Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Modernizing Mexican Flavors
Your signature cooking style has been defined as unapologetic, authentic Mexican cuisine. Explain how you’re planning to incorporate your own personal style and flair onto your new restaurant, El Jardin’s menu.
By always giving a nod to the past and the people in my life who have molded me. I like to be playful with words and cuisine, taking each dish and seeing where it ends up. In researching for my restaurant El Jardin, I’ve learned the intricacies that define Mexico and knowing the cultures that have had a hand in Mestiza cuisine is helpful in the menu process. It may be uncomfortable for some since it can seem unorthodox, but it’s always delicious.
El Jardin will be focusing on regional Mexican cuisine using exclusive products imported straight from Mexico. Share with us which ingredients and flavors we can expect to see making their way to the centre-of-the-plate.
I’m growing chaya from the Yucatan in our garden and recados made by a Mayan community. Others include smokey pasilla mix, rich quesillo, aromatic rosita de cacao, earthy chicatanas, buttery escamoles, sweet pink pine nuts and pulque from the base of Popocatépetl, the Volcano in between Puebla and Mexico state. Plus, hoja santa, guavas and aguacate criollo will also be growing, as well.
Additional special items will be present but I want to keep those as a surprise to my guests. The flavors from all of these ingredients evoke one single emotion and that’s love. I call it grandma-chic food for the soul, plated by chefs.
What’s your approach for substituting dried herbs/spices for fresh ones in your dishes?
Dried herbs have their place in the kitchen as do fresh but some applications require dry herbs. A rub marinade wouldn’t be the same with fresh and the crust on a good piece of meat would be better served with dry spice.
Mexican cuisine is known for combining both sweet and savory ingredients. With your background in pastry, how will you be using both types of ingredients in your dishes?
It’s a balance, just the same as when I have to make sure the acid and salt are both in unison. The sweet ingredients help spicy ones transform. For example, fried chilhuacle chiles and garlic would overpower a lot of dishes but when you add a sweet element, you’ll have a chili jam of sorts.
Which seasonings and spices will you be stocking El Jardin’s pantry with in order to stay true to the flavors and heat of such a rich cuisine?
Oregano, garlic, onion, fennel, cinnamon, salts from various regions, coriander, chipotle, Jamaica, pepper, dried chilies, nuts, the list goes on and on.
Define Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins signature flavor and dish.
My signature flavor is warmth. From the subtle heat from an aguachile to warm and cool your palate in the hotter months to a bean stew made with a rich kombu dashi broth and garden vegetables with a perfectly poached egg and cured nopales to hug you in the colder months.