Julia Sherman: Tell me how you started cooking? Did you have formal training?
Norma Listman: I have been cooking ever since I can remember. I started very informally and empirically. I have always pursued eating well and cooking for others.
I do not have any formal training. Eight years ago I decided to change my career and pursue a career in food, but I was afraid to dive into professional kitchens because I lacked formal training. One day I decided not to let that fear of the unknown win and I knocked on Chef Anthony Strong’s–from the Delfina Group– door. He gave me my first kitchen job and he has been a great mentor since.
JS: Do you consider yourself a chef, an artist, or both?
JS: Tell me about growing up in the countryside outside of Mexico City and how that influenced you and your work with food?
NM: I grew up in Texcoco, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City. It used to be one of the shoreline towns when the ancient city of Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco existed.
I grew up surrounded by family and food. My great-uncles had pigs and chickens and little vegetable gardens. I rode horses in the countryside. Every other day my grandfather and I bought raw milk from the farm of a famous bullfighter.
The same uncles had an outdoor wood oven that they used to make “pulque pan de muerto” during the Dia de Muertos festivities. My upbringing was woven with food and tradition, and I love the countryside of Mexico, as much as I like Mexico City.
JS: From there, how did you end up in Mexico City? What was it like back then?
NM: In contrast to my country childhood, I attended a private high school in Mexico City. There, I became interested in art and hung out with the creative people in the city. That was in the 90s, when the freedom in Mexico City was unparalleled. I went to fancy restaurants, art openings, punk shows, ate at questionable late-night food stands and danced with ficheras.
At 19 I got my first apartment as exchange for work at an art gallery. I was young, very young, and sometimes we had no money to pay the bills. Some friends and I started throwing parties to fundraise and oftentimes I could only pay by cooking for them the following day. These parties, lifestyle and a social dynamic opposed the rigid rules dictated by the art world and society in general, and it only fueled my desire to feed people.
JS: And what is so special about the food in Mexico City?
NM: The valley of Mexico has an incredible wealth when it comes to culinary tradition; food there is diverse, ancient and contemporary. That history inspires the narrative of my work, but it is that freedom of the urban context that inspires me to create, whether that takes the form of an underground restaurant in West Oakland or a surrealist menu in honor of Remedios Varo, Mexico City–that city is the lifeblood of my work.
JS: Your food is very focused on history, what is the attraction there? How do you communicate through food?
NM: I love this question! I understand the world through the food we eat. If we pay close attention to the evolution of food, we can understand humankind. The geographical origin and movement of ingredients and technique fascinate me.
There was a point in my life when I wanted to be an art restorer. But when I find and adapt old recipes, I feel I am doing enacting a form of “restoration.” An experience is revived through the recollection and recreation of an old recipe, and we get the opportunity to experience the past. This is sensorial time travel.
This is also a political act, to trace ingredients and technique. I decide through my cooking on what side of history I stand.
JS: Tell me about some of the research projects you have done.
NM: I became really interested in the history of Mexican food in California, which led to a collaboration with Julio Morales. The project explored the transfer of Alta California from Mexico to the United States in 1846. The project studied and interpreted Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s last 8 hours in power. The project had many layers, food being the spinal cord, the and we shot in Sonoma, at Vallejo’s house. As I was doing my research of the Californio’s dressing customs, I started learning about their food traditions, and from there I was hooked.
I had already been doing research about food in Mexico, but this project opened my eyes to a whole new world of Mexican food, the food of the Californios.