I soaked the walnuts in milk and spent the next hour carefully peeling them, all the meanwhile thinking, “do people really go through this much trouble to make a sauce?” It was the moment I came to appreciate the intensity and work spent on preparing traditional sauces. But I was not at a fancy French cooking school: I was in Cuernavaca, Mexico, at a week-long cooking school called La Villa Bonita. The walnuts would provide the base for the incredibly rich walnut cream sauce for the traditional Mexican dish, Chiles En Nogada.
Let me back up a bit. My husband and I met in Mexico. It was 1992 and we had both recently graduated from college. I was working in San Antonio, and knew that I needed to hone my Spanish. So, I took a leap of faith and enrolled in Spanish immersion classes in Cuernavaca, an hour outside of Mexico City and a hub for Spanish language schools. I was to live with a Mexican family for four weeks and attend classes 8 hours a day. When I walked into class, I was seated next to a cute boy from Arizona who had recently graduated from Harvard. The rest is history.
Mexico has thus always held a special place in our hearts. We returned every year to visit friends and to see new sights. Hubby’s Mexican “brother”, knowing I loved to cook and loved food, said to me, “You have to meet Ana and Rob Anderson and take cooking classes at their school”. The year was 2001 when we met Ana and Rob, and they owned a restaurant and bar in downtown Cuernavaca on Netzahualcoyotl called Reposado. They were starting a week-long cooking school called La Villa Bonita Mexican Culinary Vacations®.
My experience at La Villa Bonita was one of those pivotal moments in life. Years later, I still recall the experiences that have taken me down the path to eventually enrolling at Arizona Culinary Institute and becoming a chef myself. Days began at the market, buying all the ingredients needed for the day. We cooked for about 3-4 hours, having lunch at 2 around the pool. I learned the basics: tortillas, salsas, sauces, and some elaborate dishes that are still in my repertoire today, like the aforementioned Chiles En Nogada and Cochinita Pibil.
As if the experience wasn’t amazing enough, Ana and Rob are two of the greatest people you will ever meet. They have a lovely story themselves, starting in Monterrey, Mexico, with Rob as a law student asking Ana to dance at a local disco. He is about as grass-fed Iowa gringo as you can get. Chef Ana Garcia is from Monterrey, Mexico, and has been passionate about cooking since childhood. Her recipes were passed down throughout many generations, as Ana and Rob became inspired to write them down and make a living showcasing them to aspiring cooks.
They moved from downtown Cuernavaca to neighboring Tepoztlan, running La Villa Bonita out of a house overlooking the magical hills of Tepozteco. The school runs year-round with some experiences highlighting health and yoga, and others, like the Whole Hog Week, highlighting the glorious pig. Plus, they have added special weeks in Puebla and Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. With each experience, participants will keep a similar schedule, visiting the markets in the mornings, cooking 3-4 hours, and then eating the fruits of their labor for lunch. If you are looking for a truly unique cooking experience in Mexico, with some of the finest people I have met in my lifetime, then this is for you.
As if my recommendation alone were not enough to convince you to sign up, The Food Network has named La Villa Bonita one of the Five Best Culinary Vacations Worldwide, and National Geographic Books has labeled it one of the 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life. I am going to throw it out to Hubby that we need to take a week out of our lives and get ourselves to Puerto Escondido because I need a refresher.
It sounds incredible: a week-long, all-inclusive luxury vacation in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, cooking and living in a villa on the beach. All tours, drinks, meals, and 4 cooking classes are included in the Puerto Escondido package, plus opportunities to learn nouvelle cuisine with Chef Ana in the evening for those who can’t get enough cooking. Ana will teach you to prepare some unique Oaxacan and coastal dishes such as a fabulous tamal stuffed with tiny freshwater mussels that grow in the local freshwater lagoons…the mussels open up while cooking and flavor the tamal!
All this writing has made me very hungry. I am off to the store to buy the ingredients for Chiles En Nogada which I make every year around Christmas. The kids love it and I love the memories making the dish evokes. But to be totally honest, I no longer have the patience to peel the walnuts. XoM
To leave you with an taste of Chef Ana’s Mexico, enjoy the following recipe for Tuna Tostadas: