Editor's Note: Laura Cabrera is a young Mexican cook and the sous chef of Hija de Sánchez, the first traditional Mexican taqueria in Denmark. The establishment, which works under the direction of Rosio Sánchez, ex-pastry chef at noma, has just opened after much anticipation throughout the international culinary community.
Laura, who is 25 years old, worked at Néctar under chef Roberto Solis, where she initially met René Redzepi and moved on to stage at noma. She then returned to Yucatan, Merida, to participate in Cook it Raw Mexico and open her yucateca food truck, Icaro. But in December of 2014, Icaro closed up shop and moved to Copenhagen with a complex mission in mind: to make traditional Mexican tacos on the other side of the world.
MUNCHIES: Hey Laura. What's been the most difficult part of opening a Mexican restaurant in Denmark? Laura Cabrera: We experiment all the time and search for the best ingredients, and that might be the most difficult thing for obvious reasons. We are bringing many of these things from Mexico. A man named Itatoní brings in corn from Oaxaca—he has a cooperative that gathers many small corn producers from different places, so everything is of great quality. We have a hard time finding fresh products, because Copenhagen doesn't have that same abundance as the products in Mexico. We're trying out different kinds of vegetables to see which are the most similar to Mexican ones.
I think the most important part of making Mexican food is taking care of every detail; those little secrets like adding water and lime to the griddle or cooking down the tomatoes so the sauce tastes better because the sugars in it become concentrated. But of course, there are many things that we can't imitate to perfection. We would love to have a griddle, but it'd be really hard to get one here, so we've looked for something as similar as possible, like hot stones, which we soak in water with lime so they can be as close to a griddle as possible.
How did you manage to combine Mexican seasoning with noma's philosophy? I have always admired the way René and the team at noma work on their products. This is the same ethos that Rosio and Hija de Sanchez share, too. We are doing well thought-out versions of Mexican tacos.
We think a lot, then discuss and we ask each other, Where did we have the best taco in the world? Well, from a Mexico City street vendor, of course. And why was it so good? And that makes us really think about the characteristics of a perfect taco: if it was spicy, sweet, spongy, crunchy, or whatever. It's then when we realize that we can actually improve what has already been done. For example, in our research, we discovered that churro-makers in Mexico add burned oil to the batter so that the churros get that golden brown color that is so pretty. We obviously are not going to do that here because of both health and ethical reasons, but we know that we can add a reactive agent to accelerate the Maillard reaction, and that allows the churro dough to get baked faster and get that same golden color.
Sounds fun, Lau. So are you the boss of Hija de Sanchez? You know, that female figure in the Mexican kitchen that has a deep understanding of cooking and a way with seasoning food? I talked about that with Rosio from day one, because that is what she told me. She said, "it's not the same thing to give a taco to René Redzepi, who has tasted tacos before but doesn't know about its traditional flavor, and then give it to you to taste, since you grew up eating tacos in Mexico." But you know, I know a lot about Mexican food, but I don't know everything. We will never know everything that there is to know about Mexican food, but we do know how it's supposed to taste. We have it living deep inside our memories.
Honestly, Rosio knows a lot too, she has traveled around to try new things and learn how to cook traditional food. We then have put together our different sets of knowledge.
How would you compare the Hija de Sanchez stand to say, Alex Stupak's Empellón or Albert Adriá's Hoja Santa? They are all similar stories: renowned non-Mexican chefs that have all this knowledge about contemporary cuisine and that opened Mexican food restaurants outside of Mexico. I've had dinner many times at Empellón, and I can tell you the difference: Empellón is a "Mexican" restaurant. Yes, that's between quotes, because it's more of a signature chef restaurant instead of a traditional one. Alex Stupak takes Mexican food and adds his own spin onto this cuisine. Hija de Sanchez is a taco place, not a fancy restaurant.
We take a lot from our own experiences eating tacos. When I think about tacos, I remember those moments that I have shared with friends eating at a street stall after working all day. Those tacos are more implanted in my memory than the ones that I ate at a place like Pujol or Sud 777. Hija de Sanchez is aiming to capture both the traditional part as well as the emotional part of eating tacos.
How do they see Mexican food in Denmark? In Denmark, they respect Mexican cuisine. Since I got here, I have been impressed by the incredible admiration they have towards our gastronomical culture.
In Mexico, we have an amazing array of ingredients, but do you think that we take them for granted? Mexico is such an abundant land, so it's easy to waste and not to value what we have. It's easier to appreciate what comes from far away, but very few chefs give Mexican products the respect that they deserve. To be honest, it's a very complex subject and a very controversial one. Many people go to conferences and say: "Look! My products are from a milpa," but they may have never actually been to a milpa, know how it grows, or how to harvest it. But when a foreign person gets interested in it, travels around for hours down the road, goes to a milpa, gets his own corn, and learns from countrymen, he starts to have a deeper understanding about Mexican cuisine than many Mexican chefs.
How would you define yourself—as a traditional chef or someone focused on making more progressive cuisine? Let me tell you a story. Three years ago, during the summer, I wanted to go to Quique d'Acosta to do an internship, but I got deported. I went there with many hopes and dreams, willing to learn about contemporary food, knowing that Europe is so much more advanced in this subject than Mexico. When I got to Spain, they didn't let me inside the country because my return ticket was three days after their limit for staying as a tourist (which is 90 days). So while I was waiting for my flight back, I started to reflect: Why are all these great chefs coming to Mexico to learn something and here I am as a young cook wanting to go learn about their way of cooking? Shouldn't I be learning how to use lime, nixtamal, how to cook underground, and all those ancient techniques from my country before I get into the modern techniques?"
So after being deported and feeling rather defeated, I said to myself, "I will go back and cook Mexican food." I think what motivates me is to make tacos in a different country. To get into a kitchen at 4 AM and play Los Angeles Azules music to the maximum volume—now that's really delicious.
That's amazing. So your Mexican pride is bigger than you realized? I have eaten at four of the (very few) Mexican places in Copenhagen and I think they are all shit. I seriously can't understand how Danish people can eat that. It's not that I feel insulted—because that would be very close-minded of me—but my Mexican pride doesn't allow me to understand how they can serve a fucking expired mole and charge a fortune for it.
One day, we were working with Rosio in the bunker at noma. It was early in the morning—we always worked at night because it was full of interns and tourists during the day who like to come visit the kitchen—and we were very tired, almost about to give up. I said to her:,"Come on girl, people are waiting for tacos." It started as a joke, but after working for 20 hours straight and sleeping for a total of two, it became a sort of motivation. People are waiting to eat great Mexican food here. So we took that as a battle cry. People are waiting for tacos.
We are. Congratulations and thanks for talking to us, Laura.