Rob Feenie and the big Mexican cook off


Rob Feenie explored the traditional flavours of Mexico on a recent trip. He may apply some of his learnings to the menu of the Cactus Club Cafe chain. (Photo courtesy of Cactus Club Cafe)

[ occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. As our readers begin to plan their winter getaways to warmer destinations,’s Ilona Kauremszky spotlights one of Mexico’s most appealing culinary hot spots.]

Story by Ilona Kauremszky Senior Writer

OAXACA, MEXICO — Kneeling on the floor of a quaint resto in a small Mexican town, Canada’s first Iron Chef America champion, Rob Feenie, is eyeballing a rolling pin made of stone. It’s an old-time Mexican kitchen gadget that he’ll soon use to thrash crunchy kernels to a fine talcum.

But I’m thinking seconds later there’s going to be some damage. Call it the birth of the Canadian-made Mexican-inspired corn flour.

Abigail Mendoza Ruiz, the chef and owner of the famous Tlamanalli restaurant based in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, is revered as the Julia Child of Oaxacan traditional cuisine. A born DIYer trained from the oral traditions passed through the generations, Ruiz bonded immediately with Feenie.

Her infectious grin morphed into a giggle when both chefs staged an impromptu corn-flour challenge.

Feenie from Cactus Club Cafe based in Vancouver used an ancient metate y mano (pronounced mah-TAH-tay-EE MAH-no) and plenty of elbow grease with the stone rolling pin as he sent corn meal flying everywhere. It was his first time grinding corn and the commotion should have been expected.

In contrast, Ruiz, Oaxaca’s culinary darling, applied a rhythmic twist of her wrist and the assured force of her whole body to swoop the stone pin across the granite stone. She has no doubt performed this action a million times.

The results … well, you get the picture.

Feenie took the ultimate culinary challenge this past winter, meeting with some of Oaxaca’s finest chefs from the old and new school of cooking.


Chef Abigail Mendoza Ruiz from Tlamanalli restaurant serves authentic Oaxaca cuisine and recently shared her culinary techniques with Canadian chef Rob Feenie. (Stephen Smith photo)

Oaxacan cuisine is the foundation for all Mexican cooking and has some of the most diverse and experimental recipes in Mexico. A destination for devout foodies, Oaxaca is visited by many residents of Mexico City, which is a one-hour flight or five-hour drive away. The traditional cooking methods — which incorporate ingredients like chili peppers, banana leaves, chocolate and corn, along with organic vegetables and farm-raised game — have also received recognition from the United Nations.

Mexican traditional cuisine is now lauded with a UNESCO cultural heritage status, a designation it shares with French traditional cuisine and other European culinary delights. Part of the Mexican gastronomic brigade, Ruiz took her mortar and pestle, spice jars, and other undisclosed cooking secrets and proudly showcased the significance of this authentic gastronomic tradition to a board of bureaucrats based in Brussels, Belgium.

In 2010, Mexico won the cultural heritage title, becoming the first ethnic cuisine in the world to receive the UNESCO award. So in this fast-food culture with its attention on processed pap isn’t it wonderful to know you can still dine on meals of authenticity and high quality?

I went on this hot tamale Mexican culinary odyssey with Feenie and sat down with the master chef to discuss Mexican food on the Canadian menu.

No slacker himself, Feenie’s held stints at the esteemed Au Crocodile, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Strasbourg, started Lumiere in Vancouver, later garnering Vancouver’s Best Restaurant award alongside a Relais Gourmand status and now helms Cactus Club Cafe, a chain of casual eateries. What Mexican touches can we look forward to on your upcoming menus?

Chef Rob Feenie: As the executive chef at Cactus Club Cafe, I’m inspired by many regions in the world for our menu. Definitely Mexican flavours, techniques and ingredients are a part of our menu already. For example, we have a ceviche which is available at some of our locations. In developing our menu we pair globally inspired flavours with some of the best that the West Coast can offer. In the case of the ceviche, we use Ocean Wise steelhead and sustainably harvested prawns. What’s your prediction on Mexican cuisine taking off in Canada?

Feenie: There is an awareness of food and the culture of food that has grown in Vancouver and across Canada over the past few years. More and more people are asking for the authentic foods of countries from around the world, using fresh and authentic ingredients, and this includes Mexican cuisine as well. You are most likely one of the first Canadian celebrity chefs to witness firsthand the inner workings of Oaxacan cuisine. How does that make you feel?

Feenie: It was an honour to be able to discover the diverse and rich culinary culture of Mexico, and especially Oaxaca. I am grateful for the opportunity, and humbled by the hospitality of all the chefs I met who let me into their kitchens. It was inspiring to witness the passion, dedication, and respect for ingredients that the chefs had, and to also taste their dishes. Share what you observed in each chef’s process, starting with Maria del Carmen Mendoza from La Azucena Zapoteca Restaurant.

Feenie: We had a typical Zapotec Campirano country breakfast. Chef Maria del Carmen Mendoza had a great sense of humour, and you could tell she cooks from the heart. It was evident that she has fun when she cooks. As a chef, it’s important to love what you do, and to have fun doing it, and she embodied that. Abigail Mendoza Ruiz from the Tlamanalli restaurant. We watched a corn-flour demonstration.

Feenie: Chef Abigail Mendoza Ruiz’s dedication to tradition is something I highly respect. She has a deep understanding of the ingredients at their core. She knows exactly how to work with them. Yolanda Geminiano from the Capilla Restaurant. We learned about her mole and had lunch.

Feenie: Chef Yolanda Geminiano’s palate and her perfection of the complex mole flavours were incredible. She is extremely skilled at layering flavours and spices to create a rich mole that was representative of Oaxaca’s region. Carina Santiago Bautista of Tierra Antigua Restaurant. This was late at night when we watched how tlayudas and tamales are cooked in a traditional “Cocina de Humo.”

Feenie: Cooking with chef Carina Santiago Bautista was very familial. You could tell that family is important to her and that she cooks for those she loves. I was thrilled to see her sharing the traditions of her culinary heritage with her kids and community. This passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next is key, especially for a cuisine that is steeped in tradition like Oaxaca’s. After you observed each chef, you must have come back with a takeaway. What’s that one point you have?

Feenie: Overall, one of the big takeaways I had from meeting all these wonderful chefs is that there is innovation in simplicity and in showcasing an ingredient in its intended ways, but done perfectly. To master the craft of cooking, one must understand the history of where the cuisine originated from. Why was it important for you to visit each female chef?

Feenie: I don’t think it was necessarily tied to the fact that they were female chefs. For me it was that they are highly respected chefs within both Oaxaca and Mexico, and they have amazing dedication, talent and knowledge of the Oaxaca cuisine. They are experts in terms of the ingredients, techniques and traditions. While in Oaxaca I had the chance to meet with experienced chefs, both men and women, who have proven themselves in terms of what they can achieve in the culinary arts while maintaining the integrity of the culture.

Ilona Kauremszky has worked with numerous tourism offices around the world. An award-winning journalist, she is a travel columnist and has penned pieces for inflight magazines and major tour operators. She also makes appearances on TV and radio. Co-producer of Ilona is forever finding great stories in the strangest places. Follow her travel pursuits on Twitter and YouTube @mycompasstv

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