Local gourmets discover Oaxaca

Counterclockwise from left: Emily Beitiks, Mike Beitiks, and Stephan Kolsanoff, enjoy a meal together at the, A Taste of Oaxaca 2012 fundraiser at the Pierre Coste Room restaurant at Ocean campus on Oct. 5, 2012. Culinary student Bernadette Ramos invited them to sample Oaxacan inspired dishes such garlic soup, negro molé and verde molé, each are made from over 20 ingredients. Photo by Wez Ireland/The Guardsman
By Dannie Hawkins
The Guardsman
Fragrant cinnamon, chilé and avocado aromas filled Pierre Coste Dining Room at Ocean campus as students in the culinary arts program served 45 guests on Oct. 5 to raise $1,700 for their semester abroad program.

Tortilla chips, guacamole, molé negro—a popular Oaxacan sauce made with chocolate—and quesadillas filled with squash, flower blossoms and locally harvested cheese comprised the $40 all-you-can-eat dinner that students prepared from scratch.

All the proceeds will fund scholarships for next year’s three-week-long summer abroad program, called “A Taste of Oaxaca,” which costs $2,600 per student. The dinner is in its third year.  This year’s grocery expense to the culinary arts program was $350.

Most students in the renowned program, which supplies restaurateurs with competitively-trained chefs, benefit from the pool of scholarship money.

Photo by Wez Ireland/The Guardsman

“I call it ‘paying it forward,’” Head Chef Mark Hodgson said with a smile. “[Students] invite their friends and family and share their experiences with them.”

Many of the dishes showcased techniques the students learned while in Oaxaca, Mexico.

A slideshow featured students foraging for mushrooms on mountains 10,000 ft. above sea level. They cooked with Oaxacan chefs and watched the city’s daily parades. Students were seen working alongside Oaxacans clad in aprons with embroidered trim.

“It was really eye opening being able to cook the Oaxacan food and expand my palette,” said culinary student Nicholas Yee, 20.

Food is the heart and soul of Oaxaca, the culinary capital of Mexico. Hodgson, a Latin American studies major from UC Berkeley, visited the city three years ago and immediately wanted students to go too. The food of Oaxaca has since become a staple in the 3-unit Ethnic Cuisines course for Culinary Arts and Hospitality Services students and culinary professionals.

“It’s great to be able to share with the students lots of special things going on in Oaxaca,” Hodgson said. He enjoys the indigenous culture, the food, parades and celebration.

Student chef Cristobal Alvarez, 23, spent this summer’s semester abroad in Oaxaca and carries the memories with him.

“I remember thinking, I could completely relocate here,” said Alvarez, whose family is from Mexico. “The culture is so rich, it gave me a sense of pride to be there learning about my indigenous culture.”

Students worked with indigenous Oaxacans who have been cooking most of their life and regularly prepare meals for city events. The students worked anywhere from four to eight hours a day learning how to make octopus salad and a variety of molés and breads.

“The food is so rich in spices,” said student chef Chrissy Hua, 26. “There was one cooking day completely devoted to habanero.”

Culinary students Steven John Carillo, left, Natalie Oplanic, center, and Nicholas Yee, right, prepare battered bell peppers and Spanish rice in the Pierre Coste Room kitchen for the A Taste of Oaxaca 2012 fundraiser held on Oct. 5, 2012. The fundraiser, hosted annually in the Pierre Coste Room restaurant at Ocean campus, raises funds for a 3-week study abroad program where culinary students travel to Oaxaca, Mexico and learn traditional Oaxacan cooking techniques. Students then use their acquired techniques at the following fundraiser. Photo by Wez Ireland/The Guardsman

According to a 2010 study INEGI, Mexico’s census group, more than a quarter of Oaxacans do not make an income and nearly half make less than double the minimum wage. They even cook bugs, a rich source of protein.

“They have such a rustic approach to cooking,” Alvarez said. “They use handmade clay pots and rolling pins made out of stone.”

With the success of their trip to Oaxaca and new recipes in tow, City College’s culinary students are enlightened.

“It was eye opening on so many different levels,” said student chef Sydney Dow, 21. “We are so fortunate here in the U.S.”

Follow Hawkins on Twitter: @DannieDoll

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