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A Team of All-Star Chefs Offers a ‘Multisensory Experience’ Inspired by Mexican Immigration

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an open-faced tamale in banana leaf is decorated with a variety of colorful ingredients
Emmanuel Galvan's approach to tamal making is a reflection of his layered Mexican American experience. (Courtesy of Emmanuel Galvan)

Emmanuel Galvan, the Mexican American chef and founder of Berkeley’s Bolita Masa, doesn’t know how to define home. It’s an elusive concept for the San Francisco resident who grew up in Napa Valley raised by Mexican immigrants.

“As the son of Jalisco, I don’t feel like I’m from there. I don’t feel Mexican enough,” Galvan says. “But I also don’t feel white enough to fit into [the United States]. As Mexican Americans, we’re battling that tension. [Food] is a way to address that.”

Luckily for the tortilla-loving gastronome, his recipes are a way to explore his origin: What is it? What does it taste like? And who gets invited to the table to experience it?

On Nov. 18, Galvan will explore the various textures and ingredients of being Mexican American by hosting “Ofrendas: Neither Here Nor There.” Co-organized with Jacob Croom of My Friend Fernando (a Chicano supper club that migrates around the East Bay), the event will showcase five chefs from around the U.S. and Mexico in a “multisensory hour” of small bites, drinks, cumbia music and art at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Francisco’s Dogpatch.

In addition to Galvan and Croom, “Ofrendas” will feature Luna Vela of the James Beard Award-winning Nixta Taqueria in Austin; Maricela Vega, who cut her teeth as the executive chef at Atlanta’s 8ARM; and Tony Ortiz, who originally hails from Zacatecas and recently launched Chile Con Miel in New York City. The B-Side Brujas will also be in the house, spinning Spanish music vinyls.

filled with Mexican soup presented against a bright pink backdrop
Luna Vela’s tortilla bowls are an ode to childhood soups presented in an elevated form. (Courtesy of Emmanuel Galvin)

The meal itself won’t be a sit-down dinner. In fact, there won’t be any seating at all. Instead, guests are encouraged to mingle and explore — and to check out the artwork being displayed in the museum itself.

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“Through these projects we learn more about who we are and get to express that a little bit more,” says Galvan. “We don’t always explore the actual tensions and the disparity that exists in Mexico. We’re trying to present history through the romance of its ingredients. Some of us will address it more directly in our dishes. Some of it will happen through conversations.”

The New York City–based Ortiz, for example, is preparing nicuatole, an indigenous Oaxacan corn gelatin dessert with fig leaf oil and quince. The red puree of his dish is intended to symbolize the loss of lives in a tragic post-hurricane flood that recently devastated western Mexico.

For Galvan’s part, his approach to tamal making is inherently representative of what he feels it’s like to be Mexican American: “Tamales are covered, and [eating one] is an unraveling to see what’s inside. There is a level of complexity about what’s hidden inside for people who want to engage with that. But if you don’t want to, it’s also just a tasty bite to enjoy.”

Other dishes will include grilled oysters, star-shaped tortilla bowls filled with sopa de estrellitas, and enchiladas bathed in a squash and sikil’pak (Mayan pumpkin seed) sauce.

“Growing up, [indigenous Mexican cuisine] was seen as icky or not sexy,” says Galvan. “But now it’s food that every chef wants to eat or make. This is our offering. An ofrenda.”

Galvan and Croom are paying the up-front costs of the event themselves, and they hope to continue offering it as a regular series throughout the Bay Area — which, for now, is home.

“Ofrendas: Neither Here Nor There” will take place at the ICA SF (901 Minnesota St., San Francisco) on Sat., Nov. 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person and will include five small dishes, two beverages and access to the museum’s galleries.

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