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How Chef Zarela Martinez Brought Mexican Cuisine to New York

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I met Zarela Martinez for the first time last fall at a party held in her honor. She was being given a lifetime achievement award from the Mexican cultural organization Mano a Mano for her commitment to promoting Mexican traditions through food.

Volunteers served tequila cocktails with jalapeno and pineapple soda along with food from the best Mexican restaurants in New York.  A live mariachi band serenaded the tightly packed space, at one point joined by Martinez herself in a somber ballad.

Martinez, dressed in an off-shoulder white dress reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, with a full skirt and lace top and trademark red lipstick, was totally in her element.

She told the crowd, "I asked my mother once, ‘Why did you name me Zarela? Why couldn’t you give me a normal name like Gabriela or Maritza?’ And she said, ‘Because it’s going to look great in lights, honey.'"

Martinez’s career dates back to the days before The Food Network and "Iron Chef." She was born in Sonora, Mexico, and started out as a caterer in Texas. Her catering business brought her to New Orleans in the early 1980s where she met legendary Chef Paul Prudhomme.

"You come in here, and we’ll work together all week. I’ll teach you Cajun, you teach me Mexican,” is how Zarela described their first conversation.

Chef Prudhomme was so taken with Martinez’s unique personality and culinary style that he invited her to cook for an event at the renowned Tavern On The Green restaurant in New York, alongside such culinary luminaries as Alice Waters and, later, Wolfgang Puck.  The event launched her career in New York, followed shortly afterwards by reviews in The New York Times, and an invitation to cook for President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II. She eventually moved to New York with her twin sons.

In 1987, she opened her own restaurant, serving traditional Mexican cuisine on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and, naturally, named it Zarela. While there are numerous upscale Mexican restaurants across the city today, back then most Mexican restaurants in New York served up Tex-Mex snack foods like tacos and burritos. Restaurant Zarela featured regional Mexican dishes like pescado con coco (fish with coconut and fresh mint) and costillas con longaniza (baby back ribs and sausage marinated in lime, garlic and oregano).

Zarela Martinez inspired a generation of young Hispanic chefs and restaurateurs to build today’s Latino food scene in New York City. Last February she closed Zarela after 23 years in business. The rising cost of rent, increased taxes and fees and the proliferation of low-cost Mexican food options like taco trucks made it necessary to close the restaurant.

"Food From My Heart" by Zarela Martinez (Photo by Von Diaz)The economy was a factor, but so was her personal life. About seven years ago, Zarela was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Among those she has inspired is her son, Aarón Sanchez.

Sanchez is the chef and owner of two restaurants — Centrico and Tacombi — in New York, as well as another restaurant in Kansas City. He regularly appears on Food Network shows "Chopped" and "Heat Seekers." Sanchez makes frequent reference to his mother’s influence both on his cooking style and his entrepreneurship and even has a letter to his mom on his Web site.

Chef and restauranteur Julian Medina, who owns Toloache, Yerba Buena, and Coppelia, has known Zarela for more than 15 years. He describes her as a pioneer, and says he and other Latino chefs owe a lot to her legacy.

“She’s always going to be that woman that pushed Mexican culture and food. She’s been like a teacher for all of us, and an example also that the burritos and all that stuff, that is not Mexican food,” he said at the Mano a Mano event honoring Zarela. “She opened doors for a lot of us.”

Try one of Zarela's original recipes for Chiles en Nogada below. Poblano chiles are stuffed with a flavorful pork, fruit and plantain mixture and topped with pomegranate seeds and a creamy walnut sauce.

Chiles en Nogada
By Chef Zarela Martinez

  • 4 medium ripe tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
  • 12 large poblano chiles
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 2 small green or other cooking apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 4 ripe, firm peaches, peeled or 1/2 cup dried, diced
  • 2 small ripe plantains, skin removed, diced
  • 6 tablespoons diced preserved citron, diced
  • 6 tablespoons dark or golden raisins softened in
 1 cup dry sherry
  • 1 cup unsalted butter or vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely diced
  • 4 cups shredded cooked pork butt
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon canela (true Ceylon cinnamon)
  • Nogada Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 50 Italian parsley leaves

Heat heavy cast-iron skillet or griddle over high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Roast the tomatoes, turning several times, until blistered on all sides. Let cool until just cool enough to handle. Peel the tomatoes, remove the seeds and chop finely. Set aside. Wash the poblano chiles and thoroughly dry them. Make a small (1 to 1 1/2 inches long) lengthwise slit in each chile. Pour oil into large heavy skillet to a depth of about 1/2 inch and heat over high heat until very hot but not quite smoking. Fry the chiles, three at a time, turning once or twice, until they puff up and take on an olive-beige color. Remove from pan as they are done. Carefully peel chiles under cold running water. Very gently pull out seeds through the slit in each chile, being sure not to tear the flesh. Set aside. In large skillet, melt the butter or vegetable oil over medium heat until very hot and fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for three minutes. Add fresh and dried fruit and sauté for three minutes. Add the spices and pork and cook, stirring to combine, for two minutes more. Season with the canela, salt, and pepper to taste. Carefully fill the mixture into the chiles through the slit in each. Bake on greased baking sheet or shallow pan for five minutes. Cover the chiles with the nogada sauce and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and a few leaves of Italian parsley. Chiles may be served warm or at room temperature. Number of servings (yield): 4

Nogada (Walnut Sauce)

  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1 pound queso fresco or cream cheese
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 small French rolls soaked in milk until softened and squeezed dry
  • 2/3 cup dried sherry
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground canela (true Ceylon Cinnamon or use 1/4 teaspoon U.S. cinnamon)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste

Soak the walnuts in cold water or milk for three hours or overnight in water to cover. Discard the soaking liquid. Grind the walnuts in the food processor or blender with the French roll, cheese, cream or milk, the sherry, cinnamon, sugar and salt. Recipe Copyright © Zarela Martinez.

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Von Diaz is a Feet in Two Worlds education reporting fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. Fi2W podcasts are supported in part by WNYC Radio and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.