Yankee fan who never misses Spring Training camp. In a recent interview in her cramped, shared office, cluttered with cookbooks, Jorge Posada pictures and a trail map of the Arapahoe Basin, this charming and ever-curious Chef described pictures and memories from her latest trip to Mexico and shared her deep culinary knowledge for this first installment of a new series of unique travelogues for thechefsconnection.com. Each chapter will tell the stories of recent trips by some of the world’s most respected, busiest and smartest Chefs.
Welcome to The Chef’s Diaries, Chapter One: Chef Ivy Stark, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Ivy Stark has had a varied and expansive culinary career, inspired first by her mother’s Kentucky kitchen. She recalls vividly “making potato salad with my mother for the very first time. That really sparked my love of cuisine at that very moment. I’ll never forget it.” She attended ICE for her formal training. “ You learn technique in Culinary School.” It still comes in handy. At a busy brunch service in the meatpacking district’s Dos Caminos, the hollandaise had broken. She fixed it in a instant. “That is the benefit of Culinary School.” Chef Stark found her found her culinary muses first in the Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Fenniger’s famed Border Grill that brought legitimate traditional Mexican cuisine to California, mastering every station. She was Sous Chef at the fine dining icon, Sign of the Dove in Manhattan and served as Executive Sous Chef at Cena. She continued her culinary brigade climb as Chef de Cuisine at Ciudad in LA, with her original mentors, and then spun heads by taking a position as beverage manager and sommelier at the acclaimed Brassserie 8 1/2. Beverages are “ an important part of the experience”. She also learned about the front of the house and customer service from a different angle. This is refelceted today in her mezcal menu and unusual selection of Mexican beverages. At Match Uptown, Zocalo and Amalia, she served as Executive Chef. Amalia was an intimate restaurant, based upon locally obtainable foods cooked in a coastal Mediterranean palate. “I am very proud of what I did there and I still enjoy cooking that style food.” She would love to study the Turkish regions around the North Black Sea and visit Lebanon and Syria and would like to go to Israel one day, when time allows. Her favorite city in the world is Istanbul, which many natives feel is a culinary crossroads of the world. “I’ve never had a bad meal there… It’s why I keep going back. The beauty of the country. There is so much I haven’t seen. The food is amazing, the wine is amazing and it’s inexpensive.”
She loves New York and its ebullient energy. “You can go have a nice meal in a restaurant at 10 o’clock at night. In other cities, everything’s closed,” she said. Chef Stark is busy with work, plenty of wonderful friends and her dogs. In a ode to New York’s uniqueness, her dog walker is a retired Wall Street Executive. Today, Chef Stark is “… very happy. I love Dos Caminos.” She is “in the kitchen very single day…I’m lucky in that I get to spend a lot of my time just being creative and focusing on quality control.” The size of Dos Caminos is a challenge she loves. “Volume is a challenge as far as controlling consistency since you are putting out 600 covers (in each restaurant) as opposed to 200 but I love it. It’s fun!” Her kitchens are known for being friendly places where folks stay. She “…only likes to hire nice people.” As for histrionic yelling and antics, “We don’t allow that. We have fun when it’s time to have fun. There is a lot of camaraderie and if there is someone who doesn’t fit in, isn’t nice, they won’t make it. It’s a warm, family environment. We are serious when it has to be and when it’s serious it’s quiet. Everybody is just doing what they have to. Following instructions from me or the Chef , quietly. I like a quiet kitchen.” She is working on spring ideas right now in collaboration with her Chefs and is planning on expanding her mezcal menu. “Not a lot of people are familiar with the differences in different mezcal,” she said and she can’t wait to share that with her customers and friends. She would love to “eventually” have a product line from Dos Caminos, and “it’s something we’ve talked about many times.”
Chef Stark is a vigilant and devoted food lover. She has so many cookbooks in her apartment she has no place to put them anymore. She keeps Rick Bayless, Diane Kenney (“the authorities” she said) and Dornenburg & Page at her fingertips. She recommends Culinary Artistry to “… to every chef-sous chef-learning chef.” The most important thing is “to learn about flavor. I got that (book) when I was a young chef and I’ve been reading it ever since.” She still uses it today as a resource. Rick is “so authentic” and “has his own creative work… He has done a lot to bring the cuisine forward in the United States.” She is a great advocate of the varied cuisines of Mexico, which are far more than gobs and globs of yellow cheese coated piles of beans and ground meat. In Mexico, “…sauce is everything. You may have a big bowl of mole but only a (tiny) portion of meat.” She just returned from a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico’s unofficial culinary capital, and shared her visit to the markets, the ruins and Abigail Mendoza’s restaurant and home in Teotitlan de Valle thirty minutes from Oaxaca City. Chef Stark is was so intrigued by the local bananas growing in their natural upside down state and other agriculture that she had to stop and ask questions and snap a few shots.Abigail is a world renowned specialist in her native Zaptecan Oaxacan cuisine and her sisters are noted rug weavers. She spent the day with Chef Stark.
