When the concept of “estilo libre Latino” was first presented to me, it was called “freestyle Latino” and the name just didn’t seem to click. In Spanish, it sounded much better, I thought.
At first I had no idea what it was. Could this simply be a new twist on Nuevo Latino, where Latin American cuisine is being simply updated to catch up with French and American cuisines? Nah! How about Pan-Latin American, where the menu covers more than one country’s food style? Nope!
When I first sat down to try it, it hit me like a Mack truck at 90Mph. Wow, this was great.
Estilo libre meant that the chef had the freedom and liberation to pick and choose the best flavors of all Latin America, as well as Spain and other parts of the world and put them together in unique combinations. I kept thinking, I wish the Italians had thought of this years ago.
The unique flavors of Latin American food have long been rather low-key, with the majority of Americans still thinking of Latin American cuisine as Tex-Mex or something you get at Taco Bell. But now, we have something that can unify all the best flavors of the Americas with European dishes and dine on exceptional flavor combinations.
One man is responsible for this more than any other. Maximo Tejada, whose background includes an education at French Culinary Institute, and work in the kitchens of Ola, Chicama, Lucy Latin Kitchen and now, Rayuela (reviewed in this blog).
The richness of his sauces and the spices, fruit, vegetables and meats he prepares in his kitchen are nothing less than inspirational to any palate, particularly one familiar with the nuances of French and Italian cuisines. He uses ingredients in ways that other chefs simply fantasize about, stuffing duck confit with sauteed collard greens into Carica for a sweet, but succulent dish rich in flavor and nutritional goodness.
This isn’t simply a chef gone wild (topless video available soon). It’s a brand new food style, just as Nouvelle cuisine was new in the late 70’s (oh how I remember what a stir that caused). Estilo libre represents a true liberation of the foods, flavors and products of Latin America and opens up the potential for signficant increases in imports of foods and spices from our neighbors to the South, compared let’s say to the melamine-packed products we receive from the Far East.
Fresh, wholesome and delicious are going to be buzz-words tied to estilo libre Latino in the coming months. Other chefs, who’ll probably keep their shirts on, will emulate Tejada and probably improve on his style, just as many young chefs improved on the food styling created by people like Roger Verge and Michel Fitoussi.
As the new style reaches retail stores and recipe sites such as this one, we’re going to see a vastly increased discussion in the public media about Latin American cuisines in general, and this new concept in cookery.
Tejada’s new restaurant is aptly named Rayuela, which means hopscotch, because his presentation, flavors and ingredients hopscotch around from South America to Spain, from Central America to the Caribbean and so on, with superb results.
I just hope he comes up with a “Chef Gone Wild” cookbook, soon, so I can practice making these dishes at home.