Interview with David Sterling, owner and chef of the Los Dos cooking school.
11th August, 2005. The cooking school is located in central Merida. It attracts exclusively wealthy tourists or posh locals that are able and willing to pay the comparatively high course fees.
Who are your students ?
Primarily I’m teaching 100% Yucatecan to people from anywhere but Mexico. People from China, England, all over the USA, France, anywhere. Last year, and I might do it again this year, I teach locals international cusine. That’s what they want to learn. I call them Los Damas des Noches – the Lady’s of the Night – from up North; their very wealth and want to learn how to do Pasta. I do a little bit of Yucatecan but it’s modernised.
Where did you learn to cook?
I am primarily self-taught, but I’ve taken classes. I worked in the pantry of a French restaurant, chopping things for the chef.
And how did you learn about Yucatecn food?
I have a multi-pronged approached. I started about 4 years ago. I do a lot of reading, research online. I also found a local anthropologist whose speciality is Mayan cusine. She’s really knowledgable and I send her on little assignments. She goes and finds out things about the species of corn used in the time of the conquest.
The other prong is that I go places in Yucatan and study with locals. I find these women who are willing to teach me. I go all over. Yucatecan cusine can’t be generalised. Like Mexico. We refer to Mexican and Yucatecan cusine as two different things. We consider ourselves very separate over here. Mexican food is not Yucatecan food.
Yucatecan food is very broad based. You have Moles here, but it’s different in the North. But you travel 30 miles South of here and they’re doing things we’ve never heard about. Little regional differences descending from availability of ingredients. There’s lots of different regional styles, some that you learn from your grandmother which never leaves the Pueblo because no one does (LAUGHS). You can get real pure ancient Mayan recipes just by going to the Pueblo. That’s how I’m training myself.
Why did you decide to establish yourself here in Mexico.
I’ve been coming to Mexico since 1972. I came here every year thereafter. I bought a house here, about 3 or 4 years ago. A friend told me all these gringos were buying houses here, really cheaply – find them and restore them. I bought the house and within a year I had set up here.
So is there an American settlement here?
Yes, it’s small but there’s quite a few here.
Do they mix with the locals?
Yes, some do. Some of the newer crowd don’t however. They’re retirees who would have normally have gone to Fort Lauderdale but it’s too expensive so Mexico is kind of an accident for them – they’re more stand offish. But most do, they want to mingle.
Did you feel uncomfortable starting your school for Yucatecan cusine without yourself being Mexican.
At times I did, yes. I did a lot of soul searching about it and asked around to see what people thought of that. And I came to realise that, well you know Chopin, living in France for all those years, he wrote all this Polish inspired music – that was his background but he was primarily French and wrote all this Polish music in France. This is the same thing. There are many examples of that – people who write or compose in a genre that isn’t there own, white chicks doing rap for example. So I worked that through and it didn’t bother me at all.
Why do you think people choose to come to your school over others? What is it that makes you stand out?
The reason is because I am the only school of Yucatecan food in the country who does this. It’s called culinary adventures, it’s for the tourist trade or people who are serious foodies and who want to learn. It’s not training for people who want to work in a hotel.
So the people who come here are just tourists? How long do these courses last?
It’s a holiday. I have all kinds of different classes. Everything from a half day to 3 or 4 days – that’s the longest. I’ve had several enquiries from people who want to send chefs here to study but none of them have panned out.
So you don’t give any certificates then? Because the other schools produce fully trained chefs.
Yes that’s right. I can’t imagine there would be anyone who would need a certificate in Yucatecan cooking. What you would do is to go to a culinary institute and get a certificate in cooking – broad based learning in being a chef.
Do you think the influx of North Americans coming here to live will have an effect on the restaurants? Have they started to tailor their food to those arriving here and so move away from more traditional dishes?
Oh, to a certain extent. Take a very dumb example. McDonalds, Burger King have opened here and the locals like it, they go and eat there. But on Sunday afternoons they’re eating Queso Relleno and so on. That’s their staple and basic diet, like Bangers and Mash in England. That’s what you what eat when you’re young and it’s hard to get rid of that. All that happens is our tastes broaden. McDonalds, pizza, I love it, but my main diet is Yucatecan. So no, the influx isn’t changing the cusine per se, it’s just broadening people’s palates a bit.
But the restaurants in the town now, for example, which call themselves traditional, are they not moving away from what would be properly traditional towards something aimed at the tourists?
