How A Dallas Chef Cooked Thai Cuisine At Foro Mundial Gastronomia Mexicana

Held October 9-12 in Acapulco, the Global Forum of Mexican Cuisine aimed to celebrate and examine Mexico's food systems and culinary culture through conferences and workshops covering topics like food production, techniques, nutritional sciences and food sustainability. Participating chefs and presenters included Enrique Olveraa and Alex Stupak, as well as a number of Mexican legends. Dallas chef Braden Wages (Malai Kitchen) was also on hand to lead a demonstration. His mission — explain the similarities between Thai and Mexican cuisines. A stretch for some, but not for Wages, who wrote in to tell us about it.

There I was, in Acapulco, Mexico at the Foro Mundial Gastronomía Mexicana conference — dripping in sweat and about to speak about the influences of Thai cuisine to a crowd of 500 food professionals and culinary students. How the hell did a non-Asian, Thai chef from Dallas, Texas ended up here?

Flashback to July 2013. My wife, Yasmin, and I were enjoying huevos rancheros with friends on a balcony overlooking the Acapulco Bay. Knowing we owned a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant in Dallas, one of them insisted that we visit his friend, Lalo Palazuelos, the chef and owner of the legendary Thai-Mex restaurant, Zibu.

Lalo was an incredible host. He took us all around Acapulco — surfing, waterskiing, and, of course, all the best places for local fare. We even squeezed in a couple hours in his kitchen cooking and exchanging recipes.

The strangest thing, though, was when we asked him where to get good pozole. He unflinchingly said "Thursdays at Señor Frogs — it's the best." Yasmin and I just looked at each other in disbelief. There's no way the mecca of Spring Break bars served the best pozole.

But we joined him for lunch and ended up crashing a power meeting between Lalo's mother (the great Susanna Palazuelos known for her lavish catering gigs and cookbooks), Gloria Lopez Morales and Fernanda Palazuelos (the organizers of Foro Mundial Gastronomía Mexicana). And between helpings of green pozole and margaritas we agreed to help with the forum in any way we could.

We eventually made our way out of the crowded bar. I turned to Yasmin and said, "What the fuck just happened in there?"

We chalked it up to a misunderstanding and assumed we'd never hear about it again.

But soon after our return to Dallas, an email arrived from Fernanda with the official invitation and event program. There it was. Our names listed on the same page as chefs Enrique Olvera and Margarita Carrillo Arronte. No big deal. It turns out a big portion of the forum would be dedicated to the Asian influence on Mexican gastronomy — which is where we come in.

Over the next few weeks, we researched and wrote and Power Point-ed, all with the hope we wouldn't completely embarrass ourselves in front of 500 of our international peers. Somehow, we managed to pull together a pretty thorough outline. It made sense. It flowed and covered all the major topics and drew the two cuisines together. Plus, we included a unique cooking demo comparing panang curry and mole.

Packing was intense. We needed to bring a fully stocked Thai pantry including herbs, spices and our granite mortar and pestle. We had no idea what we'd be able to find in Mexico.

But when we got to the airport, two major facts hit me. First, there's no way in hell we're getting to Acapulco with all our ingredients. TSA would definitely confiscate one, if not all of them. And how much will Hurricane Manuel — which had just struck the state of Guerrero weeks ago — affect our trip?

On the other side of the border, we found our suitcase wrapped in plastic trash bags with a note saying it had been searched by TSA. "We're screwed," I thought. But, after a quick rummage, we found all our ingredients intact.

We arrived at the Forum the next morning to see a long line of people waiting outside a nearby building. Hurricane victims waiting to get help from the government. Yasmin and I looked at each other, hearts sinking. After checking in we familiarized ourselves with the space — we needed to see what we were up against. The stage was intimidating. But after going over some logistical details with Lalo we felt (slightly) more at ease.

That night we had a relaxing moment catching up with friends over paella. But as we were finishing up, Lalo called saying he's sending a car to pick us up. We arrived at a breathtaking al fresco spot overlooking a small cove in the bay and found ourselves mingling with other Forum attendees. Paco Mendez, Ferran Adria's partner and molecular gastronomy genius, and traditional cooks from different states in Mexico were sharing drinks and ideas. We powered through our second dinner of the night: a 5-course tribute to Guerrero cuisine hosted by Lalo and his mother.

The next morning — with a food hangover in full force and butterflies in our stomachs — we headed to the Forum to anticipate our presentation and snagged seats just in time to hear Lalo introduce the topic of that day: the Asian influence on Mexican gastronomy. He was suave, comfortable, confident and had an army of cooks helping him with his complex cooking demonstration. Feeling severely unprepared, we immediately began looking for escape routes, but realized there was no way out and began to prep for our impending failure.

At 5 p.m., we entered the ring. Sweat was pouring down my face. The lights were so bright, I couldn't see the audience. I almost passed out.

And then, 45 minutes later, it was over. I made it through without any major hiccups — unless you count excessive sweating. Students lined up to taste the panang curry and ask questions. Yasmin got whisked away to a mob of students looking for a photo op. People asked us to sign their programs. We must've done something right!

The Forum wrapped up with a party at Zibu. Ever-flowing drinks and another elaborate dinner ensued, the highlight of which was a beef tenderloin with an adobo-ant sauce (Chicanas). Yes, I ate flying red ants. We ended the night sipping on mezcal and discussing next year's forum. I stepped out of a conversation with Lalo and Paco to pause and take in the moment. Here I was in the midst of culinary greats. The passion they have for their food and culture is truly inspiring. We returned to Dallas ready to dive into our cuisine and culture with the same intensity these chefs have for theirs. And, one day, we hope to inspire others in the same way they inspired us.

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