Silvana Salcido Esparza is the chef behind Virgin Voyages restaurant Pink Agave, which made its debut on Scarlet Lady and is being introduced on sister ships Valiant Lady and Resilient Lady. Her food proves there’s a lot more to Mexican cooking than tacos and fajitas, she tells Dave Monk…
Is it right that your family have been chefs for 800 years?
I can trace my culinary and gastronomic history back to the mid-1200s. My ancestor was the royal pastry chef to the king of Spain, Alfonso El Sabio. And El Sabio is also my ancestor. My mum and dad met in my grandfather’s bakery – she was a cashier, he was the baker – so that pattern has repeated itself for generations. That gastronomic excellence has got a history of about 450 years in Mexico, a century in the US and the rest in Spain.
Did you grow up in Mexico?
I’m a Mexican national who grew up in the States. I now live in Baja, California, but I’m as Mexican as they come.
Did you cook as a child?
While other kids played with dolls, I was in the kitchen, pretending to be a chef. By 15 I had my own business. I made carnitas, braised pork that’s very popular in Mexico, and sold them at my dad’s bakery. To me, business is all about customer experience. If someone’s happy with my food, that’s what’s important, not how much money I made that night.
Is your food purely Mexican or is there any fusion?
It’s all Mexican. I backpacked around the country for a year to become more of an expert in the food from different regions. I’ve developed that for the last 20 years. Sometimes I’ll pick up a technique from other cultures and it will segue a little bit into my food.
Is Mexican food misunderstood?
Mexican is one of the most appropriated foods. You can pick whatever you want and call it yours and then do it horribly. Yellow cheese and red sauce is not Mexican, at least the ones you see outside Mexico aren’t. I was talking to a passenger and he said: ‘I can’t wait – fajitas!’ He’s going to be so disappointed! Mexico’s cuisine is very complex and regional.
Do you feel a responsibility to educate people about real Mexican food?
Absolutely! My favourite thing to hear is: ‘Is this Mexican?’ or ‘I didn’t know Mexican food was like this!’ Mexico isn’t all mariachi and tacos. It gave the world tomatoes, chilli, pineapples and chocolate. Where would Asian food be without chilli or Italian without tomatoes?
How did you choose the dishes for this restaurant?
The team from Virgin flew to see me and we just talked it out. I was inspired right there and then. By the time I got back to my office I just copied out what I’d written.
Are the dishes new or old favourites?
Some are exclusive to Virgin, some I’ve used before and modified. I have many roles – I’m a catering chef, a stadium chef, a convention centre chef and I’m also a restaurant chef, which is my least favourite job! I have restaurants at airports and at the moment I am working on the concept of an electric truck where we cook the best product possible in a small kitchen.
Do you keep control over all your concessions?
Yes, I’m always thinking of them. I didn’t have children but I have given birth to over ten concepts, they are my babies. I’m very attached to them, they’re part of me.
What’s different about cooking on a ship?
There are a lot of things we cannot do. For example, we have a smoked pork dish so I have to find the technique that will work best because I’m not allowed flames or wood!
Will you change the menu regularly?
Yes, it’s all about pushing the envelope. I’ll give you the example of one of the dishes we have here. It’s hoja santa – holy earth – it is the root of a bush that I serve stuffed with cheese, chilli oil and pineapple. The flavour is liquorice with the fat and creaminess of the cheese and the tartness of the pineapple. It’s absolutely delicious.
Have you cruised before?
Would you now?
Only on Virgin! Virgin didn’t exist before, that’s why I’ve never cruised. I immediately said yes to this venture because this is not your average cruise line. This is not par for the course, this is a whole new different course.
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