Fish in filo? Mango mayonnaise? Beans in a bundt pan? This is not your conventional Mexican cooking. It is what happens to the food in the hands of a free-spirited cook like Lula Bertran.
Bertran, of Mexico City, is not a professional chef but a dedicated amateur who has involved herself in catering, teaching and food writing. From a wealthy background, she works because she wants to, and goes at it demonically hard. Recently, she labored intensively in and out of the kitchen to coordinate guest chefs, cooking demonstrations and food for an ambitious gastronomic conclave in Tijuana.
That is where she presented such imaginative dishes as shrimp on a pool of mango mayonnaise garnished with strawberry halves and with crisp fried cilantro that she sprinkled with salt, lime juice and ground chile pequin.
In Mexico City, Bertran carved a reputation for cooking classes that were so ornate they became a social occasion. Dressed in their best, her well-off students sat down to sophisticated meals presented with fine china and silver--and passed the recipes on to their cooks. Irked at such frivolity, Bertran abandoned the classes and now teaches only serious students, at considerable cost.
She says that Mexico has not produced a nuevo Mexican cuisine equivalent to the new American cuisine of the United States. "There is not one movement, not one thought," she remarked, meaning there is no unified approach to a new style of cookery. The best traditional Mexican food is still found in the towns and the homes, she said, not in the restaurants. Chefs occupy a lowly position, unlike the celebrities of the United States. "Nobody gives them the importance they have," she said regretfully.
The indigenous cuisine is not highly regarded either. "If you want to have guests in your house in Mexico, you will never serve Mexican food. You will serve French or Italian," Bertran said. Her own attitude is, "Mexican food is fantastic, don't be ashamed to serve it."
Bertran does not cook classically but presents Mexican ingredients in new and fanciful ways. "The very orthodox people in Mexican cooking simply can't understand this," she said, comparing their cool reaction to the attitude of traditional French chefs at the onset of nouvelle cuisine.
Bertran does not claim to be starting a movement and emphasizes that hers is an individual approach. "I don't say it's Mexican cooking," she clarified. "I always say, this is the way I present my Mexican food."
Bertran, who has written monthly food articles for Mexican Vogue, was nourished on French haute cuisine in the home of her grandmother. "At 12 or so, I knew how to do a galantine and I didn't know how to do Mexican rice," she said. More recently, she lived in Rome and studied Italian cuisine. She is also a great admirer of Japanese food design.
Married to Alberto Bertran, a businessman with interests along the border, Bertran lives part of the year on a boat at San Diego, the rest of the time in a home in Las Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City. Her home was not damaged in the recent earthquake, she said.
Several San Diego-area chefs were invited to participate in the Tijuana culinary gathering, held at the new Fiesta Americana Hotel there, and Bertran was anxious for Mexican chefs to witness their more exalted status.
In one of the cooking demonstrations, Bertran, dressed in chef's whites, showed what innovation can do for Mexican cookery. The dishes were not solely her creation, she emphasized. They were developed through an exchange of ideas among Bertran; Patricia Silva of Queretaro, whose specialty is traditional cookery and sauces; Roberto Rangel, pastry chef of the Hacienda de Los Morales in Mexico City, and Victor Nava, who has a catering service and pastry shop in Mexico City.
"Mexico has a wonderful kitchen (meaning the repertoire of dishes), but why always do we have to present our dishes in clay, the folkloric thing?" Bertran mused.
Rather than clay, Bertran placed fish in a case made of filo dough. This she shaped into a ruffly container with lid inspired by the design of a flaky Mexican bread called campechana. The fish was marinated with orange juice and herbs. And the accompanying Salsa Borracha (drunken sauce), was a spicy-sweet mixture of pasilla and ancho chiles, piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar cones), herbs and spices. Orange juice and tequila substituted for the traditional "drunken" ingredient, pulque.
First courses included the shrimp plate and a walnut soup that evolved from chiles en nogada. This old-time Mexican dish consists of poblano chiles stuffed with meat and fruit, topped with walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. The sauce became the foundation for the soup. The stuffing was eliminated. And the chiles were diced and stirred in with the pomegranate seeds.