Mexico Cooking Vacation: Interview with Chef David Sterling in the Yucatan

August 17, 2020  |  By Liz SanFilippo Hall
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Chef David may have originally grown up in the Midwest, like many of us at The International Kitchen, and later lived in New York, but his passion for Mexican cuisine existed for decades, long before he opened his cooking school in the Yucatan. Chef David unfortunately passed away in 2016, but you can hear more about his passion for all kinds of cooking – including French cuisine – in his own words from this 2014 interview.

What’s your favorite dish?
Chef DavidMy favorite Yucatecan dish (today! it changes all the time!) is Lomitos de Valladolid. These are little cubes of pork (hence the name) that are slowly simmered in tomatoes and dried chiles. The meat simmers so slowly and for such a long time that the tomatoes completely disintegrate and cover the cubed meat with a thick sauce. You finish the dish at the end with a splash of vinegar, which gives it a lovely sharp contrast to the sweet tomatoes and smoky chiles.

See all our culinary vacations in Mexico.

And what’s your favorite ingredient?
It may sound odd, but my favorite ingredient is smoke. So many foods are either literally smoked here, or acquire a smoky flavor because of the ways the foods are cooked, over a wood fire, or often directly in the coals of a fire. My cookbook features an entire section on smoking, and several other recipes throughout require a simple smoking method. The book is available at Barnes & Noble’s larger stores, and also on Amazon.com.

Learn more about Mexican flavors.

What’s your first cooking memory?
Yucatan puebloMy first cooking memory was working alongside my mother as she made cupcakes with frosting and colorful candy sprinkles. I was about 5 years old. I couldn’t follow her recipe at that age, and besides I was too independent, so I made up my own: I filled the cupcake papers with mayonnaise and sprinkled it with paprika. It looked kind of the same which was enough for me.

Try Chef David’s recipe for Chiles en nogada or Mayan succotash.

By the age of sixteen I was already preparing lavish meals from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I even made really complicated things, like Napoleons, which required my preparing the pâte feuilletée from scratch! I was an ambitious teenager, and needless to say my parents loved it, since they were the beneficiaries of all that work. Things changed a bit, however, when just a few months later I made Julia’s Bûche de Noël, which required making moss out of spun sugar. I followed the directions to the letter, and waved dribbling hot syrup over an oiled broom handle. There was as much moss on the floor, stove, and walls as I actually managed to produce for the cake! My mother shrieked when she saw the mess, and then got right to cleaning it up. She loved the cake.

Try a recipe for caballeros pobres.

What’s some advice you’d give to someone just learning to cook?
EnchiladasI have a lot of advice! First, taste everything. Taste the raw ingredients; taste the mixture before it’s cooked; taste it all the way through the cooking process and to the end. This even applies to baked goods (has the flour or oil turned rancid?) Only the most delicious ingredients will result in delicious food.

Try our favorite Mexican dessert recipe.

And more advice along the same lines: Purchase the best ingredients you can, organic when possible, from farmer’s markets or at least from places where you know the produce (or product) will have come to you just hours before. When you then start cooking for the first time, follow recipes stringently. Make the same recipe two or three times over the course of a few months. Soon you’ll see you can abandon the recipe and just go with your own senses. Finally, be passionate about it and go deeply into the subject of cooking. I highly recommend reading excellent cookbooks (there are only a few!) – those that really instruct you in the “why” as well as the “how”. Marcela Hazan for Italian. Julia Child for French. If you become really serious about cooking, read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. It delves deeply into the science (the “why”) of foods – how do eggs form? What makes for a fresh egg? etc. Every time I read it I learn something new, and the information “sticks” better each time. And for pure poetry about food, read anything by M.F.K. Fisher.

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By Liz Hall

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