Interview: Meet the chef who rescued David Sterling’s posthumously published ‘Mercados’

A butcher in Izamal sells beef and deer meat. Photo: Mario Canul / Mercados / University of Texas Press
  • A butcher in Izamal sells beef and deer meat. Photo: Mario Canul / Mercados / University of Texas Press

The epic book, “Mercados: Recipes from the Markets of Mexico,”  a posthumous followup to David Sterling’s 2013 recipe/travel book “Yucatán: A Culinary Expedition” could have been lost to history.

The colorful and artful book, released last week, went to press thanks in large part to the efforts of Sterling’s long-time colleague, Chef Mario Canul.

“Mercados” breaks away from Sterling’s beloved Yucatan Peninsula to explore all of Mexico. Focusing mainly on mid-size public market places, Sterling and Canul feature mercados in Valladolid and Izamal, for example, but not the monstrous San Benito in Merida. The authors tended to visit cities with a population of around 30,000, and where the vendors draw from their own region’s purveyors.

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Canul, who has taken the helm of Sterling’s Merida-based Los Dos cooking school, talks to us about how five years’ worth of travel and research could have been trapped in Sterling’s hard drive.

Q: Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up, learn to cook and run a kitchen, and how did you meet David?

MC: I grew up around the entire country. Since my father was a member of the Mexican Navy, we lived across the country in many cities. Between aunts and grandmothers, I was surrounded by food and ingredients since I was a kid. I was involved in the kitchen since too little, I always wanted to learn how to make Mexican sauces, recipes and other things that I learned from members of my family.

I met David back in 2005. He was looking for a personal assistant and I got the job. Later, I fell in love with his vision and passion about our cuisine. For many years by his side, I was trained to be his sous chef and later to run the Los Dos kitchen. My training with him was during the weekends for 14 years. Every Friday he sent me an email with a list of ingredients to purchase on my way to the office, and that way I was trained by him in French, Italian, Japanese, Thai, to mention a few. That way I was able to learn the techniques and methods of the different cuisines.

Q: By page 22, I realized I had learned more new things about Mexico in one sitting than probably ever. What’s one fact about Mexico’s mercados or cuisine that surprised you?

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MC: One of the most impressive things I learned from “Mercados” is that in Mexico we have at least 65 different types of corn. How the many influences from the Lebanese, the Dutch and the French hit Mexico’s cuisine, and transformed it in that cultural richness. Also to learn that in many places around the country indigenous people still cook like 300 years ago.

Q: The Publisher’s Note says the book may have stayed on David’s computer hard drive but you “excavated every file in the months after David’s passing.” Did you think that perhaps years of research was lost? 

M.C.: Our biggest fear was exactly that, that all this hard work could be lost. That’s why we focused to finish this book with all the material that we already had available. It is for sure that many recipes and places were taken out from (the final version of) “Mercados,” in order to be able to print it as the size it is [568 pages, 594 color photos, 12 black-and-white photos, nine illustrations, one map].

Q: Finally, what’s on your plate today? Are there more projects ahead?

M.C.: My next goal is the Caribbean, Cuban and Caribbean islands cuisine.

{ Related: Here’s an Izamal market stall recipe from David Sterling’s “Mercados” }

The cloth-bound book, published by University of Texas Press, sells for US$60, sometimes less, on Amazon.com.

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