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Interview with Paul Foster and Alfredo Villanueva

'Eat, drink, hedonism!' – Interview with Paul Foster and Alfredo Villanueva

by Ella Timney Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ella Timney talks to chefs Alfredo Villanueva and Paul Foster as they team up for a night of Anglo-Mexican gastronomy to celebrate The Year of Mexico in the UK. To find out more about each of their delicious dishes, take a look at the dinner review.

Ella is a Food Editor at Great British Chefs. She frequently puts her analytical skills to good use observing (and partaking in) drinking cultures in her favourite London ale pubs.

It has been a good year for Mexican food in the UK, and my eating of it. Following an agreement between the Mexican and UK governments, the Year of Mexico in the UK (and visa versa) brings with it a packed programme of events, ranging from arts events to gastronomic one-offs. The latter, happily, is where I come in. First, I went to a dinner cooked by bright young chef Lee Westcott as he teamed up with Pangea's Guillermo González Beristáin for a night of dazzling food at Westcott's Typing Room in Bethnal Green. After that eye-opening evening of contemporary Mexican flavour, I winged my way to Mallory Court just outside of Leamington Spa for another taste of Mexico.

This time the dinner was hosted by Great British Chefs favourite Paul Foster and the ebullient Alfredo Villanueva of Romero y Azahar in Monterrey. Dubbed as 'casual modern Mexican food', Romero y Azahar has won praise for producing plates for those who like their meals full of colour and soul. As I would find out, this description could equally be used for the chef himself. I chatted to Paul and Alfredo about cultural exchange, passionate chefs and suprisingly, the Karma Sutra...

How difficult was it to incorporate both of your styles into one menu?

AV: Not that difficult. We didn’t have difficulty finding ingredients, here in the UK we have everything needed for making a beautiful Mexican kitchen!

PF: Yeah, for me it was quite easy really and I think the menu sits well. They’re quite contrasting dishes but the philosophy behind each dish and how we feel about food is quite in harmony, because it’s not over-complicated food with loads of garnishes. It’s about purity of flavour, simplicity and focussing time and attention on that. That’s what I see in Alfredo’s food so I think it sits really well as a menu.

How have you worked out the menu? Did you adapt dishes you already cook?

AV: I've tried to use UK ingredients but with Mexican flavours. In my history of cooking, it’s all about the ingredients – this was very easy because Paul’s kitchen is very honest and I don’t feel pressure to use weird techniques or chemicals, explosions or surprises! It’s just about explaining and exposing the customers to all the flavours of my soul.

PF: Yeah I totally agree, it’s awesome to do and get together. Alfredo’s saying the same as I was – the food’s in harmony and it works well together – I didn’t want Alfredo feeling under pressure. The reason I’ve chosen these dishes is because they’re what I cook and these are ingredients that are in season at the moment. When I went to Mexico I wanted to cook my food but use what was in season there, doing the same thing really. The only thing I used over there that I didn’t use here is pineapple, because it’s amazing over there and crap over here, so we want it to show the best of Mexico but with my style of dishes.

For me it’s very hard to choose a favourite UK ingredient, you have a lot of things. The seafood, it’s amazing. And gins! You have a paradise of gins for people to enjoy . . .

Alfredo Villanueva on British produce.

Over here I’ve done the same – we use grouse shot in Wiltshire because that’s what we’ve got on the menu at the moment and it’s one of the best game birds there is, so the idea is to really celebrate it and see how it sits along Alfredo’s food. There’s a spicing in Alfredo’s food, so with such a strong meat it’ll hold up against that as well.

What were some of your favourite ingredients and food experiences of each other’s countries?

PF: I loved the really humble food, the tacos, the beef head that’s cooked really slowly with all the lime and chilli – really, really good, and some of the most enjoyable things out there with the most flavour. Remind me of the eggs with the dried meat?

AV: Machacado?

PF: Yeah great, amazing food!

AV: Very simple…

PF: The salsa is just made at the table by the waiter…

 
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I read your post about the trip and you said the food that was simpler had the best flavour…

PF: Yeah, it was!

AV: It was very important for me to show Paul the real Mexico, and not just my house or the sphere of my restaurant, the contrast is very interesting for travellers. For me it’s very hard to choose a favourite UK ingredient, you have a lot of things. The seafood, it’s amazing. And gins! You have a paradise of gins for people to enjoy . . . I discover in each travel two, three four, five different gin brands, it’s getting better and better.

