By Jocelyn Ruggiero, Published: January 2014, Yankee Magazine
The aromas of cooking infiltrate every corner of the small apartment. Aracely Rojas carries plate after plate to the kitchen table: pozole with hominy, tamales, garlic prawns, lamb barbacoa, ceviche Veracruz, Yucatan pork with plantains. Her guest, Prasad Chirnomula, is dazzled: “I love your food,” he declares. She sparkles.
It’s an unlikely scene on this December night in 2010: a Mexican home cook making dinner for an Indian chef in a small apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. But this meal is more than a dinner party; it’s a job interview, and the continuation of a deeply rooted tradition for Chef Chirnomula: celebrating the work of exceptional home cooks in his professional kitchen.
Looking back, he can see that he raised eyebrows when he opened Oaxaca Kitchen four months after that fateful meal. At the time, he was an up-and-coming cooking star. Thali, his Indian restaurants in New Haven and Fairfield County, had earned raves in the New York Times, and the Rosengarten Report had called him “the most exciting Indian chef in the United States.” Now he was exploring an entirely new continent. For him, though, the leap from Indian to Mexican food was a natural progression. In both cases, the technique is similar: Fish and meats are roasted, and sauces take center stage.
Chirnomula speaks quietly, often flashing a mischievous smile, and he exudes confidence (“I’m a very gutsy cook,” he says), but he talks with equal passion about the talents of his team. He also has an uncommon respect for home cooking. As a boy, he accompanied his mother, Laxmi, to the loud, messy, and colorful markets near their home in Hyderabad, India, where she taught him how to choose the best bitter gourd and okra and the freshest fish and goat. He sat by her side as she prepared their meals: watching, tasting, and asking questions. Then, at the age of 7, he startled his parents by turning on the stove and making dinner for them all by himself. Mother and son still cook together in her Connecticut kitchen. To him, she remains “the best cook in the world.”
So when Chirnomula began to take an interest in Mexican food, he first went to home cooks. Even before he met Aracely Rojas, he took a trip to Oaxaca, where he met a woman named Beatriz Molina-López, who prepared meals for visitors in the villa he was renting there. He gave Beatriz shopping money each morning, and she returned each evening, arms laden with meat, fish, and produce from the markets, proudly wearing the chef’s jacket she’d purchased just for this job.
Together, they sipped beer and roasted poblano peppers on hot charcoal, peeling the blackened skins. They made rice, soaked and cooked beans, grilled steaks, and rolled tortillas. Beatriz showed him different Oaxacan moles, each uniquely complex, enhanced by poblanos, chiles, almonds, sesame, pistachios, pine nuts, and chocolate—because mole, like curry, isn’t a single sauce.
Chirnomula returned to Connecticut and began developing the recipes that would fill the menu of Oaxaca Kitchen. It went without saying that he would hire a home cook to work alongside him at his new restaurant.
Aracely Rojas was born in Veracruz, some 300 miles from Oaxaca. She was considered an exceptional cook among her friends and family, but the only professional cooking experience she had was preparing prepackaged meals at a local McDonald’s. It was her son, Omar, who first heard about Chirnomula’s new restaurant, and he brought his mother to meet him. Chirnomula immediately warmed to Rojas’s smile and playful personality. But there was a test to pass: “I want to come to your house,” he told her. “I want home food.”
Days after that first meal, Rojas came to Thali “decked out” and ready to eat. Her reaction to her new boss’s food was as delighted as Chirnomula’s had been to hers. “She eats my dinner and she flips,” he says. “I was feeding her duck, I was feeding her beef, I was feeding her lamb, I was feeding her seafood, scallops, desserts …” The next day they shopped for food together and went to his kitchen, where Chirnomula shared with her the recipes for his nascent restaurant. She became his chef de cuisine and was “the base of the kitchen” during its first two years.
When Rojas moved away from Connecticut last summer, Prasad knew he would once again turn to a home cook for inspiration. Margarita Hernandez came to him through her son Julio, who works in Thali’s kitchen. A Puebla native, she, too, lacked professional cooking experience, but her “audition” meal in Chirnomula’s home blew him away. Days later, he invited her to share the stage at one of the private classes he occasionally offers at the restaurant, and soon after, she was on the line, preparing food at Oaxaca Kitchen.Within days, the two were feeling like old friends. He calls her “Mama”; she calls him “Boss.” And although her English is limited, they work together seamlessly. She prepares a dish her way; then he makes suggestions. “There’s a mutual respect between two professionals,” Chirnomula says. “And actually, I’m learning from her. There’s a lot I know—but there’s a lot I’m willing to learn. And I have the patience to see what she does first.”
Hernandez arrives many mornings at 6:00, making salsas and moles, tamales and pozole. She carries with her a weathered notebook containing her family’s “secreto” recipes—recipes she now makes at Oaxaca Kitchen. Her sauces have already been featured as specials, and Chirnomula plans to integrate them into a new menu.
All three women—Beatriz Molina-López, Aracely Rojas, and Margarita Hernandez—have shared with Chirnomula the food they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. And in his willingness to embrace home cooking, rather than wall it off from the traditionally masculine world of the professional kitchen, Chirnomula has found the one ingredient that he considers most essential in all his food: “real love.”
The following recipes are streamlined adaptations of the versions served at Oaxaca Kitchen. They’re simple, delicious, and reworked with home cooks in mind.
Oaxaca Kitchen, 228 College St., New Haven, CT. 203-859-5774; oaxacakitchen.com