Perceptions of Mexican Cuisine and Our Unconscious Bias
Thomas Keller and his team recently opened La Calenda, a Oaxacan-style taqueria in Yountville, not far from his iconic flagship The French Laundry, as well as Bouchon and Ad Hoc. Media outlets and diners are raving about this latest installation from the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, which offers some of the most affordable plates the chef has ever put forward.
Oaxacan-born chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling leads this charge, putting up reimagined food from his youth with all the finesse and fine-tuning he inherited from his training in some of the continents’ best restaurants. Without question, the food is expected to be top notch.
While the news of this opening is exciting and highly-anticipated, I can’t help but wonder why Keller felt that Mexican food is best suited for this venture into low-cost, family-friendly dining. With certain ethnic cuisines relegated to cheap-eats in America, I question if Keller is fueling this harmful stereotype. Keller, who is most known for his refined touch and French culinary background, has an opportunity to be an iconoclast and present affordable, French-style food that is more approachable for children and lower-income families than his typical demographic. Instead, he chooses to go a standard route and explore the flavors of Mexico.
Mexican cuisine has a wide array of intricate techniques and flavor profiles that require as much training and mastery as French cuisine does. In spite of this, the average price for a standard plate of tacos is just under $12 in the US. Meanwhile, French food has dominated the world of high-end cuisine since 1985. Even homestyle dishes that are meant to be peasant food will set diners back $20 on average anywhere in this country. Mexican cuisine falls in the bottom five in terms of average check prices and French food continues to be food for only the elite.
A taco is perhaps one of the most underrated dishes in terms of technique in the culinary world. Because of its ubiquity in the lexicon of American cuisine, the taco - and Mexican food in general - is largely undervalued and underserved. I argue that for any French dish there is a Mexican dish that requires a comparable amount of time, attention, and skill to prepare. French mother sauces are some of most important foundations of French cuisine. They take technique, precision, and patience to prepare properly. In comparison, Mexican sauces such as moles, adobos, salsa verde, etc., are equally as integral to Mexican cuisine and take as much technique and mastery to prepare properly. Much like how a freshly baked loaf of bread from the hands of a master baker is one of the world’s greatest joys, a freshly prepared tortilla from the hands of a master can warm the hearts and bellies of anyone. Both require an understanding of gluten, a learned feel for dough, and a mastery of heat control.
In the culinary world, to be classically trained means to be trained in the French-style. French cuisine and French techniques have been long touted as haute cuisine. The way French cuisine has been presented globally reflects this status of high-end dining. In comparison, Mexican cuisine has historically been seen as low-end dining in the US. There are stark parallels here with the respective historical economic standings of these two countries in which France has stood as a world power for centuries whereas Mexico is a former colony. It is evident there is a perceived cultural prestige French food has over Mexican food.
Professor Krishnendu Ray expands on this concept in his book, The Ethnic Restaurateur, referring to a “Hierarchy of Taste”. He describes how journalists and critics have established certain “ethnic cuisines” in the lower tiers of a hierarchical system composed of symbolic values and meanings. By contrast, those same culinary authorities have deemed other foreign foods, initially Continental and French cuisine and later Italian and Japanese, as belonging of high-status. Ray states that how we value a culture's cuisine in our society often reflects the status of those who cook it.
While La Calenda is by no means your average taqueria, both in quality of produce and price point, it stands as one of Keller’s most affordable ventures to date. I admire Keller’s trust in Trilling to cook his food under Keller’s tutelage. I wholeheartedly believe Keller and Trilling will do justice to the taqueria and to Mexican cuisine at La Calenda, but I challenge Keller and his team to break the mold of what affordable, family-friendly dining has long looked in America. Thomas Keller has all of the resources and skills necessary to transform and redefine French cuisine as approachable, affordable, and accessible to the masses. While I am excited for the offerings from Trilling, I can’t help but feel that the concept is a crutch for an exemplar such as Keller.