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Houston Press: James Beard Foundation Honors Sylvia Casares

a man sitting at a table in front of a store

It’s a combination of triumph and tragedy. The James Beard Foundation is inviting Houston celebrity chef, Sylvia Casares, to showcase her cuisine at the James Beard House in New York City, date to be determined. The invitation is one of the most coveted honors in the food industry, and Casares says she is thrilled to receive this national accolade for Houston and Texas. But it comes when Casares is facing the layoff of her employees due to limits on restaurant business because of the coronavirus.

"I'm boiling mad,” she says, about having to close her dining rooms as mandated by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and having to lay off her staff, whom she calls family. She explains that “there will be over 100 employees that are unemployed. Full-service restaurants cannot survive with to-go business. Our rents are too high.” Nevertheless, she is already strategizing how to continue cooking for Houstonians, and she asks: “please continue to support us as best as you are able.”

The invitation comes at a moment when all restaurants in the United States are hurt by the Covid-19 fallout. “This has never happened before,” says Casares as she focuses on the crisis at hand. And what about the invitation to showcase her food in New York City? She leans across the table and with bright, steely eyes declares, “I'm not a scaredy cat.” She continues, “I’m cautious, very cautious, but I’ve never been paralyzed by fear.” And that’s her attitude for weathering a prolonged, heartbreaking pandemic while at the same time relishing this honor to cook at James Beard House. It’s a conflicted moment, fusing demands of the present with aspirations for the future.

“The meaning to me is to introduce New Yorkers to our style, our type of cooking because they don’t know it,” she says. "I've always known that our food is misunderstood because we get lumped into the tex-mex category that is commercial preparation, mass-produced, and my food isn't like that. So I view this as a tremendous opportunity to serve a sampling of some of our beloved recipes from the border, from our homes and from this restaurant."

She intends to show New Yorkers the signature cooking that Houstonians know and love, the type of comida casera home cooking, that is traditional not just in Houston but also stretching all the way down to little-known south Texas towns like Refugio and Sarita. In fact, Refugio and Sarita are the names of two signature enchiladas featured in her New York dinner menu.

The Refugio is a cheese enchilada made with a blend of cheddar cheeses. The chili gravy is divine, I mean really divine, and absolutely traditional. But you can’t compare this gravy to the fast and mass-produced versions that many Tex-Mex restaurants sell; it’s at a different level. Sylvia worked as a food scientist for ten years before she changed careers to eventually become a chef/restaurateur. Her knowledge of the properties of substances and of chemical interactions is critical when she develops her recipes. But it’s the flavors and techniques she remembers from her mom, grandmother and aunts that ultimately guide the taste of her sauces, including the chili gravy. “Needless to say,” Sylvia explains, "nobody gave me a recipe book. There are no recipes. You just have to create them from memory, from experience.”

Another of the enchiladas she is serving is called Sarita, the name of a tiny town near Baffin Bay, just south of Corpus Christi. It’s also the name of her grandmother who used to cook one of the most traditional South Texas and Mexican dishes, calabacita con elote,”sautéed squash with corn. Chef Sylvia reinterprets this home-style dish as an enchilada, adding a touch of white queso to the squash-corn sauté, and finishing it with a light cream sauce. The flavors are full and direct, but soft. This will surprise New Yorkers who think that the Mexican food of Texas is just full-throated meat with the heat of chiles, deep-fried tortillas and yellow cheese. Sylvia is convinced that they will love it, and that they will find a new appreciation of Texas cuisines.

“But of course it’s not just enchiladas, it’s my sauces, it’s my tortillas, it’s my soups, it’s my meats cooked in mesquite, like we cook in South Texas.” The menu will be a full-fledged fiesta, starting with mini-tacos during cocktails, followed by the sit-down dinner which is a delicious excess of “todo,”everything you would want to order if you could order everything at Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, served in small bites. The menu includes fideo which is the vermicelli pasta known to every Mexican American family of Texas, carnitas, beef tacos, mole, ceviche, and culminating with Sylvia’s original and never duplicated chocolate tres leches.

The James Beard House will provide the cooking staff, but Sylvia is taking one of her senior kitchen staff to help her work with the New Yorkers to make sure the sauces are perfect, the tortillas are perfect, and the quail is just like back on the ranch. Did I mention that the menu includes mesquite grilled quail? Exactly the same juicy, marinated, mesquite-smoked birds that are served to Houstonians in her restaurants. We are spoiled.

And of course the menu includes cabrito, also smoked and served as a taco, the way it's done all the way down to Monterrey, the southernmost edge of the culinary region that is South Texas and northeastern Mexico. This unique culinary region is depicted in a large wall mural in the bar area of Sylvia’s Woodway restaurant. The mural is dotted with names of the towns in her menu: Refugio, Sarita, McAllen, Monterrey and other towns on both sides of the flowing blue Rio Grande. This is the land that inspires her food, and New York gourmands will at long last get a taste.

Casares is a new type of chef who represents not only the ego, that much-needed individual artistry upon which fine cuisine depends, but she also represents the cultural heritage of her community. “I ate this Mexican food every day for 18 years, until I went off to college, so that’s all I knew. That’s what we grew up on daily, three times a day.” Within the changing demographics of Texas, she is giving resonant cultural expression to a native cuisine that has up to now gone unnoticed by the elites in the U.S. culinary world.

The New York City dinner date like all cultural activities in the United States right now, is unknown and dependent on the duration and damage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Chef Sylvia relates to the pain that New Yorkers are undergoing at this time, the same as the acute stress of her employees at her two restaurants, (Woodway at Voss and Eldridge Parkway). It’s a moment of negotiating personal triumph with the tragic economic and emotional challenge she is facing. Paralyzed by fear she is not, and she intends to proceed, sometime down the road, with the wine pairings. She will proudly serve only Texas wines.

James Beard House was the townhouse home of the “Dean of American cookery,” as the New York times once described James Beard who died in 1986. His fame in the culinary world was preceded by rocky starts. In 1923 he was expelled from Reed College and he maintained that it was due to his homosexuality. Later he kept trying to break through in the theater world, but it was in 1935 that he started catering and found his true love, becoming a cookbook author and TV celebrity. Diners will taste food that James Beard would have loved, I think, because he championed food honestly prepared with American ingredients, local foods and markets.

Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen represents the honesty and traditional “tied to the land” food that James Beard championed. It’s a philosophy of food to which all chefs aspire, a philosophy that will survive this Coronavirus pandemic. That is why the James Beard Foundation, looking to the future, is conferring the honor of inviting Chef Sylvia Casares to open the taste buds of New York and introduce them to the deliciousness of real Texas Mexican cuisine.