Chefs

Depth of Flavor

Why chef and TV personality Pati Jinich left a career in foreign policy to become an ambassador of Mexican cuisine

Pati Jinich, at the dining table in her kitchen.

“I WAS A terrible cook; I had no idea how to cook,” says chef, cookbook author, and TV personality Pati Jinich, smiling, as we chat over Zoom. She’s sitting in front of tall built-in bookcases in her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, talking quickly and laughing freely as she tells me about the period, decades ago, when nostalgia for the foods of her youth sent her to Mexican markets, hungry for information. “I just started talking to people who I saw were buying Mexican ingredients,” she continues, “and I would ask them, ‘What are you going to do with that? How are you going to use that?’”

Jinich is possessed of a contagiously bright spirit, but her path wasn’t always lighthearted. At the time, Jinich was living in Dallas, recently married but often lonely. Her husband traveled for weeks at a time for work, and Jinich, who was writing her thesis on Mexican federalism and couldn’t speak much English yet, knew no one in the city. “I was locked in our little duplex doing my research,” she says. That’s when she began to dream of Mexican food. The dreams led to the markets, which led to making friends and beginning to compare and experiment with recipes. Now, Jinich is the host of the long-running, Emmy-nominated, James Beard Award–winning public television show “Pati’s Mexican Table,” and has just published her third cookbook, “Treasures of the Mexican Table.”

An interest in food was always second nature. Jinich, the youngest of four girls, grew up in Mexico City. Eating well and feeding others were at the center of family life. “Oh, we grew up around so much food,” she says. “And we were monster eaters.” Jinich’s father owned fondas and restaurants. She calls her mother a “tremendous cook,” though she worked as an art dealer. And her sisters cultivated culinary talents that sound downright intimidating. Jinich’s eldest sister owns niddo, a restaurant in Mexico City. The second eldest is a “phenomenal” pastry chef, who has owned restaurants in Mexico City and Miami. The third sister, Jinich says, is a “vegan and a fashionista,” working on “saving the planet.” Jinich was “the tomboy,” she continues. “I was always labeled as the sister of this beautiful one and that beautiful one and that beautiful one. So what I had that I could really call my own was my brains. So I became the intellectual one of my family.”

Jinich specifically craved a Mexican-cuisine curriculum, one that encompassed not only the flavors but the history of its ingredients — so she created one herself.

But looking at the country through the lens of policy was “zero fun,” Jinich recalls. “I was totally bored.” She felt like she was writing things that had been written before and that “weren’t going to make any change in anyone’s lives.” She decided to go to culinary school, an experience she absolutely loved, though the focus was entirely on European cooking. There was no unit on “the chiles of Latin America, or the beans, or the roasting techniques, or the smoking techniques.” Jinich specifically craved a Mexican-cuisine curriculum, one that encompassed not only the flavors but the history of its ingredients — so she created one herself.

Jinich is particularly entertaining as she recalls the daunting days of researching and writing her first culinary course, which she taught at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. (Yes, she could teach the class, she was told, but first she had to fundraise to upgrade the kitchen. So she did, buying ovens and refrigerators.) Ever the researcher, Jinich went deep, reading about “the foods of pre-Hispanic Mexico, colonial Mexico, the very baroque intermarried foods of Spain, and dozens of native tribes.” It’s a history that’s rarely taught even in Mexican schools, where Jinich says students often learn of a “pure,” fantasy Mexicanness: “They forget to include the 300,000 African slaves, which makes Afro Mexico. And Asian Mexico, all the Chinese people that were expelled from the U.S. and who stayed in Mexico, who Mexico then treated horribly along the border. And the Filipino immigrants and the Japanese immigrants and the Lebanese and the Syrians. And then I found the roots of my Mexican Jewish identity, the Jews of Mexico.” Ironically, it was only once she was living in the U.S. that she learned about this history.


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Jinich taught her first class (“it was my dentist, my neighbors, my kids’ friends, my husband’s friends’ wives”) and continued to hustle. Her first television appearance was a demo on a local D.C. news station for Cinco de Mayo. According to Jinich, it was, at the time, “your one shot” for the year for Mexican cultural coverage. She practiced for the spot diligently, and had to bring her own pots and pans and ingredients. There was no sink; Jinich used the bathroom to rinse items or wash her hands. Still, the experience was thrilling in her recollection. “The host was so warm and lovely. I did the steps of how to make chicken tinga and I said, ‘Please come to the Mexican Cultural Institute, this class …’ It was a three-minute demo and then it was done. And then they were like, ‘Okay, give us your microphone back.’ And I was like, ‘No.’” We both laugh.

