Author of nine seminal books on Mexican cooking, a teacher and scholar held in the highest esteem by chefs around the world, Diana Kennedy has a passion for the traditional dishes and ingredients of her adopted country that is absolutely contagious. At 89, the British-born expert on Mexico’s regional cuisines shows no signs of slowing her output, and she’s as frank as ever on subjects ranging from careless Mexican cooking to the food at the revered New Nordic restaurant Noma. Kennedy talked to Saveur about all of the above, as well as why she does what she does, and what’s coming next.
I would love to hear what it was like when you first moved to Mexico City in the late 1950s, and what your impressions were of Mexican food in those early days.
The markets really blew my mind. The local markets still are pretty authentic, but at that time they were even more so. It was just the color of everything, and the smells, and all the wild things that I hadn’t seen. I simply had to go home and cook them.
And then, skipping ahead a bit to the late 1970s, what was it like when you decided to build a house in Michoacan? How did the landscape strike you, and the place?
Well, I wondered what I had gotten into, and it really required an enormous amount of tenacity to hang on. Still, it was enticing because it was a much fuller orchard area at the time—there were locals picking the fruits and sending them in trucks to Mexico City. It was such an adventure to find that I could grow coffee and tomatoes, and citrons—so many fruits—in the orchard, which was just neglected land when I arrived. Now, of course, climate change is having a toll on things. But I can’t complain.
You’ve done a lot of teaching in your kitchen in Michoacan over the years, and you’ve also taught in a lot of other places. When I visited last year, you shared some stories about the days when you were traveling to San Diego and teaching at the Perfect Pan
Well, it was very interesting because at that time [in the 1970s], there was an absolute surge of cooking schools all over the country. The director of that cooking school was Anne Otterson, a great lady who lives in La Jolla; we still keep in touch and laugh about the old times. I would often be coming after Jacques Pepin, so he’d invite me to the class. There was Madeleine Kamman, there was Paula Wolfert, and a whole flurry of these cooks who became known at that time and were honing their skills.
We all got to know each other. And we all learned from each other. You know, when you watch somebody else cooking in a class, even in a bad cooking class, you always learn something—or you learn what not to do.
During my visit to Michoacan, you cooked all sorts of wonderful dishes—none of them complicated—but they all had so much flavor. Right now in the States there’s such a rage for Mexican street foods, but you don’t see a lot of restaurants serving the kind of home-style cooking—comida casera—that I’m talking about. Why, do you suppose? It’s such appealing food.
You know, the simplest food is a giveaway. The simpler dishes are much more difficult to come off right. And I think that those simpler dishes, if you haven’t had a lot of experience or been brought up there, will often fail—or will not come up to scratch. It’s a lack of experience.
That’s something that you really drove home to me when I was there, the unique approach that Mexican cooks have to building flavor in a dish. What are some of the fundamental respects in which you see this way of cooking and handling ingredients as different from, say, classical French cooking?
To me, French cooking is high technique. In Mexico you might have fewer ingredients in a dish, and there’s not much technique, but you’ve got to know how to handle them. If you put too much cumin in, it’s fatal. If you overdo the chiles, you can’t taste the other ingredients. It’s knowing how to toast the chiles, whether you toast them, whether you don’t toast them. Whether to asar [roast] the jitomates, or to cook them at all: It’s those details about how you handle the ingredients that make the difference in the dishes.
**It’s a point you bring across in your books, as well. One of my favorites is your memoir-with-recipes, Nothing Fancy, and I was really pleased to hear that you’re working on a revised edition. What are you thinking about adding to the book this time around? **
Some things I’m actually going to cut out. I’m going to bring up-to-date something about the garden, and add a few more recipes. And I don’t like to repeat other people’s recipes, but I will make a reference to the recipes that I do from other people’s books.
What are some cookbooks you find yourself cooking from again and again?
Paula Wolfert’s, to begin with. I think she’s an extraordinary cook. There are two of her books that I prefer above the others, and one of these is The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which I think is fabulous. I go to that because, when there’s too much spinach in the garden, I do that spinach pate of hers. And then, when somebody’s coming in and I don’t have any tomatoes, I do the country bread pie, although I change it a little bit—instead of putting all the cheese in it, I put ricotta and spinach in, and put a tiny bit, just a touch, of yeast in the dough. And you cook it in this 9-inch frying pan in olive oil, and it’s done in 24 minutes. Of course, you have to do the pastry beforehand, you have to let that mature, but I usually have some frozen on hand. And I use Paula’s The Cooking of Southwest France because I think she has the most wonderful way of doing magret—it’s so, so precise. And it’s very good for the magrets I can get from Guadalajara, which are Muscovy ducks, which aren’t as tender, so I give them a little more cooking time. And I do her beef rillettes, and lots of things from that book, which I just love.
Then I always use Carol Field The Italian Baker. She’s got a wonderful filling for lemon pie. And the interesting thing is, in the filling, it has white wine. And you know, it is terrific. And then I do a lot of her breads, and her cornetto salato, a salted croissant, which is a fabulous sort of puff pastry thing, very light. I use Jacques Pepin for several things. I do his gravlax recipe. And, oh yes, I do that Jo Bettoya recipe for spinach and ricotta gnocchi [in her book In a Roman Kitchen]. They are quite lovely. And of course I love Anne Willan’s chateau cookbook From My Chateau Kitchen, and I do that twice-baked souffle, which I think is fabulous. And I do another dish, which is actually rabbit—rabbit with mustard—but because I can’t get rabbit, I do chicken with that recipe, and it’s very good. Love that book. And of course then there’s Regis Marcon Marvelous Recipes from the French Heartland. He does a dessert of sweet pumpkin pancakes. Now, I think they’re terribly sweet, so I make the pumpkin pancakes, but with salt, or huitlacoche as a filling. I’m going all over the place, you know, but there are some cookbooks I would never use. And some I just love.