Not at all. I mean, I even see – well, there’s a brand new restaurant on the highway and it’s very conveniently located for bus tour groups coming in from Cancun. It’s designed for them with these little tourist shops and all that crap. I thought they would do the tourist thing, but no. Even Habaneros – the hottest chilli in the world – it’s divine. If you’re a real man here in Yucatan – or even lady – we don’t even bother mixing it, we just carve the chilli up on the plate and eat it in pieces. Anyway, I digress. Even with Habaneros the only concession I see is that they serve a green sauce made of tomatitos – little green tomatoes – and a tiny bit of chile Habaneros and that’s what they pass off as Habaneros as they think tourist won’t like the real thing. But other than that I don’t think they do anything else. They don’t even have „Hamburguesa“ on the side for kids, which you would maybe expect.
But you were talking about the hottest chilli for example. Perhaps the food has not changed but surely the way it is packaged or sold has. They have tourists in to eat „the hottest chilli in the world“, whereas traditionally it was just something people ate. It wasn’t conceived in the same way.
Oh yes, that’s true. The way it’s marketed. I don’t see too much evidence of that in restaurant’s but certainly in tourist shops and tour guide books where they try and, you know, hound you to eat the Habaneros, which of course wouldn’t have happened before – it was just something you ate. Little things like that marketing, subtle influences, I guess have an effect.
How much are your classes?
The cheapest is 75$ per person for a half day. We start at 9 and finish 3.30 or 4. Depending on the size of the class – if it’s a big class and it warrants it – I bring in little Mayan ladies and we do work with corn and make Masa and Tamales. We have a tour of the market. I give a broad overview of Mayan history and food. Then we come back and have a little snack the ladies make of Panuchos and Salbutes.
And finally, do you think there is any Caribbean influence on Yucatecan cusine ?
Oh gosh yes. That’s one of the big stories in my class. Here we have Yucatan and all around is the Caribbean. During the time of the explorers and the great merchant ships after that – all of them coming from Europe passed through the Caribbean to come here. In fact the first part of Mexico to be discovered was the Yucatan1. So they came here and passed through the islands and in the 100-200 years that followed they set up their colonies and of course there would be a lot of exchange.
In fact, the Habaneros got it’s name from Cuba, Habana2.
Also, all bannanas, all platanos, although they can’t work out how it got here. They were either brought here by the explorers or the Taino Indians, the Arawak speaking Indians from the islands, because they were great canoers and they were bringing stuff over here way before the Spaniards and were doing trade all through the Caribbean – we sold them chocolate.
Also, various cooking methods. Piloncillo, for example. The Dutch came and perfected Cane sugar production. (shows us food from cupboard) This was the type of sugar produced. (photo) This is totally from the Caribbean. They have it all through Mexico but it came here first because of the Caribbean connection. We use it for lots of things, in the market you will see Yucca or Yam, all in this brown sugar sirop.
Then there’s barbecue. That came from the Caribbean. Barbacoa, Bar- was the Arawak word for it. It comes from the type of grill, a kind of rack, the Arawak used. It has a fire underneath – it’s a barbecue grill. The Spanish have many images of that.
The other image the Spanish have is of the samee rack but with a human leg on top because the Taino were occasionally cannibals and the legend is that barbecue originally referred to spit roasted peoples, cannibalised victims. So there are two legends. I happen to like the second one best, but for the sake of scholarly accuracy I tell my students both stories.
So bar became barbecoa in Spanish and so all of that comes from the Caribbean. Here Barbacoa is excluviely sheep. As you go further West it’s goat. It’s not beef here, if you ask for barbecue ribs or chicken here like in the USA they won’t understand because here barbecue is all sheep.
We also have a big Lebanese influence here. In the early 20th Century with the various wars, strife in Europe, World War One, problems in the middle East, a lot of Lebanese people came here, primarily wealthy merchants. They set up all of our now famous department stores, Medina for example, we have so many examples of that mixed into our culture.
1 According to the local museum in Laguna Bacalar, some Spanish explorers set foot in Yucatan first. Generally it is however believed that the Spanish arrived first to Mexico via Veracruz, a city in the Gulf of Mexico.
2 We heard a lot of different stories for the ethymology of the word „habanero“ for some locals it might have meant from the island of „Java“ – thus the word converting from „Javanero“ to „Habanero“. It is speculated that Chiles in general have their origin in South America (Bolivia, Brazil) for some varieties (Capsicum anuum) and in Central America for others (Capsicum chinese). The hypothesis of Javanese origin seems therefore unlikely, considering that Chile habanero are of the variety Capsicum chinese. If it were true that chile habanero came from Central America, then the only explanation for the name „Havana“ could come from the trade routes that ships followed. Cuba played the role of an important „trade hub“ for the Carribean.