Collaborations and Influences with Chef Iliana de la Vega
On June 8, chef Iliana de la Vega showcased a collaboration with Marco Ochoa and Andrea Hagan, co-founders of Mezscouting, at her restaurant, El Naranjo. Mezscouting is a small company that brings to light the processes and history of Oaxaca mezcal. The dinner was a five course event with mezcal pairings for each course. The first course, Infladita de salpicón de setas con chile tuxta which is puffed blue corn masa topped with oyster mushrooms salad with chile tuxta, will remain on the El Naranjo menu until June 24.
The four following courses contained Smoky Oaxacan Chile stuffed with Pork picadillo, Striped Bass marinated in Chile Tabiche and Pineapple adobo, Tomato and Corn based Beef stew and Red prickly pear and Citrus panna cotta for dessert. The menu was completely designed by de la Vega and her daughter.
De la Vega likes to take the opportunities to collaborate with other experts in her world and has plans for similar events in the future.
“This collaboration with people, it makes you feel like you are doing your job, bringing other chefs or in this case these mezcal producers so people can experience not only what I do, but what other people do that I respect,” de la Vega said.
Although cooking isn’t just a job to de la Vega, it’s part of her childhood.
De la Vega’s mother allowed her to play with her food as a kid. Her mother was a chemist, but a skillful cook at their home in Mexico. De la Vega cooked desserts, moles and salsas with her mom which led her towards her career as a chef.
“I loved to go with my mom to the market,” de la Vega said. “She was very talented for being a home cook.”
The Early Days
De la Vega grew up in Mexico City but her mother and her family were from Oaxaca. When she was growing up, Mexican food was not very “well-regarded” compared to cuisines from Europe.
“It was very hard when we opened the first [restaurant] in Oaxaca,” de la Vega said. There were about five restaurants serving continental style food from all over, she said. “I said this is the time to do differently and showcase our heritage and also our beautiful cuisine that is so diverse in Mexico.”
Now, de la Vega is the owner of the traditional Mexican restaurant El Naranjo, is the 2022 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef in Texas and has been featured in media across the country. She also started the Mexican/Latin Cuisines curriculum at The Culinary Institute of America and worked as a teacher there from 2007 to 2012.
De la Vega’s first restaurant had an orange tree in the courtyard which quickly gave her and her husband the idea for the name, El Naranjo. Now, after moving to the U.S. and developing their restaurant further, the name remains.
Despite inspiring her love for cooking, de la Vega’s mother actually didn’t want her to pursue the career. She wanted her to end up in something more “formal.”
But, de la Vega had always been intrigued by the magic happening behind the doors in a restaurant.
“When we went to a restaurant I thought this is the most amazing place on earth,” she said. “I always loved the idea of how the food comes to your table and everything is beautiful.”
One of the biggest ideas that de la Vega combats regularly is the difference between authentic and tradition.
She believes that there is no such thing as authentic food. But, she said tradition is being “proud of what you do and do it with love.”
“Whose the one who will be the judge to say ‘oh yeah this is not authentic,’” she said. “Authentic, I don’t know. But traditional, yes it is traditional.”