An Interview with Sue Baldassano, Leader of Culinary Tours: Oaxaca, Mexico
Sue Baldassano, Senior Director of the Chef's Training Program at NGI, is a long-time culinary professional and food tour veteran. Having led numerous tours to Mexico throughout her career, as well as to a handful of European countries, Sue is passionate about traditional ethnic cooking and exposing home cooks to authentic methods.
This summer, Sue will lead NGI's inaugural Culinary Tours Certificate Program in Oaxaca, Mexico, where students will learn regional Mexican recipes and cooking methods from local cooks hands-on. Read on to learn more about Sue's background and what you can expect from this incredible course.
Tell us about your former culinary tours company and experience with Oaxaca, Mexico.
I founded "To Grandmother’s House We Go Cooking Tours" as a tribute to my grandmother and great grandmother. They were an important part of my life growing up on Staten Island. Every Sunday, the family would gather at my grandparents’ home for a meal prepared by my grandmother, Lo Giudice. As I grew older and began to work with food, I found that I had strong memories of those home-cooked meals and missed the feelings they brought back to me. The idea for To Grandmother’s House We Go was conceived as a tribute to those strong women and their Sicilian food.
To begin, through friends and various contacts – pre-internet – I sought out women, mostly grandmothers and on rare occasion men, who would invite a small group into their home to share stories and recipes from their homelands. They were all either first or second generation immigrants. Classes were held in the homes of women from Cuba, Syria, Poland, Japan, and many other places.
I was working at Angelica’s Kitchen at the time and mentioned the classes to co-workers. One piped up and said, “I have a grandmother. She lives in Puebla, Mexico.” I dug into that and not too long after took my first TGHWG group on a culinary tour to Puebla, where we visited my co-worker’s family for cooking classes, went on market tours and more. While in Puebla I heard about Oaxaca – four hours south and known for its cuisine. In time I went there too, and organized the first group to Oaxaca in 1997.
I was not disappointed in what I found in Oaxaca. There was an abundance of markets with local and seasonal produce and all the other ingredients that make Oaxaca cuisine unique: chilies, corn, herbs, crickets, chocolate, and more. But it was not only ingredients I found – it was the women who could turn those ingredients, using traditional methods, into the wonderful dishes of Oaxaca.
What are your favorite places to visit in Oaxaca?
The markets, located in Oaxaca de Juarez (the capital), and in smaller neighborhoods, each of which has a special market day each week. The molinos (mills) where corn, chocolate and other ingredients are ground to order – the aroma is maddeningly delicious. The craft villages, each of which is dedicated to a special craft, like wood carving, ceramics, textiles, mescal production. The Zocalo (the main square in the capital), where there is always music and vendors, and where everyone passes through or stops to hang out.
Oaxaca also has many world class museums featuring, art, crafts, history and archaeology. The churches are a must-see as well. Many were built after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, often with the stones from temples to former deities, they range from the over the top baroque to plain stone edifices.
What are some misconceptions people have about Mexican cuisine?
It’s not just tacos and corn chips, or rice and beans. The cuisine varies from one region of Mexico to another, and within each region from village to village. The variety is truly amazing and unknown to most people.
What is the secret to great Mexican cooking?
Using real ingredients. I always bring home a suitcase full of chilies and other things.
This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.