UNDER THE ORANGE TREE: ILIANA AND EL NARANJO
“Follow your dream”, is advice that is freely given these days, but few people have the resources and energy to persevere, especi-ally when the dream doesn’t seem to be coming true. Iliana de la Vega,master chef, cooking teacher, and owner of one of Oaxaca’s most renown restaurants, found herself ready to quit about six months after she and her husband Ernesto opened their now popular restaurant.
They had opened in March, only to be under-mined in May by the first teachers strike that spilled out in front of their perfect Trujano Street location. There weren’t many tourists all summer, and the Oaxacans had a habit of checking out a new restaru-ant one time only, then never again. In September there were still no city streetlights on Trujano, and she began to wonder if people knew if there was a restaurant in the building.
By October Iliana was discouraged, and didn’t know how they could possibly keep it going. She considered going back to selling real estate, but Ernesto was more optimistic, and encourged her to continue, in spite of the fact that they were losing money, and had two daughters to support.
In early November of the same year, on Day of the Dead, a group of 40 tourists from Texas found themselves without a place to eat comida. A friend of Iliana’s cousin called and asked if she could feed them, and she agreed. They loved the meal, and began a word-of-mouth campaign to promote El Naranjo. They returned for another meal, and were just as delighted as the first time. That was nine years ago, and the word-of-mouth has been formalized into articles in the NY Times, Bon Apetit Maga-zine, starred reviews in most of the guide books about Mexico, and excellent customer feedback on various websites. The consensus is that Restaurnte El Naranjo is a “must do” when you are visiting Oaxaca. So after nine years of very hard work, Iliana’s dream has come true.
Iliana’s father loved restaurants, and when she was a child, growing up in Mexico City, the family would dine out often. She listened to her father’ observations about what made a good restaurant, and developed a critical eye and palate. She learned to cook at home, from a patient mother who had a career as a chemist and was also an excellent cook.
By the time Iliana was eighteen, she knew that she wanted to become a chef, but her family objected to such a prosaic profession. She asked her mother to send her to cooking school in Paris, but attended university instead. For years she worked at jobs she did not enjoy, but she always cooked at home.
When she was in her 20’s, still living in Mexico City and first married to Ernesto, a friend asked Iliana to teach her the basics of cooking, and Iliana began a career that she enjoyed. She had been baking breads and doing catering out of her home, and had a clientele who was interested in learning to cook and bake. So for six years, while her two daughters were small, she taught at home while Ernesto worked as a picture framer. Their work was satisfying, but it was not very lucrative, and they decided to move to Chile,
Ernesto’s native country, when the Chilean govern-ment offered repatriation incentives. Ernesto had moved to Mexico City when he was 14, and Chile was a quite a shock. It snowed in the winter, and it was difficult for them to fit in with the Chileans who had not left.
They spent a year there before they decided that they really belonged in Mexico, and wanted to raise their children here. By then Iliana’s mother had moved back to Oaxaca, where she was born, and they decided to follow.
Oddly enough, Iliana’s first restaurant experience in Oaxaca was as the manager of a Domino’s Pizza fran-chise, which was floundering before she took over.
She learned how to organize a restaurant from the inside out, and in three months she had turned the place around. But after a year and a half the owners sold the franchise without telling her. They assumed that she would stay on, “But I did not want to feel like I was sold like a piece of furniture,” she says. She negotiated a serverence package that helped her invest in her own restaurant, featuring her own recipes.
She and Ernesto fell in love with the old home which they converted into El Naranjo, and they still lease their oringinal building after almost a decade and many improvements. Now most tourists and taxi drivers know how to find the building, and it houses one of the favorite restaurants of the foreigners who live here.
Attracting tourists and foreigners was not Iliana and Ernesto’s goal, but they learned a great deal about the eating habits of Oaxacans in those first difficult months at El Naranjo. Although the menu always featured trad-itional dishes, they were cooked in a non-traditional way, without lard, and with finer cuts of meat. North Americans appreciated this heart-healthy approach to Oaxacan Cuisine immediate-ely, but the more conservative Oaxacans didn’t understand the concept, and felt that Iliana was compromising traditional tastes. More and more foreigners came back again and again, more and more Oaxacans did not.
“People from the United States and Europe are used to a variety of tastes, and they are willing to experiment and change”, says Iliana, “while Oaxacans prefer not to change.”
The same was true of her Oaxacan cooks, who could not understand that cooking without lard was important for good health. From the beginning, Iliana was com-pletely involved with every aspect of the kitchen, and she trained many cooks and wait-ers until she had the system, the staff,and the food that she had always invisioned.
The service and food at El Naranjo are consistently excellent, and quality control is a skill that she learned from her pizza days. Iliana is very proud of her staff and her food, and her clientele appreciates her vision and her persistence in making El Naranjo a world class resta-urant. She is invited to give lectures and demonstrations all over the world, and she has gained recognition for making her dream come true.
El Naranjo restaurant is located at Trujano,two blocks from the zocalo newsstand. Open Mon-Sat for lunch and dinner. Iliana teaches cooking classes at the restaurant on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30-2:30.
Jane Saxe Robison runs the Casa Colonial and leads tours in Oaxaca and Mexico City.