The trendy side of the food business propels cuisines forward, relentlessly, in search of the new, but a serious chef like Maricel Presilla spends most of her time looking the other way, back to the heart and heritage of things. Presilla doesn't just read, she goes: She gets herself down to South America to be immersed in cuisine and culture, and returns, like a culinary Indiana Jones, with gems—recipes that tell and preserve the truth.
Presilla, owner of Cucharamama and co-owner of Zafra restaurants in Hoboken, is a deeply committed witness to authentic Latin American cooking. The former Rutgers professor (with a doctorate in medieval Spanish history!) has fished for peacock bass in Venezuela's Orinoco River, made yucca bread with Amazonian Indians, and soaked bitter potatoes in the cold waters of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Packing notebooks and video cameras, Presilla takes regular expeditions, gathering recipes, cooking techniques, and ingredients, and helping preserve ancient dishes that might otherwise be relegated to obscurity, or, in some cases, lost. Then she brings them back to Hoboken, New Jersey, of all places, better known to most Americans as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra than as a source of Peruvian Canary Bean Stew.
"As a student of history," says Presilla, reminding us of the scholar's standards for truth, "I'm a primary-source person. I treat food in exactly the same way: I travel and go to the source." When we spoke to her she was about to head down to Ecuador to research cacao and learn about regional Ecuadorian food. But she is not a fanatic or an insistent completist: Just because she has eaten lizards in Peru (and found them delicious, by the way, in omelettes) doesn't mean she's going to bring every dish home. "My restaurant is not a museum," she says.
But the customer at Cucharamama does get some tasty schooling. If you thought the tamale was a single species of food, Presilla shows the variation in the genus: Fresh corn tamales scented with basil (Chilean style); cracked white corn tamales filled with potatoes and peanuts (from Colombia's Pacific region); a pork crackling tamale made with masa harina (Venezuelan); or a creamy tamale topped with marinated bacon or braised duck (Peruvian). And those are just the tamales.
"She's very ambitious in her approach," says Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming at the James Beard Foundation, whose organization has twice nominated Presilla for best chef, mid-Atlantic. "It's one thing to focus on one particular country. But she's chronicling all of South America. And to showcase her knowledge in one menu, I think that's very special."