by Chef Dave Terrazas, Culinary and Wellness Program Specialist, San Antonio Botanical Garden
There are great jobs, and then there are dream jobs. For the last two years, I have been living the dream, serving this great city and its visitors at the San Antonio Botanical Garden as its Culinary and Wellness Program Manager. But dream jobs, like any worthy endeavor in life, come with challenges; some you come across along the way, and some you create for yourself. At the garden, we started out ambitious, launching our culinary and wellness programming before we even had a Teaching Kitchen. I started on the job about a year before we warmed up the oven for the first time, creating small mobile kitchen suites that I carted around to different parts of the garden, in order to teach healthy, delicious, and fun-to-make recipes. These recipes were not just for the delights of adults looking for a fun date night, although that is admittedly one of our goals. The garden, though years of practice creating family based programs, decided from the beginning that our programming needed to serve all San Antonians, and the city’s visitors…and that means serving kids.
While the garden was looking to expand by eight full acres in 2016, its leadership focused on creating a teaching space that would celebrate the city’s cultural traditions, while at the same time championing community opportunities that include sourcing food locally, sustainably, and optimizing nutrition. While plans were underway, a fortuitous thing happened that brought the garden together with Goldsbury Foundation’s Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) initiative, which has since added important layers of nutrition fundamentals and a little culinary how-to through CHEF’s native programming with our own. As we opened the CHEF outdoor Teaching Kitchen in the new garden expansion two Octobers ago, which is surrounded by a lush, beautiful one-acre garden, we instantly knew we had something special. It made me want to work even harder than I had the previous year to make the garden one of the city’s best resources for learning about food security (including not only access to food, but good food), general health and wellness, and how to put it all into practice in a way that celebrates who we are as San Antonians.
After all of that celebrating across two years, I was getting ready to settle into the holiday season, but just as I was getting ready to hang the apron up, I got a call from the city’s World Heritage Office in November, asking me if I would like to travel to Chengdu, China in the heart of both Sichuan Province and the Chinese mainland, to represent San Antonio as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy for a sister city event in December. The city of Chengdu, like San Antonio, bears the City of Gastronomy designation under the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organization (UNESCO) Creative Cities Network program. Across the globe, there are many cities in the seven-category program, but there are only two American Cities of Gastronomy – Tucson and San Antonio. Chengdu is very similar to San Antonio with centuries of cultural diversity, vibe, and a unique way of celebrating the old and the new, and the rural and the urban. The city has held a food festival for fifteen years that cherishes and celebrates what we often call “foodways”, focusing on localism, sustainability, nutrition, and the culinary arts. Eighteen cities around the world accepted Chengdu’s invitation in December, and I, along with Kristina Zhao (owner of Sichuan House Bistro here in San Antonio), represented San Antonio and the United States.
We toured the city and festival several days, being treated like virtual celebrities but found when we arrived that we would be competitors in a friendly competition against our fellow visiting city delegations. When it came time to selecting recipes, I knew that Kristina and I had to bring the best of our city to Chengdu, so we chose to create tacos…that’s right, tacos. But – not just any tacos would do. Deciding to showcase what our city calls “Tex-Next”, we chose to combine Latin American and Asian flavors, resulting in a Mayan style pork carne guisado spiced with ginger, clove, cumin and Sichuanese chilies, served on an orange-infused tortilla made with orange peel and juice, and wheat and corn flours. We topped our tacos with a fresh, vibrant, Peruvian style salsa called “criollo” – a citrus marinated slaw of julienned onion, chilies, and vegetables. In the end, we had a heart healthy, delicious, and culturally distinct, if modern, offering that we hoped celebrated the many cultures of our great city, while honoring our host…and we won! Our trophy now sits at the botanical garden, which serves as a reminder how wonderful our city, and our world truly is, how much there is to celebrate (including good, no, great food), and how much we have in common with each other around the world. We were excited to bring our recipe home, and we have added it to the CHEF recipe book, and will be teaching it this spring at the garden. You see? There are great jobs, and then there are great job!