photo: Dick Snyder

Following a Canadian chef on a Mexican gastrotour, Dick Snyder gets the menu and discovers a culinary culture beyond the taco.

I'm staring down at a plate of Mexican food. And I'm perplexed.

It's the second course of lunch at the acclaimed Sud 777 in south Mexico City, lauded for its fresh ingredients and new-style contemporary cooking. Being Canadian, I've never had real Mexican food, as far as I know. Just greasy-cheesy-spicy things and overly sweetened Margaritas. Perhaps the occasional overdose of tequila.

So here I am faced with a plate that has no green sauce, no chilies, not even a crumbling of queso fresco. Nor a tortilla. Not a stitch of guacamole, nary an avocado in sight. And certainly nothing deep-fried.

There's just a carrot. A single orange spear on a white plate, scattered with some pine nuts and herbs  and a smear of something creamy. It's beautiful and delicious. But perplexing.

As I ponder this carrot's place in the lexicon of Mexican cuisine as I know it, I reach for my wine glass. But it's not wine. Chef Edgar Nuñez doesn't drink alcohol. Never had a taste for it, he says. He's paired this carrot with a juice of beet and rose. It's sweet and sour, earthy and vibrant – just like the carrot. Later, he rants against the evils of Coca-Cola, sugar, high-carb Mexican junk food and the poor dietary habits that have been transferred to his people via the United States. He's clearly a man on a mission.

"I don't do traditional Mexican food," he says. "But I am a Mexican cook and chef. I use local ingredients and I do older styles, too."

So that carrot begins to make sense. But it's unlikely you'll see it at your local Chipotle or Quesada chain. Chef Nuñez cooked it sous vide – sealed in plastic and immersed in warm water – with a finish on the grill. The essence of carrot, concentrated and transformed. And yet, still, just a carrot – albeit insanely delicious.

My gastro-journey to Mexico was full of surprises.

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