Skip navigation

Latin American cuisines shaping U.S. menus

Chefs discuss influence in America at 'Latin Flavors' conference

More U.S. restaurants have embraced Latin cuisines, ingredients and service styles over the past several decades, and changing demographics indicate that interest will only grow.

At the Culinary Institute of America’s recent “Latin Flavors, American Kitchens” seminar at its new campus in San Antonio, panelists probed the depth and breadth of Latin American influence on U.S. restaurant food.

VIDEO: Latin Flavors: Fire pit cooking at the Culinary Institute of America

“There’s a changing demographic in our country,” said Rick Bayless, chef-owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco in Chicago. “There are a whole lot more Hispanics in the United States. Those of us who are not Hispanic rub shoulders with all of those cuisines pretty regularly. And as opposed to other countries that are always trying to marginalize any of the immigrant cultures, in our country that rubbing shoulders is has sort of led to a blossoming of the American palate and creating a market for the ingredients for those cuisines.”

Bayless recalled that in 1978, when he was finishing his studies in Latin American culture, he was invited to teach classes about regional Mexican cooking in Austin, Texas. However, when he sent his shopping list, the organizers could not find many of the ingredients. “I needed them to bring alive the original foods of Mexico,” Bayless said.

Now, however, many of those chiles and spices are readily available and the CIA is devoting much of its instruction and research at the San Antonio campus to Latin American cuisines.

MORE: CIA debuts third campus in San Antonio

“It’s an astonishing distance we have traveled as a culture,” Bayless said. “As a culture, we have been able to take those steps from a general understanding of the cuisines and drill down a little bit. That is leading to a respect for the cultures that perhaps in the past had been ignored or inexplicably despised.”

The interest in Latin American cuisines has far reaching effects, he added.

“What we find in this coming respect for the cuisines of Latin America is greater diversity,” he said. “And in diversity, we know, lies the bedrock of sustainability. On the flip side of that, is that it embraces pleasure. It brings us an enhanced quality of life, which I think is the bedrock of great culture.”

The Latin American influence also has affected service styles, said Robert Del Grande, chef-owner of RDG Bar/Café Annie in Houston. The casual movement in fine dining is  “one of the larger trends over the last 30 years, and one that bodes well for opening a lot of doors to Latin American cooking,” he said.

“When I started back in 1980, gentlemen wore coats and ties to restaurants,” Del Grande explained. “And then slowly men stopped wearing ties, and then they stopped wearing jackets. And then they just wore nice shirts. And now they don’t even tuck their shirts in.”

He joked, “It used to be ‘jackets optional.’ Now it’s ‘socks optional.’” However, he added that food mirrors what you wear and “dining is much more convivial, much more social.”

Norman Van Aken, owner of Norman’s in Orlando and Norman’s 180 in Coral Gables, Fla., added, “We live in a hyphenated society in so many, many ways. There is a collapsing in the fine dining and becoming all about casual.”

Bayless said incorporating Latin flavors do pose some obstacles. “We are facing the challenge of managing our culinary ADD [attention deficit disorder], because we had a tendency just to bounce around, taking a little bit from here or look at that for a minute and go to something else.

“We have to slow that down a little bit so we can understand these cuisines and their ingredients and techniques a little more deeply,” Bayless said. “We need to learn to trust the wisdom of traditional cultures.”

The “Business of Latin Flavors” panel was moderated by Fernando Salazar of Wyndham Worldwide and also include: Iliana de la Vega of the CIA-San Antonio and El Naranjo, in Austin, Texas; Mark Miller, a chef and author in Sante Fe, N.M.; Arturo Rubio of Huaca Pucllana in Lima, Peru; Roberto Santibañez of Fonda in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.