The rugs they make and sell are hand loomed, hand dyed and intricately designed by her sister and are stunning. The vivid colors are all from indigenous plants and insects. Although it may sell for upwards of three thousand dollars, “…it probably takes her a year to make it.” The dyes are hand made as well. It’s still made over a wood fire and as her family cards the wool over the smells of chamomile.
Abigail prepared Tlayudas in the traditional way on a stone manteca, with delicious results. Tlayudas are large thin corn tortillas served with grilled beef, beans and lettuce. The most traditional beans in the Oaxaca region are negro (black), Colorado (red), coloradito (faint red), chichilo, verde (green), amarillo (yellow), and mancha manteles (tablecloth stainers).
The Mendoza homestead, like all in the region, has an formal Altar room which is where all important family gatherings are held. It is also where guests are fed. Note that this rural area is a zen-like dreamy place of deep reflection. This rural area is never quiet, filled with roosters crowing at all hours of the day and night, goats bleating, and rollicking parties with music and dancing every night. They go to the market every day, work using the fruits of the earth from morning to night and share foods in an all but biblical way but they are quite modern, having have access to the internet at their local libraries and located about 400 miles from the uber-urban Mexico City.
In the markets and in town the chile rellenos were flavorful and richand the sweet and creamy tamales were tinged pink with dried crimson cochineal. Tamales can be found stuffed with chicken, fish, sauces , herbs and edible flowers. Ribs stewing in a cazuela filled with chile paste made from chiles toasted on a comal and avocado leaves and colored with achiote. Avocado leaves taste like “anise, but are more mild.” Chicharones, fried pig skin, were huge caramel colored pieces, still bubbling and just salted. Chapulines, grasshoppers or crickets are crunchy and salted, served as snack with garlic, lime and ground chiles.
Mezcal leaves are everywhere. Mezcal is most famous as a liquor made from the fermented, roasted core of a maguey plant, (a type of agave) and is in some ways similar to the well known tequila. Most mezcal is produced in Oaxaca and it is the favored drink, having its own smoky taste profile and history.
One of the unique aspects of Oaxacan cuisine is its stunning variety of moles. Moles originated in Spanish and Arabic food in Spain and became uniquely Mexican with the addition of New World ingredients such as chile mulato, miltomate (tomates de milpa), tomatoes, peanuts, avocado leaves, canela (insert picture) – mexican cinnamon, raisins, nuts, seeds, yerba santa leaves and Mexican chocolate (insert picture). In Oaxaca City, moles are sold in markets all over the city as a paste which is combined with water and simmered with a variety of meats at home. Herbs like epazote, a Mexican herb that grows wild “in Central Park and the median of the Long Island Expressway,” which Chef Stark forages and tastes (“carefully.. along with other culinary herbs…”) and tiny Oaxacan garlic, often roasted underground, are just as important to the famed never-sweet hot chocolate ground on a metate and served everywhere.
Chef Stark visited the local barbacoa family. Each family in town is designated or has inherited a position of culinary preparation in the small town and the food is bartered. The barbacoa family made a lamb barbacoa the day Chef Stark visited. They put the gutted animal over wood in an underground pit. Like in so many cultures, the entire creature is used and eaten.
“The stomach is stuffed with gizzards and eaten, like haggis,” Chef Stark said. That was not her favorite. It is covered with mezcal leaves and for true “terroir”, the carcass is then covered with locally “sourced” aluminum siding and buried with dirt. It is allowed to cook over the hot fire and embers overnight ever so gently , producing tender, juicy meat.
Chef Stark visited the village butcher who’s shop was “ … spotless…” She had “no hesitation whatsoever about eating anything anywhere… it was delicious.”
He showed her the pork leg he was working on, fabricated it, chopped it, ground it and made sausages . “It takes him 30 seconds to do the whole thing,” she marveled.
Chef Stark can’t wait to go back to Mexico and investigate the regional cuisine of Vera Cruz in greater detail but her next adventure is in Barcelona , where she’ll be working on her Castillian accent and incredible, inspiring and unending desire to learn about the cultures and foods of the world.