“So Robert, when is your first book coming out?” asked Mark.

“I’m waiting for you to publish 20!” Robert quipped.

There was hearty laughter around the table. I found myself sitting in prime company the night before the Culinary Institute of America’s Fourth Annual Symposium on Latin cuisines, cultures and exchange, called Latin Flavors, American Kitchens a couple of weeks ago. The presenters’ dinner was at Mi Tierra next to their Mariachi Bar–the dark, velvety event room in the back. Massive platters of sizzling fajitas were served family style, as conference presenters, CIA staff and a few guests relaxed and mingled before the conference kicked off the next day.

There were many familiar faces from the CIA’s local campus here, and other new ones from the Greystone campus (in the Napa Valley) as well. Then there were the presenters, which read like a Latin American culinary who’s who in the U.S., as well as many guest chefs well-known from their respective Latin American countries. As we sat down at the beautiful tables to eat, I was pleasantly taken aback that a small group of chefs sat at my empty end of the table: Mark Miller, Robert Del Grande, and Fernando Salazar.

“Here’s to the future!” chimed Mark, thrusting out his glass of straight Patrón Silver and toasting the group. He was constantly jovial and boisterous. Robert, on the other hand, was subdued and methodical, a true reflection of a chef with a Ph.D. in chemistry. (Really, he has one.) Robert’s restaurant, Cafe Annie, was a stalwart restaurant of Houston’s dining scene, and a few years ago, evolved into the multi-concept RDG and Bar Annie.

This was an event where serious talk of food and travel were commonplace, ideas born, and theories exchanged. ” I just opened two hotels a couple of months ago in Colombia,” said Fernando, somewhat casually. He’s the VP of Food and Beverage for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, and a native of Ecuador. Then Mark launched into the Mestizo psychology pervading Peruvian cuisine, which in turn led Fernando to explain the differences between Peruvian and Ecuadorian food. I squirmed in my carved wooden chair, eyes widening. These were over-my-head, delicious discussions being had.

These three men are also members of the CIA’s Latin Cuisines Advisory Council Executive Committee, advising and helping craft the curriculum for the new Latin Cuisines Certificate Program starting at the CIA San Antonio in January 2012. Some courses being offered include Cuisines of Mexico I and II; Cuisines of Chile and Argentina; Cuisines of Ecuador and Bolivia; Latin American Studies I and II; and Spanish and Portuguese Languages. I loved that these industry influencers were also talking about the importance of mentoring new chefs and the successes they’ve seen as a result of their mentoring efforts at their own restaurants and companies. Fernando’s philosophy is based on the word mentor itself: Motivate, Empower, Nurture, Teach, Observe, and Reward.

Then, to my utter surprise, they fascinatingly launched into a discussion about authentic cuisine. Some very basic questions were debated: What IS authentic cuisine? And is it important? The very questioning of the subject caught me off guard. After all the popular writing and talk of selling authenticity to travelers and foodies floating around, the death of haute cuisine, and the buzz on restaurants showcasing home-cooking that are being touted by the nation’s most influential food magazines. Authenticity was fashionable. That’s the major culinary trend, right? The old is new…isn’t it?

A friendly debate started brewing. Fernando said he had recently been recording what a 91-year-old woman was cooking. He felt it was important to document her recipes and preserve them. He would ask simply: “What is this?” “Why do you do this?”

“But the younger student today,” Mark said. “is interested in learning how to do something modern. They want to learn about how it’s presented today. Who was around 100 years ago to remember what Grandma’s food tasted like?” Mark cited his well-known restaurant, Red Sage, in Washington D.C., which he closed, and said his staff wasn’t interested in the past, but in doing “their thing and their style.” It was even hard teaching them his recipes. He thought the past had value, but it shouldn’t be the end. “But are you ready to be the future? I think a culinary student is always going to be facing the future. Cause that’s his guest, that’s his customer,” said Mark.

Robert was patiently listening to Mark. There was a pause in the air. “Can I give you my quote?” he asked him.

“Yes, of course, you always have good quotes,” Mark said.

Robert leaned forward, with the air of a wise grandfather, and philosophically proclaimed: “We go forward by going in circles.” Things go around and around yet it’s never quite the same, he said.

Mark jumped in right away. “I know, I know. But you know what the Chinese say? They say, ‘Hold onto the past and you can grab the future.'”

Fernando added: “When we create something modern, if you break it down, there are always things there from the past.”

I thought of San Antonio’s place in all of this. How its ethnic-heavy cuisine carefully straddles the line of history and modernism, much like the city itself. Where a taco joint sits a block down from a New American cuisine restaurant. And where it’s all fully embraced by diners expecting varied experiences in a city so multi-faceted. I felt an urge to jot down grandmothers’ recipes, but also get in the kitchen with a rising star chef. I wanted to bolt out the door and go explore the full spectrum of food this city produces with nothing but a fork and a notepad.

The schools of thought among the gentlemen were broken down:

“When you’re cooking like your grandma, you haven’t evolved,” said Mark, banging his fist on the table for emphasis.

“Because he [or she] can’t cook as good as grandma,” said Robert calmly.

“You just take Grandma, and give it a twist,” said Fernando, with a flick of the wrist.

Now it’s your turn to join the conversation:
What does authentic cuisine mean to you, and how is it relevant?