Vitals: Born in Mexico City, an only daughter with two brothers; mother was a chemist from Oaxaca, father an entrepreneur from Guanajuato; married for 27 years to Ernesto Torrealba, an architect who now helps her operate the family restaurant, the critically acclaimed El Naranjo in Austin, TX; proud mamá of two daughters: Ana, a baking and pastry graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where mom also teaches, and Isabel, an anthropology student at UT Austin.
Experience: A self-taught chef who learned by reading books and teaching her friends to cook, de le Vega flirted with college in her early years, studying communications first, then pedagogy, then switching to hospitality administration. “But all I really wanted to do was cook,” she says. She opened her first restaurant, also called El Naranjo, in Oaxaca in the mid 1990s with virtually no professional experience and no formal culinary education. And it was a hit, instantly grabbing the attention of important restaurant critics around the world and shining a new spotlight on Oaxacan cuisine. The restaurant closed in 2006 when local social and political unrest devastated the area’s economy. In need of work and opportunity, she and Torrealba uprooted the family and moved to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, she was recruited to join the CIA’s San Antonio, TX campus to teach Mexican cuisine. And just three months ago she and Torrealba finally reopened El Naranjo—now on this side of the border.
The self-taught Chef Iliana de la Vega now teaches at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in addition to running her Austin restaurant, El Naranjo.
Early food memories: “Mexican food was not in fashion when I grew up. People don’t like to talk about that, but it’s true. If you invited someone over for dinner, you cooked French food. Sure, everyday cooking at home was Mexican or continental; my mom, for instance, used to make pork loin seasoned with Coca Cola. But that was just not interesting to me. It was tasty, but it never moved me. However, when my mother cooked something Mexican—then I was in. If it had chile it spoke to me.”
On her first days of teaching: “When I first started, I really didn’t know how to teach. And I didn’t even know a lot of technique or recipes yet. So whatever the people taking my class said they wanted to learn…I would say, Next week we will make that. I’d go home and read and practice that recipe and technique over and over until I got it, then I would teach it. This was in the days before internet so the research wasn’t simple. And there were sure a lot of mistakes along the way.”
On her mom: “I dreamed of moving to Paris to attend the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. But my mother said, I don’t think so. We are a traditional family and my daughter will not be living alone in France. It was a different time. She didn’t really understand why I wanted to cook. She thought it was too simple, that it wasn’t a career. But she was still supportive and she was one of my greatest teachers.”
On one of her more bizarre jobs: “I managed a Dominoes Pizza in Oaxaca. It was before we opened the first restaurant, and at the time I just needed a job. The franchise was a mess, losing money with employees stealing. But in six month we turned it around and started making a profit. Shortly after, it was ranked one of the best stores in Mexico. We even won the rookie manager of the year worldwide. It wasn’t my kind of food but it did teach me about customer service, quality control, promotions and all the things that go into running a restaurant.”
On landing her CIA teaching gig: “I went for an interview at the main campus in New York with one of the Vice Presidents. I told him, I am not French-trained, in fact I have no training. I just know how to cook and love it. He said, That’s what we want, somebody who understands the food and its origins. I still had to do a practical, though, meaning I had to cook for several of the higher ups at the school. I didn’t even know who they were so I wasn’t nervous. I made them my favorite dishes that I knew by heart: a Oaxacan black bean soup, a mole amarillo, a chayote salad. I got the job.”
Food she’s most passionate about: “The chiles of Mexico! I’ve been working with a group of growers there to help them protect their treasure—the chile pasilla oaxaqueño. I want to help make sure it is not grown anywhere else so we can preserve their livelihood. And I want to encourage them to continue to growing them, as they are very difficult and the growers themselves are very poor.”
On her style of cooking: “I want people to feel like I’m opening my kitchen at home to them. The way I cook is the way I would like people to see my country. Through my eyes. This is how I see Mexico and its food. Simple. Pure. Bold.”
Below is the recipe for de la Vega’s black bean soup, one of the dishes she made for the CIA brass before she was hired to be on the faculty.
Oaxacan Style Black Bean Soup
10 corn tortillas
1 cup canola oil
3 tbsp canola oil
2 thick slices white onion
1 garlic clove peeled
4 avocado leaves
2-4 oaxacan pasilla chiles, clean reconstituted in hot water (Substitute with morita chiles if not available.)
4 cups cooked black beans (with some broth)
6 cups water
Salt to taste
8 oz panela cheese (or queso fresco) diced
1 Avocado small dice
1/3 cup crema Mexicana
1. Slice the tortillas in three sections and julienne them crosswise, air dry or slightly bake them in an oven for drying not roasting. Heat the oil in a sauté pan, when sizzling hot add the tortillas in batches, removing with a slotted spoon when crispy and slightly golden, place over a rack to drain excess oil.
2. In a stockpot heat 3 tbsp oil, add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and golden, remove and discard onion slices. Reserve the flavored oil.
3. Place avocado leaves in a small skillet, het up until fragrant; transfer them to the blender, along with 2 chiles pasilla, 1 cup of beans and 1½ cups water in blender jar process until very smooth, You can also pass it through a strainer, adding water if needed.
4. Warm up the seasoned oil over medium low heat, add the pureed beans; repeat this step until all the beans are pureed. Season with salt, and check for chile flavor, adding more blended chiles if needed.
5. Serve hot, topped with the julienned tortillas, garnish with avocado and crema. (Serves 8)