Sitting outside of his renowned Yucatan-style Mexican restaurant, Chichen Itza (named after the famous Mayan ruins), Gilberto Cetina Jr. recalls hearing about his abuelita’s fonda in the small town of Tizimin, Yucatan.
“If you were from out of town or a traveller and you were going to spend the night, that was the only place where you would eat. Whatever she would make, that’s what everybody from out of town would eat,” he says.
Cetina Jr. remembers his abuelita’s iconic dish: puchero de tres carnes. A complex stew containing three kinds of meat, seven types of vegetables, saffron, rice, and garbanzo beans, which is then served with a vermicelli noodle sofrito. The dish has Spanish origins but evolved in Yucatan to include regional ingredients like plantain, yam, and lima—a type of citrus fruit. “That is a dish that very much reminds me of her. I think it’s the one dish that made me start enjoying vegetables as a kid because it’s such a great mix of flavors,” says Cetina Jr.
His father, Gilberto Cetina Sr., began helping at his mother’s little restaurant as a kid and later, after a stint living in the larger city of Merida,Yucatan, he moved to the United States, where like many new immigrants, he worked in the restaurant industry. Eventually, he opened up Chichen Itza inside of Mercado La Paloma in Los Angeles. His son, Cetina Jr., worked his way from the front of the house to the kitchen after realizing he enjoyed cooking.
He knew it was a done deal when his father gave him a chef’s knife for Christmas. His father has since retired, but Cetina Jr. continues his grandmother’s legacy of preserving the traditional food of Yucatan. “Cooking as a career is completely by accident. I kind of stumbled upon this because of my dad and my dad is a cook because of my grandmother so indirectly it all started with that fondita she had in the city of Tizimin, so it all comes from there,” he says.
Yucatan cuisine is unique due to its isolated geography in a peninsula between the Caribbean Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Caribbean, Spanish, and Lebanese influences can be found in its dishes. As a opposed to Aztec or Olmec influences in other parts of Mexico, Yucatecan cuisine is heavily influenced by pre-hispanic Mayan cuisine. Some staple ingredients include sour oranges, a red seed powder called achiote, and habanero chile peppers.
The most quintessential Yucatecan dish is cochinita pibil: a savory pork stew cooked in banana leaves. “It’s the most representative of our region. It’s achiote, sour orange, banana leaf applied to a protein then cooked in an underground oven,” Cetina Jr. explains.
The pibil was a cooking technique developed by Mayan hunters. In order to preserve food during hunting treks, they would build fire pits along the way, then bury their kill and cover it in banana leaves and dirt. They would make their way back from their expedition and unearth their pibils. Once back at the village there was food ready to go. “They preserved it, they prevented other animals from eating and taking it, and they cooked it. It was technique born out of necessity,” Cetina Jr. says.
Cooking is a way for Cetina Jr. to honor and preserve this rich culture, to get in touch with his roots and to remember those times in his abuelita’s little kitchen eating delicious puchero. “Cooking for me is one of the things that makes me appreciate family, my grandmother. It makes me remember, makes me want to go back to that time, and it also makes me want to continue exploring traditional foods,” he says.
This series explores how chefs cooking regional Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles are influenced by their abuelitas, testifying to the importance of ancestors in preserving Mexican heritage at home and abroad.
Samanta Helou’s work can be found at samantahelou.com.