The Gannet Q&A

Gabriela Fernández Orantes

22nd September 2017

Interview & Photograph: Mónica R. Goya

Gabriela Fernández Orantes is a biochemical engineer and the co-founder of restaurant Itanoní in Oaxaca. She was born in Mexico City and lived all over the country as a child, but Oaxaca has been her home for the past 23 years. At Itanoní, a tortillería just outside the historic centre, she pays homage to Mexico’s native corn varieties – every dish at the restaurant is a celebration of corn.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

I spent part of my childhood in Guerrero, where eating pozole [a traditional Mexican soup] on Thursdays is a tradition. There are houses that sell pozole: you come in, they serve you your pozole, it can be white, it can be green, some people add sardines. I love the green one. We cooked it here at the restaurant 10 years ago and I loved how it turned out. I had no idea how to make it, so I asked for information and then prepared a recipe which I never wrote down. The pozole was delicious. I would like to make it again but I don’t have the recipe.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

I don’t cook from recipes. I cook very common, simple foods from Mexico: tacos, eggs in sauce, eggs and chorizo, potatoes and chorizo. At Itanoní, the specialty is the corn, that’s what makes the difference. My slogan is: “In Mexico the tortilla accompanies the dishes, but here the dishes accompany the tortillas.” There are people who come here and ask to have the food without the tortillas and I say, “No!” The corn is the first thing here, I am not leaving the corn behind. Some people understand, others don’t.

 

Describe your perfect breakfast.

I always end up having the same thing: quesadillas with cream cheese from Chiapas. Sometimes I think I might have something else, but that cheese is what I like the most and it’s what I always end up having.

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

There is one here in Oaxaca that I go to very often: Los Pacos. The food is very nice. Las Quince Letras is also very good – delicious mole. It’s all just about having nice food and having a nice time.

There are people who come here and ask to have the food without the tortillas and I say, “No!” The corn is the first thing here, I am not leaving the corn behind

What’s your favourite scene in the movies?

You will laugh at this, but it has to be Ratatouille, when the mouse is preparing the ratatouille dish. I took my children to the cinema to watch it and the following day a French friend invited us for dinner. And guess what? She cooked ratatouille. My children were like “Muuuuummmm!”. They recognised the food from the movie. It was a lovely coincidence. What we had seen in our imagination through the screen, we were tasting, right there and then.

What do you listen to while you are cooking?

I believe that how you feel has a lot to do with what you cook. I read a Chinese food book that said that you need to focus and meditate on what are you going to cook. It’s very important to get ready and listen to yourself, for food is life. I feel that making tortillas is a therapeutic, almost spiritual practice. It’s a very intimate moment when you make the ball, then put the tortillas on the comal – it’s meditation in movement. In rural Mexico, women would prepare tortillas two or three times a day. Back then they had 10 children or more and would have to look after them, their husbands, the food. My hypothesis is that making tortillas helped rural women to endure that life.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

I loved lentils. My dad is from Campeche, in the Yucatán peninsula, where there is a big European influence, and they cook lentils with chorizo – it’s like a fabada [bean stew] but with lentils.

I feel that making tortillas is a therapeutic, almost spiritual practice

What ingredient are you currently obsessed with?

Corn, I can’t do without tortillas.

Share a useful cooking tip.

When I was at university I was not that fond of cooking. I had a friend who was an amazing cook, he imagined the flavours and then he cooked for all of us and I was the one doing the washing up. I couldn’t picture a meal out of nothing like he did. However, all these years that I have been working in food, I realised that you can come up with your own recipes and give your life through a dish depending on how much love you put into it. I believe you have to be loving and caring while you cook. There is a saying: “When the cook is upset, the sauce is hot, but when she is happy, the same sauce made with the same chillies isn’t hot.”

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

The comal, which is where we make the tortillas

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

I can’t think of any. I like everything. As we used to say while I was at university, everything that moves can be cooked.

Posted 22nd September 2017

In The Gannet Q&A

 

Interview & Photograph: Mónica R. Goya

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