Chris Fernandez, the executive chef for the Red Mesa group of restaurants, goes home to Oaxaca, Mexico, every July for a couple of weeks. He goes to celebrate the famous Guelaguetza Festival and the anniversary of the death of Benito Juarez, as well as to celebrate his own birthday and that of his father. But more importantly, he goes to be inspired, to learn new dishes, to bring new ideas back to St. Petersburg. And some years, like he did this month at Red Mesa’s downtown location, Fernandez hosts an Oaxacan dinner so locals can get a taste of the “land of seven moles.”
We caught up with Fernandez, 46, about what he loves about the cuisine of his homeland, a state that is home to 16 different ethnolinguistic groups and a diverse range of ingredients and cooking styles.
What is it that you love about the cuisine of Oaxaca?
There are a lot of ingredients you don’t find in other parts of Mexico. Chefs from other parts of Mexico go there to learn about ingredients that they can bring home. It’s an area known for its dried chiles, about 50 varieties with all different elements and tastes, not all spicy. It’s also an area known for its Mexican chocolate, which contains a lot of spices like sesame, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as nuts and tortillas. Oaxaca is also known for all kinds of vegetables, such as epazote, an herb that’s a little like basil. It’s used to flavor beans and rice and stocks and moles; it gives something that nice minty, licorice, star anise flavor.
What’s the first dish you would teach someone new to Oaxacan cuisine?
If I’m going to do a salad, for example, I would do a cactus salad. You clean out a young cactus and char them on the grill, then mix them with diced tomatoes and jalapeno and top them with chicharrones and serve them with tortillas. And I would do a mole, maybe not a mole negro (the dark mole made from chilhuacles negros chocolate that many diners are familiar with); I’d do something a little lighter like a mole verde because it’s flexible — you can do it with any protein.
How do you eat when you go to Oaxaca?
Ninety-nine percent of the time I like to eat from the markets: stews, street tacos, squash blossoms, which are hard to find here in the U.S. Sometimes they stuff them with cheese, but there’s a stew that’s made with all the parts of a squash plant, from the stems to the squash and the blossoms, which you simmer for hours and thicken with fresh masa and finish with paper-thin slices of beef. And there’s a place I love called Pasillo de Humo, where you pick your chorizo, or avocado, and they grill it all for you. It’s kind of like a picnic.
What did you bring back from Oaxaca this summer? What are you excited about right now?
Right now I’m making new stuff with dried chiles. I brought back chiles cascabel and chiles pulla, as well as chiles guero, which are a little less spicy than chiles arbol. And I’m doing a lot of salsas with tomatillos right now.
How did you end up in St. Petersburg?
I’m from Oaxaca City, but I came here because my sister was in St. Petersburg. I came to study English and started working in the restaurants in 1989. I worked in an Italian restaurant on U.S. 19 as a dishwasher and moved up to making pizzas. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t either. After that I worked at the Columbia at the Pier and at the Vinoy. And I was working part time at Sea Bar, which is now Red Mesa. The Sea Bar closed at the beginning of 1995 and (owners) Peter and Shawn Veytia asked me if I wanted to take over being executive chef at a Mexican restaurant.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.