There are very few things in life that are better than a perfectly prepared tortilla. Seriously, name one thing. Okay fine, there are a few things, but a corn tortilla made from freshly ground dough can be something so mind-blowing, so world-altering and so damn delicious that you’ll add it to the top of your list of indulgences. And if you are ever lucky enough to experience such an epically prepared tortilla, then you probably have Guadalupe Peláez to thank.
At Cosme, a sleek NYC hotspot, patrons enjoy contemporary Mexican-inspired cuisine in New York City’s flatiron district, where chefs whip up dishes influenced by traditional Mexican flavors, ingredients and culinary techniques. While Chefs Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes might be the talent behind the inventive menu and are certainly gifted in their own rite, the real treasure behind the scenes is Guadalupe Peláez, the tortilla queen. Her freshly made corn tortillas are so good they are not only mentioned, but celebrated by guests and critics alike. Try one and you’ll know why.
As it turns out, a really, truly, perfect corn tortilla is an art form. And a delicious tortilla is so much more than just a wrap, or a dry, flat, round piece of tasteless dough used to scoop up sauce. In truth, a perfectly prepared corn tortilla takes time, takes skill, take tradition and technique that only a Mexican grandmother could teach you, and it takes a little love too. And if that tortilla is done just right, you don’t actually need any sauce or topping or filling at all — it’s so good it can (and arguably should) be devoured all on its own.
Guadalupe Peláez is the master behind the delicious homemade tortillas at Cosme. And according to a NY Times restaurant review, “there are no tortillas remotely like this in New York.” Perhaps in Mexico you might find tortillas of this caliber, but not in most Mexican restaurants in the states. The tortillas don’t smell or taste bland, but rather they smell like fresh baked bread right out of the oven mixed with floral accents and earthy aromas. In short, they smell like heaven.
Clearly, that kind of delectable perfection doesn’t come easily and it doesn’t come from mass production. These tortillas are the product of a several-step process using authentic ingredients from Mexico along with age-old methods of preparing the corn kernels to get the best masa.
First, the corn kernels are nixtamalized, which means they are cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution for days until they are just right. Then the corn is removed from the solution and loaded into a stone-ground mill along with just the right amount of water to create dough that isn’t too dry or too moist. Lastly, the dough is kneaded and rolled until it is formed into perfect balls of masa. All of that needs to happen before Peláez even arrives into the kitchen. Once she arrives, the real fun starts.
Making perfectly pressed fresh corn tortillas requires both the perfect ingredients (and perfect masa) and a skilled tortilla maker who can churn them out efficiently and effectively, creating tortillas that are the perfect thinness (unlike some tortillas these are known for their thinness). If a tortilla is too wet it will stick to the tortilla press. If it is too dry it won’t be workable. If it’s too thick it will be burnt on the outside and raw/mushy on the inside. If it’s left to cook on the grill too long it will burn, or become dry and inedible. You get the point — making perfect corn tortillas is an art form mastered by few, but enjoyed by many.
And to make her level of expertise even more impressive, Peláez, a strong Oaxacan woman who grew up in a small town in Mexico, can churn out 60 tortillas at a time, flipping each one by hand, and can make upwards of 3,000 a night if the demand is there.
Peláez, like so many Mexican women, learned the art of making tortillas from her ancestors. Historically Mexican women and children learned the process of nixtamalizing and grinding corn into masa from their mothers/grandmothers/aunts. According to Rafael Mier, founder of the Fundación Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, the ability to master tortilla making is “an ancestral knowledge that comes from grandmothers, mothers, daughters.” Today, in cities such as New York City, it’s Mexican immigrant women making the masa and bringing their cultural knowledge and culinary gift to kitchens throughout the country. It’s a chance to share the traditions taught by their relatives and a chance to reconnect with a culture and a country they miss.
Guadalupe Peláez has gained a lot of attention for her tortilla masterpieces, and her work has helped propel Cosme to best restaurant lists including a recent ranking as No.25 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. According to chef-partner Daniela Soto-Innes, Peláez along with the other “tortilla ladies,” as she calls them, are a big part of the restaurant’s success. “They’re just willing to work so hard. Put the tortilla ladies next to a young person who just came out of culinary school and that person won’t have a chance – they’ll eat them alive. They just have this maña – it’s like folk wisdom, real skill.”