Gracia, Alex & the Battle for Central America’s Culinary Soul
Centro America Unida.
Gracia Navarro and Alex Herrera grew up in Sonsonate, the western part of El Salvador. It’s a place that has gained a bad reputation for violence, but it’s also one of the rare places in the country where some still speak Nahuatl.
It isn’t a wealthy part of the world, but childhood was warm and pleasant there. Gracia remembers going to the market with her mother on the weekends and helping her grandmother in the kitchen to fry bananas for dinner. She could walk out into the street and within a few blocks could find all sorts of typical sweets.
At 15, Alex started selling things. Clothes, fruits, vegetables, gunpowder to markets around the country because, as he puts it, “I liked to dress well, look handsome and help my mother at least with part of the expenses.”
They met that year and liked each other from the first moment they met. She was very loud and spoiled and he was badly behaved and liked to attract attention at school. He failed that year, while she moved on. Later he wanted to study architecture, but his family didn’t have the money. She wanted to be a doctor, but it was too exhausting and expensive career. Her mother suggested cooking and she quickly realized she was into it far more than just cooking a meal for her family. When Alex how it stirred up something in her, he started cooking to and it stirred up something in him too. Together they thrived.
They wanted to cook contemporary Salvadoran food. To show that they didn’t need to import foreign ingredients, but the best ingredients they could source were cultivated from their own land. With the right technique, it was just as exceptional as any Michelin star restaurant in France.
In 2016, they launched a pop-up dinner series, called Raíz. It’s still going. They make things like squash seed macaroons with hints of spicy chiltepe chiles and a caldo de gallina with fermented loroco flowers. They find inspiration in fishing piers like the one in La Libertad, and the archeological site of Joya de Cerén.
However, cooking in El Salvador has limitations. Or anywhere in Central America for that matter. It doesn’t matter how technically gifted you are, how many stages you do or how many competitions you compete in, diners don’t understand why you want to cook with local ingredients. If they consider themselves worldly, they want synthetic truffle oil.
On two occasions the pair nearly left to go cook in another country. Good cooks are in high demand so it would have made sense. Their economic situation would have been easier. There would be a more receptive audience for the food they cook, but they stayed.
“We decided to face it by betting on our people,” Gracia told me. “If we had gone, none of what we have achieved so far would have been possible. So, no matter how really hard it's been, it's all been worth it.”
Still, they knew they couldn’t do things alone. That’s why they created Centro America Unida in 2017. They started working hand in hand with Salvadoran farmers, encouraging them to grow ancestral crops and buying everything they could to support them. They started piecing together a loose network of cooks, fishermen, coffee roasters, and anyone else that believed in what they were doing, inside El Salvador and out. It was the start of an idea about Central American food that was less about what was found within political boundaries and more about the gastronomic expressions that transcended them.
“Our duty as chefs is to educate, to cook and change lives through cooking,” says Alex.
Of the previous editions, two were in El Salvador and one was in Costa Rica. I was at the second in El Salvador and there were just a handful of us that came from outside that country. Alex and Gracia drove us around. We talked. We ate oysters in a riverbed. We went to markets and met producers. It was small, but it had an impact on everyone that was a part of it.
They’re more focused now. They have shifted their attention from fine dining to what they are creating at El Xolo, a small restaurant with 14 seats where criollo varieties of corn sourced direct from indigenous farmers in distant places like Ahuachapan and Comasagua is at the heart of everything they cook. It’s not Raíz, but rather innovative food revolving around the corn they nixtamalize themselves. They realized that if they wanted to get anywhere, they had to start at the roots.
“It’s very expensive to invest in the infrastructure to preserve maize,” said Rafa Mier, the noted corn expert who runs Fundación Tortilla, an organization based in Mexico oriented towards preserving the cultural traditions surrounding tortillas.
We were walking through the milpa of Don Ceferino Ojer, in Parrámos, Chimaltenango in southern Guatemala, looking at his corn, during the fourth edition of Centro America Unida. It wasn’t the uniform rows of plants all roughly the same height and color and state of growth that you pass along the highways at lower altitudes, but a rugged, mountainous plot of land where each plant, all criollo varieties, look a little bit different. Some grew higher and some grew lower. There were beans and squash scattered amidst the wild, tangled plot. The corn might have bright yellow to orange kernels, or they might be red, or blue or black or a mix of everything. Each plant was a wild card. This form of growing preserves the diversity. The genetics have not been bred out. The different altitudes and microclimates in the field, the variations in the soil and the direction of the wind can completely alter the final product. The corn in this field naturally ripens at different times, which traditionally has helped the people growing it to sustain themselves.
What Mier meant was not so much that it’s expensive to physically put traditional varieties of corn in the ground, but all of the other stuff is. An entire system that needs structured to be able to encourage the production and consumption of heirloom corn. How can an indigenous farmer working small plots of land compete with an agro-industrial system that allows 20,000 Oxxo convenience stores around Mexico to sell tortillas laden with chemicals for next to nothing? These bland, cardboard tortillas don’t taste very good and they do little to preserve ancestral agricultural knowledge and the biodiversity that surrounds corn in its Mesoamerican homeland.
