La Calenda: Renowned Chef Thomas Keller Takes on the Flavors of Oaxaca

Thomas Keller, the renowned chef behind the Michelin star-earning, fine dining Napa Valley establishment The French Laundry launched his latest venture on the West Coast right before the new year: La Calenda, helmed by the young Oaxacan-born Chef de Cuisine Kaelin Ulrich Trilling.

Restaurateur Keller had no experience with Mexican cuisine, but wanted to round out what he felt the Yountville, California foodie scene was missing. Considering how influential Mexican culture and people have been on the region — and specifically in Napa Valley, where Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have played a crucial role in shaping the wine industry — La Calenda’s arrival to the town is perhaps long overdue.

It’s Oaxacan focus is not surprising at all, with the American public’s palate becoming more curious about the flavors of mole and mezcal. Chef Trilling traveled across Mexico, spending time in and out of Oaxaca, before developing the casual menu at La Calenda. The restaurant offers Oaxacan mainstays like mole and totopos, but will also draw inspiration from the cuisine of the Baja, Nayarit, and Veracruz regions of the country. The chefs proudly uses Mexican-grown corn to make hundreds of nixtamalized tortillas on the premises each day, using traditional tortilla presses. Other produce will be sourced from local farms, while many of the service items — wooden plates, pottery, and glassware — are made by Mexican artisans. “We have to respect the traditions,” said Chef Trilling to the New York Times.

Is This Culinary Cultural Appropriation?

Speaking of tradition, some people have taken issue with the fact that the opening of La Calenda marks yet another white male restaurateur opening up yet another restaurant featuring food from cultures that the U.S. marginalizes. As Tim Carman explained in the Washington Post a couple years ago, “[The problem is] that a white person profits from the cuisine or, more troublesome for many, becomes the leading authority on it, rather than a chef born into the culture.” Carman cites the American-born Rick Bayless as an example of someone who cuts a problematic figure, a master of Mexican cuisine who has been elevated above and beyond any Mexican talent in his culinary realm. (I confess to watching his show on PBS.)

Like many industries, the “restaurant world” is undoubtedly dominated by white males and steeped in the patriarchy. Plus, the people who work at the bottom of the pyramid — many of whom are immigrants — are worked to the bone for very little pay and may have to contend with racist employers as well as racist customers. As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry, I take personal issue with those aspects of it. I also think it’s worth having a dialogue any time the gatekeepers of an industry are “discovering” trends that are derived from foreign lands. I say this as someone of mixed ethnicity, who lived outside of the United States for many years.

But I can’t say that I trouble myself with the issue of culinary, cultural appropriation, especially when a restauranteur like Keller has taken the care to hire a Oaxacan chef with Oaxacan culinary experience and chosen to create a space for Mexican artisans. Food, to me, is like a passport to a world where the chefs and restaurateurs play the role of tour guides; if their cooking takes me to amazing places I’ve never been, I’m more than happy to give them my money.

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