Zarela Martinez, the Mexican who redefined the American menu

Zarela Martinez is a Mexican chef, considered a key part of Mexican cuisine in the United States.

By Valeria Bigurra Saturday, July 2, 2016 comments

Zarela Martinez is a Mexican chef, considered a key part of Mexican cuisine in the United States.


Martinez grew up in the state of Chihuahua, on a ranch where cooking was the thing that made days less monotonous, and in 1970 she emigrated to the United States, a country where Mexican food was practically nonexistent in restaurants. An now she is considered a key figure in promoting Mexican food in the North American country, specifically in New York, where for more than two decades she had a restaurant, published books and even made a television series.


ZarelaOriginal Image: “Zarela Martinez, Mexican Chef” by Internationality, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.


In 2004, a publication of the US State Department named her as one of the seven figures that redefined the cuisine of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, and her 77 notebooks of notes about her research on Mexican food, were acquired in 2013 by the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.


Also her book “Food from My Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined” was considered by the James Beard Foundation as one of the best culinary books in the world in 1993.


In an interview with Notimex, Zarela Martinez recalls that she participated in the first regional dinner of American food, which is prepared by a group of 200 French chefs, in March 1981. She remembers that they prepared enchiladas and back then people still thought that food was tex-mex.


That dinner was one of the key points in her career, as the critic of “The New York Times” Craig Claiborne, described her as a “master Mexican chef” who cooked “memorable dishes”.


Chile_RellenosOriginal Image: “A traditional chile relleno stuffed with jack cheese and breaded with corn masa flour” by Skyler Lewis, used under CC BY 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.


Later in 1983, Zarela was responsible for the seventh meeting of world leaders of the G-7, headed by President Ronald Reagan, and was attended by leaders like Queen Elizabeth, to whom she served a menu which consisted of tlalpeño broth, chiles rellenos, fish tamales and rajas poblanas.


However the real success of Martinez, was her own restaurant, “Zarela”, which opened in 1987 and operated for 23 years until 2011, since when she opened the restaurant in New York nothing was known about the traditional food in Mexico.


Some of the personalities that attended her restaurant were Paul Newman, Mick Jagger, David Byrne, Bruce Springsteen and Hellen Mirren.


Currently Zarela Martinez has withdrawal of the kitchen business, yet she still enjoy it on a more personal way, and she is also writing another book that will share techniques to enhance the flavor of Mexican dishes.