In pursuit of the holy grail of Yucatecan Mexican cuisine we selected the renowned “Los Dos” cooking school, created by the famous chef David Sterling, which is located in Merida, the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula… we were not disappointed.
The Los Dos Cooking School
David Sterling founded the “Slow Food Chapter of Yucatan” in 2009 and in 2014 he authored “Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition” which won the James Beard Foundation Best Cookbook of the Year Award in 2015… a huge accolade, indeed.
His school was the first to specialize in the cuisine of Yucatan and has been featured in several magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler, Gourmet, and Travel & Leisure, as well as television exposure with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Rick Bayless, and Martha Stewart.
We asked ourselves, “What are we getting involved in? Is it over our skill set? This is some serious stuff… can we hold a spatula to it?”
The Experience Begins
After a light breakfast we hailed a taxi to Calle 68 No. 517, Colonia Centro and arrived in front of a non-descript doorway on a street of colorful but similar facades.
We hesitantly knocked on the door which opened onto an oasis garden courtyard within the walls of a magnificent colonial mansion dating back to the mid 1800s.
There, we were welcomed by our gracious host, David, and our cooking journey begins with a smile and a handshake.
Welcome to Los Dos Cooking School
We were escorted into the home and introduced to 8 other students who were mingling around a breakfast buffet of homemade pastries and fruit.
David began the session with a very knowledgeable as well as entertaining history of Yucatan and Yucatecan cooking.
The Yucatan Peninsula is located on the cusp of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and as such the land mass became a magnet for early traders seeking access to Mexico.
The cultural tapestry of the Yucatan is based on the foundation of the ancient Maya tribes and a blending of the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Lebanese and Caribbean merchants that visited over the centuries.
We learned about the unique cooking techniques, a wide range of spices, marinades, adobos, pastes diluted with sour orange juice, sauces from nuts, and of course, the infamous Habanero chile, one of the hottest in the world.
The knowledge transfer was reinforced by actually smelling and tasting some of these new ingredients as they were passed around the room in assorted containers during David’s discussion.
Class Field Trip to the Marketplace
The first stop was a sampling of traditional street food.
We enjoyed “tacos al pastor” which is slices of meat (usually pork) from a spit-grilled rack known as a “shawarma” (introduced by Lebanese immigrants) onto a corn tortilla topped with a slice of pineapple.
Getting Provisions for the Class
Chef David led us on a market tour in search of today’s ingredients and what a tour it was!
The blocks-long Central Mercado is in the heart of the city, and filled with everything from fresh produce, spices, raw and cooked meats, bread, pastries, and even household items, clothing and toys… a rural form of Costco.
A person could spend hours exploring and relishing the colors, the sounds, the aromas, and vibrancy. But we had a mission…
Tomatoes for the main dish and it’s sauce, sour oranges (Naranja Agria) for various marinades, banana leaves (we will explain that one later), and freshly made corn tortillas (sold by weight)… a few pounds please.
We also needed to purchase a few pounds of habanero chile peppers. We learned that the Yucatan is one of the largest producers and exporters of Habanero Chile peppers and that ingredient is used in great quantities in Yucatecan dishes.
Something like garlic and italian food… never too much garlic!
Back to the Casa and the Actual Hands-On Cooking Class
We learned to make tortillas from a ball of masa with the assistance of a great instructor. The trickiest thing about making them is the technique of getting the raw masa onto the hot griddle without burning your fingers… it was a quickly learned skill!
We converted our tortillas into a “Panucho” which is a slightly fried bean-filled tortilla that is used for the base of an appetizer know as “Panuchos Y Salbutes”. That tasty treat consists of our bean-filled tortillas with lettuce, tomato, shredded chicken and traditional pickled onions… a picture really is worth a thousand words so check out our web page.
More Hands-On Fun and No Gloves Allowed
This step was a bit messy as we had to prepare a batch of marinated chicken breasts for the main course which is “Pollo Pibil”. This is where the tomatoes, achiote paste and naranja agria marinade come together in a reddish orange somewhat thick paste dressing.
Spread out a section of a banana leaf and add the marinaded chicken, top with onions, slices of green peppers and tomatoes and wrap up the packet into a tidy bundle and tie it up with a strand of a banana leaf.
Place this packet into “Pibil” oven on top of the stove and roast the chicken for a few hours… yes it was really worth it.
The Grand Finale… ¡Buen Provecho!
We created a delicious Yucatecan meal consisting of Crema De Cilantro (Leek and Potato Soup with cilantro), Pit-Smoked Pollo Pibil wrapped in banana leaves, and finished off with Flan De Chocolate Con Kahlua (David made this in advance).
Our class prepared an amazing, totally hands-on meal from “scratch” under the ever present and encouraging David.
The outcome was a testament to his teaching skills and talents.
We walked back to our hotel with the knowledge that we done good… hold that spatula high.
We recently received a Facebook message from the Los Dos website:
It is with tremendous sadness that we report that the founder of Los Dos Cooking School, David Sterling, passed away in November. His Yucatecan cuisine cooking classes were adored by everyone who participated in them over the years, not only for the wealth of culinary knowledge he shared, but for the hands-on cooking experience accompanied by David’s dry wit and original personality.