Attendance at Jinich’s classes grew, and the students’ appetite for more information and more recipes prompted her to start a blog. That eventually led to the PBS show, for which she has traveled all over her native Mexico, learning and sharing a vast array of food stories, backstories, and culinary practices. Like the show, Jinich’s cookbooks are a demonstration of her omnivorous appetite and knack for digging into history and making connections. In addition to its robust assortment of recipes, “Treasures of the Mexican Table” is filled with notes — on what distinguishes sweet limes or Mexican chorizo, for example, or who brought lard to Mexico (the Spanish, in the sixteenth century).

This dogged pursuit of history — of context — is what has long distinguished Jinich in the culinary world. Her energy is sunny, but her work has real gravity, informed by a deep respect for tradition and a boundless curiosity about the ways humans find sustenance, joy, and meaning through food. It’s work she feels is especially important considering that Mexico has not always celebrated its own diversity. She now sees the legacy of her careful research into foodways in the tastes of her three sons, who were born and raised in the U.S. but also fully immersed in their Mexican heritage. “It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized I’m deeply rooted in both places,” Jinich says, “and that doesn’t make me less of one thing. It makes me doubly blessed in a way.” For her children this is even more the case, “because they have the English, they have the Spanish, they have the two cultures, the two chunks of history.”

Since leaving her budding career in political science, Jinich has never looked back. But she also questions how much she really left behind. If she has learned anything, it’s that food is inextricable from all that influences it, from religion to climate to geopolitics. “I switched careers thinking that I really didn’t want to have anything to do with political analysis at all anymore. I just wanted to dive into food and, of course,” she smiles again, “this is what happened.”

Pati Jinich’s Favorite Places to Eat in Mexico City

  • El Cardenal

    My favorite of ALL time. A restaurant that has been proudly standing since 1969 and serves classic Mexican food in a beautiful way, always updating but remaining true to tradition. The service is outstanding and they make many of their products in-house, like bread but also milk and cheese (they have farms!). It is a family-style restaurant, and is usually my first stop after landing in Mexico City.

  • Contramar

    A place that I MUST go to for a comida [meal] on a weekend. They specialize in fish and seafood, and every single thing is outstanding. Gabriela Cámara is the chef and she has made such an incredible mark on Mexican cuisine.

  • Chiandoni

    I go for ice cream to this very, very old-fashioned ice cream place. It has existed for over a century. My grandfather used to take me when I was a little girl. An Italian immigrant started it, and uses Italian gelato techniques with Mexican ingredients. Their hot fudge sundae is so good I eat two each time I go, which is every time I set foot in my hometown.

  • niddo

    My go-to place for breakfast is my sister Karen’s niddo restaurant. Yes, it is my sister’s, but I am very objective (haha). It has gotten a ridiculous amount of good press. It is trendy, homey, hip, chic, and casual. It specializes in comida de apapacho, which translates as food that nurtures and comforts you. So it is comforting food with a Mexican soul but international influences. The best chilaquiles, shakshuka, molletes, and more.

  • Rosetta

    For drinks and snacks, I love the bar on top of Rosetta. Chef Elena Reygadas is one of Mexico’s most outstanding chefs and her food is divine. Inventive yet deeply respectful of Mexico’s soul.

  • El Cardenal

    My favorite of ALL time. A restaurant that has been proudly standing since 1969 and serves classic Mexican food in a beautiful way, always updating but remaining true to tradition. The service is outstanding and they make many of their products in-house, like bread but also milk and cheese (they have farms!). It is a family-style restaurant, and is usually my first stop after landing in Mexico City.

  • niddo

    My go-to place for breakfast is my sister Karen’s niddo restaurant. Yes, it is my sister’s, but I am very objective (haha). It has gotten a ridiculous amount of good press. It is trendy, homey, hip, chic, and casual. It specializes in comida de apapacho, which translates as food that nurtures and comforts you. So it is comforting food with a Mexican soul but international influences. The best chilaquiles, shakshuka, molletes, and more.

  • Contramar

    A place that I MUST go to for a comida [meal] on a weekend. They specialize in fish and seafood, and every single thing is outstanding. Gabriela Cámara is the chef and she has made such an incredible mark on Mexican cuisine.

  • Rosetta

    For drinks and snacks, I love the bar on top of Rosetta. Chef Elena Reygadas is one of Mexico’s most outstanding chefs and her food is divine. Inventive yet deeply respectful of Mexico’s soul.

  • Chiandoni

    I go for ice cream to this very, very old-fashioned ice cream place. It has existed for over a century. My grandfather used to take me when I was a little girl. An Italian immigrant started it, and uses Italian gelato techniques with Mexican ingredients. Their hot fudge sundae is so good I eat two each time I go, which is every time I set foot in my hometown.

Our Contributors

Nina Renata Aron Writer

Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.

Caroline Tompkins Photographer

Caroline Tompkins is a freelance photographer based in Queens, New York, working for editorial and commercial clients. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Tompkins received a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she now teaches a class on photography theory. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, with her work featured on the BBC, Vogue, and Apple, among many others. She has served as a photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and Vice Magazine, and is currently a senior photo editor at Vice.com.

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