Patricia Quintana has sometimes been termed the ambassador of Mexican cooking. Her trendy, upscale restaurant, Izote, named for the orchidlike flower of the yucca plant, is located on Mexico City's "Rodeo Drive," in the Polanco District. Quintana has been cooking from an early age, schooled first by her mother and grandmothers, then later training with some of Europe's finest chefs. She has spent more than 30 years researching and teaching about Mexico's culinary history and traditions and has authored more than 10 cookbooks on Mexican cooking. In addition to running her restaurant, Quintana serves as executive chef for the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, and has recently published her first novel, Polvo de Jade: Esencia del Tiempo (Jade Dust: Essence of Time), a story that chronicles a woman's coming of age while exploring Mexico's geography as well as its cultural and spiritual heritage.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Patricia Quintana: When I was a child, wine was not a part of our daily lives. We had wine to drink for our parties at home. My mother made the wine selections and at that time, the Spanish and Italian wines were the big thing for us. And I remember Liebfraumilch. Champagne was also very big for toasts and celebrations. Those are the flavors and wines I knew at home. When I was 14, I started cooking, and when I was 18, I began teaching. It was then that I started to cook with wines, to simmer and to produce sauces made with wines. But I never got really into wine until I had the restaurant, when I had to get deeply into the wines and the food flavors. When I began traveling and teaching in the States, I would go to wine tastings. I visited the Napa Valley and was invited to do chef dinners and tastings there. I also lived in France, Switzerland and Spain for a time where I had exposure to wine and its making.
WS: Can you speak about your culinary training and style?
PQ: My culinary training has been very eclectic. My grandmothers and mother leaned toward Mexican, French and Spanish cuisines. One grandmother was from Oaxaca and the other from Vera Cruz, so I learned techniques and dishes from both regions. When I began, I was self-taught. Then I went to Europe and took classes with Bocuse, Guerard, the Troisgros and went to school at LeNôtre.
WS: Can you say something about the idea behind Izote? What did you want to create there?
PQ: The food at Izote is a mixture of indigenous ingredients from Mexico. We have incorporated over 60 different Mexican ingredients. I wanted to showcase the traditions and ingredients of my country in a contemporary way—to bring together little pieces from different parts of Mexico to represent the many cuisines, flavors and the freshness that make up Mexican cooking.
WS: Your wine list is small, but what regions or wines in particular have you found that pair well with your food?
PQ: I think the new Mexican wines work very well with our food. But we also offer wines from the Napa Valley and wines from Argentina, Spain, Australia and some Italian wines. And of course Prosecco works well with our whole menu.
WS: You mentioned that you got some surprises when tasting wines to pair with your food. Can you tell us about them?
PQ: We paired a Cabernet from Casa Madero with a rich chocolate tart with nuts. And a Chardonnay with an almond cake surrounded by a tangerine coulis. I find Shiraz works well with many of the moles that we have, with any kind of black mole. One of my favorite pairings was a foie gras with marinated onions, brown sugar, garlic, allspice and black pepper with Château Camou's Gran Divino, a late-harvest Chenin Blanc.
WS: Can you tell us about some of the suggested pairings from your menu?
PQ: With mole de tamarindo, we've suggested a Santo Tomas Chardonnay/Sauvignon or an L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo Reserva Privada. With our pozole de pollo, a Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard blend or a Cono Sur Gewürztraminer. Pescado al cilantro? A Spanish Verdejo or Pulenta Estate Sauvignon Blanc.
WS: Can you give any tips to people who want to pair wines with the flavors of Mexico?
PQ: In general, we've gone with red wines for moles, salsas and meats, anything with chiles and butter sauces. The whites we've paired with more delicate, citrusy flavors and ingredients. When I want to make a successful wine pairing, I carry the flavors of the foods in my mind and just imagine what kinds of wines I think would go well with them.