Jose Manuel Banos, chef/owner of Pitiona Restaurant, is creative, dedicated and very personable. He worked for two years as head chef of Casa Oaxaca; for three years in San Sebastian, Spain, and then as a private chef in La Paz, California.
It is a treat to begin the day following him through the Central Mercado, where he and all the other chefs in town shop at 7 A.M. I am overwhelmed by the sights, smells and tastes I am introduced to, and the hot and spicy flavors that explode in my mouth. Manuel knows all the people who are busy cooking and grilling at their open stalls, and takes time to chat as he buys small and large chilies, tomatoes, small pumpkins ( Mexican zucchinis), red and green mole powders and spices ( for the mole we will prepare), chopped fried grasshoppers, and both string and bulk Oaxaca cow cheese.
stalls have signs
In Mexico, grasshoppers are raised for eating, and sold in the market by the kilo. I hesitate when encouraged to dig into a mound and sample this indigenous delicacy; surprisingly, it is crunchy and tasty.
mounds of grasshoppers
Manuel stops to buy produce
We head back to Manuel’s restaurant, and the fun continues. He has planned a very ambitious menu; Lisa and I don aprons. Working together, .we chop onions, peel charred red peppers, scoop out chili seeds, grill the pumpkins, sauté our grasshoppers with onions, garlic and cheese (adding a little sugar and lime). I then stuff the mixture into half of a scooped out baby zucchini. I fill the other half with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, onions, cheese and honey. Oaxaca cheese can be substituted for mascarpone.
Manuel & Babbie in kitchen
Manuel mixes a pitcher of his secret and famous mescal martinis. He tells us: “the best mescal (made from the green agaves) is white; it’s better and smoother than tequila (made from the blue agaves) .because it’s made with an artisanal process; tequila is commercially processed.”
I follow Manuel’s instructions, mixing whole kernel and ground corn, as I learn to make pre Hispanic mole from a recipe that has been handed down from the Aztecs. Manuel turns back to the stove, to sear his duck breasts, over a high fire, shaking the pan and basting them with mole sauce.
When it is time to plate our feast, the three of us move downstairs to a beautifully set table. Two waiters serve us the dishes we worked hard to prepare.
Manuel opens a bottle of his favorite white wine, relaxes and shares his emotions.
“For me, having this restaurant it is the greatest experience of my life. It is not just a restaurant; it is my baby, a lifestyle that means everything; it is my entire life. It gives me the opportunity to know many people from all over the world. The way you treat people is as important as the food, but when people clean their plates, smile and tell me it was delicious; it is my energy for the day. Oaxacan cooking is not molecular for me; more important to me is the kitchen of my mom and grandma. Primary to me is a good piece of duck or meat to work with; new techniques are secondary. This is the best place in the world, I love my country. Oaxacan food, as part of Mexican food, I think is the best .in this region. We have 50 different local dishes, and with the new government we hope we can communicate to the entire world that Mexico is not only beaches and churches: it is the people, our traditions and different foods and cultures.
Two nights later, I return to Pitiona for the restaurants four course tasting menu which changes every two months. I love the fact I can choose a dish from each course, rather than being served a selection of courses chosen by the chef. The wine flows as does Manuel’s gracious hospitality and charm. It is no small wonder Mexico’s cuisine recently received World Heritage designation.
For more on Manuel: www.pitiona.com
5 de mayo no.311, Centro Oaxaca