Packing up and moving across the continent for a job takes a lot of tenacity. But, in the case of Chef Maria Ponce, Executive Chef for La Taqueria, that sort of motivation has translated into some undeniably delicious food.
Having been born into a family of medical professionals, Ponce’s career path was seemingly decided long before she ever donned an apron. However, the time spent with her father in the kitchen while growing up (in Sonora, Mexico) ignited an all-consuming passion for cooking that has taken her all over North America learning, working and perfecting her craft – which eventually landed her in her current role in Vancouver. After tasting my way through the new brunch menu at their Yukon location, I can say with confidence that Chef Ponce has an enviable understanding of flavour – a great indication of her talent and a teaser for things to come when La Taqueria opens their Brentwood location soon…
Where did you grow up? I grew up in a small town in the north of Mexico – Navojoa, Sonora.
Geographically speaking, you’re a long way away from your roots. How did you end up in Canada and what are your goals here? I think I ended up here because I had to. I always thought I would live outside of my country, which I did for some years. I had a job offer which I loved from the first moment, and I have never had any second thoughts. It was like, YES, where do I sign? My goal is to improve and raise the standard of La Taqueria, take it to the next level, and make it a little bit better everyday.
You come from a family of medical professionals, what was their reaction when you told them you wanted to be a chef? The reaction of my parents was 50/50. I think every parent wants their child to be happy. However, when you come from a medical professional family, they expect you to do the same, which was what I wanted to do until I realized I didn’t.
For my mom it was especially hard; she didn’t understand what was going on and why I had changed my mind after several years. For my dad, who is an amazing cook, things were different. He was the one who taught me about food, the way to eat and respect the product; but, in some way, he was a little bit down to know I would not be a doctor.
How has their perception of your chosen career changed since then? It took my mom took around ten years since I started college to reach the point she is at now. Now she understands how a restaurant works and the hard work behind it. My dad is so proud, and he gets excited when I tell him about the restaurant or the food.
You’ve had a pretty interesting career so far, can you briefly tell us about some of the places you’ve worked and trained? I started training and working in hotels in the USA. The one where I learnt all the fundamentals was The Greenbrier in West Virginia. It’s an enormous hotel with the most fantastic service and food. Then I worked in Guadalajara, México – first doing molecular kitchen, then going back to the Mexican and traditional kitchen. I learned about wine and food in El Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, California, where I worked in a restaurant included in the 50 Latin America Best Restaurants in the world, called Corazon de Tierra. That job taught me how to be creative and have an open mind about ingredients and flavours. My last work in Mexico was in Rio Viejo, a restaurant also from the family of La Taqueria. This restaurant has authentic and unforgettable Mexican flavours in every dish.
What has it been like trying to translate Canadian product availability into traditional Mexican food? Has it been difficult to get the products you want? In Canada you have tons of Mexican products; the challenge is you need to balance what is an authentic Mexican dish and what Canadian people might like.
Have you had to adapt your recipes to accommodate Canadian ingredients? Yes, I have, but while also keeping the soul of the dishes so that if a Mexican comes and tries the menu, they can say, “Hey, this is Mexican.” I think Canada is a great country where you can find so many ingredients from around the world, so it is not hard to adapt.
What do you miss about Mexico? I miss my family, of course, and I miss the weather for sure. The only thing about food that I miss is that you have tons of fresh seafood. You can go to the fish market, talk to the fisherman and have a bonding relationship, there; or go to the butcher’s shop, and they know how you like your steak.
Is there anything in Canada that you don’t like? I don’t like to see homeless people suffering on the streets. Besides that, I love Canada, and I’m in love with Vancouver.
What was your first day in a professional kitchen like? I was so excited and so terrified for my first day, that I felt like a lost child around all those professional chefs yelling and working hard. I was full of emotions, trying to do the best I could, not worrying about cutting myself or doing something wrong. I fell in love with the kitchen that day.
Tell us about something that happened in the kitchen that was a complete disaster at the time, but that you are able to laugh about now. This one is hard; every day, something happens. One day, I had a friend working with me and he made a sauce, and then he tried to blend it, and it was a total disaster – the sauce was all over the ceiling. We were cleaning for more than a week, trying to get everything out. It was not funny at the time, but now I can laugh about it.