Celebs

Food and family: Chefs dish on their Cinco de Mayo celebrations

May 5, 2013 at 8:02 AM ET

Aaron Sanchez
Aaron Sanchez
Aaron Sanchez's carne asada tacos.

Cinco de Mayo is a veritable edible fiesta. TODAY.com reached out to Latino chefs to find out what they like to cook up to get in the spirit — and it turns out, they find inspiration in Americans’ excitement over the holiday.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is more of a government holiday, said chef Roberto Santibañez of New York City’s Fonda restaurants. “I didn’t start celebrating it until I moved here,” he told TODAY.com. “It’s not really something that we have traditions around at all in Mexico — it’s not like Day of the Dead, where there’s a lot of family time and traditions.”

Roberto Santibanez
Roberto Santibanez
Chef Roberto Santibanez's enchiladas.

Chef Ingrid Hoffmann, host of Cooking Channel’s “Simply Delicioso,” agreed.

“I never had any Cinco de Mayo traditions [growing up], and I’ll tell you why — it’s because it’s an American holiday,” she said. But that hasn’t kept her from starting some as an adult. “As Latinos, we don’t really need excuses or to belong to a country to celebrate their holiday, so it’s just a great day to make some amazing drinks and food and gather friends,” she said.

So what is the origin of Cinco de Mayo anyway? It’s not the Mexican equivalent of Fourth of July, says Pati Jinich, host of PBS’ “Pati’s Mexican Table.” “Some people confuse Cinco de Mayo with Independence Day, but Independence Day is September 16 — that is HUGE in Mexico. That’s like the Fourth of July.”

Instead, May 5 honors a battle that took place in the late 1800s, in the state of Puebla, where a very small Mexican militia beat a huge French army. The victory lasted for a few days, though the victory was short-lived. “But it doesn’t matter, that’s the Mexican spirit,” she says. “It’s that battle and that celebration that’s celebrated in Puebla.”

Roberto Santibanez
Roberto Santibanez
Sip on a pineapple margarita this Cinco de Mayo.

But, like Hoffmann, most Latin-American chefs have gotten into the spirit of Cinco de Mayo, which has become a sort of American celebration of Mexican heritage.

“Anything goes!” says Jinich, who often makes the chicken tinga that she has made on TODAY. “You can make a bucket of it ahead of time and it serves a ton of people,” she said. She suggests serving it along with some tortillas.

Chef Aarón Sánchez goes all out for the holiday, when he isn’t taping an episode of Food Network’s “Chopped” or “Heat Seekers.” And it’s no wonder: His mother is renowned cookbook author Zarela Martinez, so it’s a family affair.

Aaron Sanchez
/ Aaron Sanchez
The Sanchez family makes stuffed peppers for the holiday.

They’ll usually make chiles nogada (stuffed peppers), grill carne some asada outside, mix up pitchers of margaritas for the adults and agua fresca for the kids, and if time allows, they’ll roast a whole pig.

And let’s not forget the Sánchez’s favorite non-food tradition: “We always do Latin karaoke,” he said.

Those who live near the chef’s Kansas City restaurant, Mestizo Leawood, can even try his Cinco de Mayo fare: He’s planning a special five-course meal that highlights his favorite foods for the day.

Marcela Valladolid, host of Food Network’s “Mexican Made Easy,” grew up on the Tijuana-San Diego border, so she has long celebrated Cinco de Mayo.

“It was a lot about just getting together and having beautiful family meals,” she said. “It is all about tamales and margaritas.”

Andrew Reilly
Andrew Reilly
Marcela Valladolid in her kitchen.

Fine-dining restaurant chefs are also getting into the holiday. At Fig restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., chef Ray Garcia is planning a “head-to-tail” pozole, a rich soup made with pork, chiles and herbs and spices. “It’s an innovative twist on the cuisine on which I was raised,” he said.

Funny enough, all of the American festivities are now inspiring more Mexicans to make a bigger deal of Cinco de Mayo, Santibañez said. At his restaurants, he plans to serve dishes to represent various Mexican states —for example, ceviche from Acapulco. He’s also planning very, very spicy (“triple alarm”) enchiladas with a five-chile sauce and, of course, refreshing cocktails. “It’s very strange how it ended up being such a big holiday here, but it’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s all about having fun with the food and drinks.”

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