Cookbook publishing has changed an awful lot over the years that you’ve been publishing books. What’s your perspective on the current state of publishing?
Well, I vehemently espouse the idea that real cooks want real books. I think [digital versions] are OK for the kids who want to look up something, do something fast. But real cooks want a book that they put their notes in. For instance, I will record the date on which I do a recipe, and then I can see the recipes I have done several years running—or ten years ago. And you need it there on the shelf.
Anyway, that’s what I feel. And I feel that Amazon, in a way, has spoiled us all with prices. The publishing companies say they can’t afford to print cookbooks anymore. So I think real cooks have to be prepared to pay more for a book. Now, if you buy a novel, you maybe read it once or twice. But a cookbook is something you’ll use probably for 30 years of your life, and if you work out the price—30 years, and you do five recipes from that book, and give everybody pleasure—you know, it’s nothing. We’ve really got to get people to see it in that light, and tell the publishers that some of us will always want books. And we should be prepared to pay more for them, if that’s the problem.
You have a reputation for being a perfectionist. Why is it so important to get things right, in your opinion?
What I always think about cooking is that it’s the biggest comeuppance. I think it is rare to get things perfect. They can be very good, they can be okay, and they can be sometimes downright bad. When that damn souffle flops, just when you want to show it off. I do think there is so much careless Mexican cooking. It is one cuisine that everybody plays around with. You know, you’re not going to get people playing with a borscht recipe, putting in a little mango or something. I think I just try hard to do things as I first learned in Mexico, because I see how things are not quite the same and ingredients aren’t the same, by any means.
I must say, I’ve observed you’re as critical of your own food as you are of anyone’s.
Oh absolutely, absolutely! That’s how you learn, that’s how you build a palate. I am hard on myself in all ways, actually. When it does come off, I will tell people. And when it doesn’t, I will tell people.
What would you say is a difference between your work and that of other writers on Mexican food?
Well to begin with, they’ve not done the travel and the research that I’ve done. None of them, not one. I have traveled this country, wandering—it’s why I’m not rich!–and taking time, and nobody else has done that. Nobody else has seen a certain chile at a certain stage in a market in Chilapa, and then gone back in 6 months and seen other chiles. Because I was fascinated! And when you’re fascinated, you just go on from one thing and wander. And Mexicans will tell you, there is nobody who has traveled the country as I have. And as you know, I used to go on third-class buses—I didn’t have a car—and had some enormous adventures. And then I had my own car, which I could stack up with stuff before coming back. With my own car I could wander and stop and come across an odd market, or see somebody in a market and ask about cooking. Really taking time. That is the difference.
**Over the course of your career you’ve amassed an enormous amount of research material, which I understand CONABIO (National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity) is in the process of digitalizing. What sorts of materials are included in that collection? **
First of all, they’re making a list of my research books. Secondly, they’re scanning all my books. And thirdly, they’re scanning all my notebooks. And I tell you, some of my notes are very funny—and not adequate! But it’s quite amazing working with them—there’s one in particular, a botanist I’m working with, she’s a wonderful person—and we’re going through my notebooks. And I say, “Oh my god, did I really say that in 1974, when I was out in Veracruz?” It’s reliving all those journeys. And we’ve found enough recipes to form another book! Whether I’ll have to strength to do it, I don’t know. But she said she’d help me with it.
What projects are you working on currently?
There’s a lot of work to be done with the botanist still. We’ve got several books to go through, and we’re taking off on some field trips during the summer.
What will you be doing?
One thing will be checking the markets to see if I can see a change in what is available. These are markets way out there in Chilapa. And I want to go up to the Sierra de Puebla, and see if the wonderful collares of the pixtle are there still—I’ve heard they’ve disappeared—to make the enchiladas de pixtle. And just to see if there’s anything that’s changed.
I’m working also on the revision of My Mexico, which will be out next year with University of Texas Press. And then the revision of Nothing Fancy, which will take much longer to do; that’ll be coming out, probably, in two years. I am also working now with an editor on new Spanish editions of two of my books, so that’s going to take most of the year. I’ve been approached to do a book on Hidalgo, and I said I just can’t do it. But I’m so intrigued by the use of plants up there that what I may do is let them gather material for me, so I can look at the photographs and pick out the things that I think are worthwhile, and then go to those places and cook. I am sort of tempted to do that. It’s crazy, it really is crazy—and there clearly won’t be any pay, just my expenses—but it’s so intriguing! And it’s a state that few people know. It’s very beautiful; the countryside is so gorgeous.
Where else have you been traveling lately?
I’ve just returned from the Scandinavian countries. I went, actually, for a friend’s wedding near Oslo. And then we went to the Mad Foodcamp [the annual symposium on food and cooking founded by Danish chefs Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer]. And we went to Noma [Redzepi’s restaurant in Copenhagen] to eat, of course.
How was that?
Very strange. I mean, it is extraordinary food; it’s all local. Some of the dishes were very contrived, but there were some wonderful, wonderful flavors. And we went to a place called Volt in Stockholm. We had wonderful food all over. You know, the breakfast in the hotels, the yoghurt, the butter, the milk, it’s just extraordinary.
And the breads, oh my god, the breads! We got about four different types of bread, all hot from the oven, ready to cut, at breakfast. I really was so, so impressed.
**It sounds not too different from the way you cook at home, good ingredients, well prepared… **
Yes, but different ones, you see. When I got back, right away, I had to cook a pot of black beans. So today I’ve just done some rice, avocados, and I haven’t yet made some nixtamal, but I’ve got some [tortilla] dough here from a neighbor. It’s just pure, basic Mexican food. I missed the beans when I was away!