It was Día de Todos los Santos and a few children were flying kites off in the distance, a ritual that is said to bring them closer to their ancestors. Just beside corn, Doña Matea Ojer Gonzalez was making Pepian, a spicy stew, one of the oldest Guatemalan recipes. It is believed to have originated in this particular region with the Maya-Kaqchikel, of which Ojer Gonzalez is descended. I watched as she laboriously grinded tomatoes, chayote, chiles and other vegetables on a metate and added them to a pot. There were tortillas of varying shades – reds, blues, yellows and oranges – on a comal set right over a fire pit. They were from El Comalote, an Antigua based tortillería and social initiative to preserve and resurrect heirloom corn in Guatemala, which has been gradually fading.
Everyone shared something. Mier shared ears of corn from Mexico with Ojer Gonzalez. Deborah Fadul, the brilliant chef of Diacá in Guatemala City, who organized this Guatemalan edition of Centro America Unida with Alex and Gracia, brought fiambre, the customary meal in the cemeteries to celebrate their ancestors for families in the cities. Eduardo Guerrero, a chef and psychologist from Honduras brought some guifiti, a liquor of liquor made of medicinal herbs soaked in aguardiente. Someone else passed around a joint.
I have been writing about cuisine in the Americas for nearly two decades. Outside of academic circles, few have really ever spoken highly of food in Central America. While the region is the cradle of some of the most globally important foods – cacao, maize, beans, tomatoes, avocados, vanilla, squash and chiles, among others – there was, and there remains, a general lack of pride in the cuisine.
Regional and indigenous recipes haven’t really been considered something to be worth sharing. Tourist areas would rather import salmon and wheat rather than subject visitors to local cuisine. Go to any beach area and you are still more likely to find far more hamburgers and burritos than gallina achiotada or pargo frito. Most of the chefs from this part of the world that had the means to go work in top restaurants in North America and Europe never returned. Sushi bars, Peruvian restaurants and TGI Friday’s, have filled the void.
Many of the region’s political borders tell a story of segregation and exploitation, but that is only part of the story. Despite violent wars and narco-trafficking, despite banana and pineapple plantations that tear apart landscapes and treat workers with slave-like conditions, despite all the fast-food chains and soda, despite all the atrocious things that might suggest otherwise, the foundations of Central American cuisine are still there. There are still the women grinding away on metates in Cobán. There are still endemic ingredients like maíz pujagua being grown in Guanacaste. There are still fruits like pixbae being fermented into chichas in the comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. They are endangered. More and more each day. They will be lost if great care isn’t taken to not only preserve them, but to encourage their use and strengthen the systems that make them possible.
Outside of academic circles and NGOs, rumblings of doing something about this baffling culinary situation started to appear in Panama City a little more than a decade ago. There, a growing population with disposable income from the canal and financial sector helped spur a need for more restaurants. There was a need for something beyond the American chains that were already there. Something local but modern and with nice wines and cocktails, like what was happening in Mexico City, Lima and São Paulo.
Elena Hernández’s food festival Panamá Gastronómica started to organize that country’s culinary community and exposed it to invited international chefs and food writers, myself included. At the same time, Mario Castrellón took a leap in re-imagining what a Central American restaurant could be with Maito, and soon other cooks followed. As far as popularity contests go, Maito was the first (and still is the only) restaurant to appear on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant List, which says something about what other Latin American chefs think about the food in these 8 countries.
The conversation has spread across the region. Cooks and farmers, brewers and fishermen, are starting to make connections within their individual countries. Nuclei of information. Yet, as a whole, Central American cuisine remains fragmented. Something needs to happen from within to break that stagnation. I think that spark, that hope, might be Gracia, Alex and everyone else that is rallying by their side.
Fadul, organized the Guatemalan edition of Centro America Unida, and she was determined not to let it devolve into a party but to thrust the dream of what Central America food can be forward. It was an intense week of visiting an array of fascinating people working in and around gastronomy in Guatemala, many of whom had never met each other before. We heard permaculture farmer Giuliana Gobbato talk about ecosystems and humanity while we drank amaranth atole as a volcano puffed smoke behind her. We foraged for mushrooms and botanicals with botanist Lala Palmieri.
Pablo Diaz, who owns Mercado 24 and Dora La Tostadura, by the far the best name for a tostada restaurant in the history of the word and that will never change, led us through the market and explained how he is trying to help restructure the way artisan fishermen in Guatemala can have a better quality of life while helping restaurants get a better product.
We spent a day at Fadul’s husband’s family farm and natural reserve, Finca San Jeronimo, on the Atitlán volcano where had coffee and honey tastings and wandered through the wild landscape. Unlike the sprawling plantations of industrial growers, we saw coffee plants tucked away in misty forests where just below the surface of the soil you could see where they connected to a mycorrhizal network of fungi, part of a larger tapestry of life.
The group swelled and contracted each place we went but included an assortment of colorful figures that are trying to change the conversation surrounding food in Central America. From Costa Rica there was Pablo Bonilla, a chef researching Costa Rica’s ancestral foodways through his restaurant Sikwa, and the baker Adriana Sanchez of Manos en la Masa. From El Salvador, aside of Gracia and Alex, is Ernie Solorzano, a natural wine importer and hotelier, as well as the cooks Maru Molina and Luis Morales, who run pop-ups on the coast. Colombian cook Stephanie del Carmen from New York’s La TropiKitchen even showed up too. Guerrero was the first Honduran to take part this year, though there has yet to be anyone from Nicaragua or Belize. The connection just hasn’t happened yet, though it will. Each time the conversation gets a little bit bigger.