Also, it’s not part of your question but I want to say that I love the cooks in the UK, they’re very proud of British cuisine. It’s not just French or Italian or Indian cuisine, now people want to be a British cook. It’s the real soul of the cook, the person, and not to trying to be French, or Indian. ‘I want to be the Paul Foster Kitchen’, it’s very different. Very similar to Mexico, in the past the most important cooks in my country sixteen years ago were French people, why? The real changes came four years ago, it’s very recent. And in London, Scotland or here, people are discovering their real UK flavours – it’s nice. It’s magic! A great opportunity for the cooks. I am old really, for the new generation, I am forty-five. I’m a grown up in my career and running behind me are lots of young cooks. It’s incredible, (to Paul) you’re twenty-eight?

PF: thirty-three!

 
 
For me going out to Mexico I learnt a lot about Mexican food and how things are used properly, how chillies are used properly to extract the flavour and not just to be a spice, the different ways they balance dishes with acidity and texture.

Paul Foster on his visit to Mexico.

When I spoke to Guillermo at the Typing Room dinner he was saying exactly the same thing, people want to be cooks now. They’re not just getting jobs, they really want to be cooks and cook Mexican food.

PF: It should help make Mexican food stand out in the world and bring it to the forefront. The understanding of Mexican food in this country isn’t actually accurate, so the more things like this the better, the more Mexican chefs coming through, the better for you guys.

All of this seems to be about cultural exchange through food, what did you both learn about your own food culture? Did it make you reflect on the food culture of Mexico or the UK?

PF: For me going out to Mexico I learnt a lot about Mexican food and how things are used properly, how chillies are used properly to extract the flavour and not just to be a spice, the different ways they balance dishes with acidity and texture. But it does make you reflect on what you do and it does make you confident and proud. You get compliments from people like Alfredo and they are really amazed by what you do. Sometimes you can take your stuff for granted because you’ve been cooking it for years, and you’ve tweaked it gradually and it’s evolved, and when you do it day-in-day-out you forget about the product sometimes, you forget how good it is. For example, there's a simple grouse sauce that I’ve developed and done my way and Alfredo’s really interested in how it’s done and how we get there. It brings you back to what you do and you get a new admiration for it, and a spark, and to see where else you can take it.

I suppose it makes you look at how you do things as well…

AV: I will be going back to Mexico from the experience with Paul, the principle of generosity – the people explain and keep patient with the language difference, people are very patient. Another surprise for me was the garden here, it’s a very big surprise for me, I want to make one in Mexico! It’s really amazing, also several techniques – the sauce, the deep sauce... I love that. I want to use those birds in Mexico!

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I think right now the customer can be over-analytical when at the table, and lose sight of why you’re at the table. You need to enjoy it, not critique and be constantly thinking and thinking and thinking. It’s good to be conscious of it, but you should enjoy the flow. It’s like reading the Karma Sutra and trying to make love…

Alfredo Villanueva on not being too over-analytical when it comes to your food.

Is there much game in Mexico?

AV: We don’t have a lot of birds, I live in the north of Mexico which is very, very dry – half the year it’s dry, it’s dramatic, but we have deer and boar.

What would you like people to take away from this evening?

PF: For me I really want them to see a little glimpse of what I experienced in Mexico, to experience Mexican food properly because a lot of people don’t in this country. Some people were inquiring about the night and asking if there were going to be fajitas and sizzling things . . . no, it’s the real deal. We’d never as a restaurant put on a theme night, we’re not that sort of place, but this is different – it’s a cultural exchange, it’s about doing quality food and true cuisine, so I would like people to catch a glimpse of what I saw basically.

AV: I would like people to feel a harmony of flavours – I think harmony of flavours but not mild flavours, very deep but not aggressive – complex. I think they’re logical flavours – you have one bite of my mackerel with beans, you don’t need to be scientific and scrutinise – it’s mackerel and cacao butter, you need to feel it, you need to just enjoy! I think right now the customer can be over-analytical when at the table, and lose sight of why you’re at the table. You need to enjoy it, not critique and be constantly thinking and thinking and thinking. It’s good to be conscious of it, but you should enjoy the flow. It’s like reading the Karma Sutra and trying to make love… ‘Step one… do this! Step two… do this!’ just enjoy the moment, my God! It’s really complicated right now and you have more specialist customers and everybody’s foodie! Everybody’s a critic! And it’s delicate but we are very lucky in these times...

PF: What a great analogy!

It’s totally true!

AV: Good music, good wine, and enjoy! Eat, drink, hedonism!

Photography credit

© Joe Baily (MDB Photography)

 
 

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'Eat, drink, hedonism!' – Interview with Paul Foster and Alfredo Villanueva

 
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