Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Maestras: San Miguel de Allende’s Culinary Pioneers

With a mix of Mexican, American and European women, these sixteen culinary pioneers have stories to tell…

Gilda Carbonaro is responsible for creating a summer program that brings language students to San Miguel, now in its 12th year;

Gloria Espinosa Briseno, Jefa de Cocina at Tacos Don Felix, is one of San Miguel’s best loved, female chefs;

Guadalupe Ramirez Agundis took authentic Mexican food front and center and won a major award in 2016 from the state of Guanajuato;

With over sixty years of culinary experience, Holly Sims loves to eat as much as she loves to cook;

Isabelle Ortega gave SMA sweet and savory, French comfort food;

A respected teacher and lecturer, Kirsten West knows more about Mexican food than anyone, except perhaps her former boss Rick Bayless;

Kris Rudolph helped to bring American desserts mainstream and is writing a book on the oral history of SMA;

Maria Laura Ricaud continues to preserve the traditions of Mexican ancestry cooking and is the keeper of historical family cookbooks;

Mercedes Arteaga Tovar is the beloved, former owner of La Bugambilia;

Melissa Sumner was at the forefront of offering healthy, whole wheat bread;

Noren Caceres brought the California-style burrito to SMA;

Norma Guerrero introduced us to exquisite, French pastries, opening the first European style patisserie;
Patricia Merrill Márquez developed culinary tourism - which was pioneered by her late parents;

Patsy Dubois created a country home for people to celebrate their holidays;

Toni Cherry introduced SMA to ethnic food – inspired by a series of Time-Life Cookbooks called Foods of the World;

Victoria Challancin teaches international cooking in Spanish to Mexican cooks who work for foreigners here.

When these culinary pioneers first came to San Miguel de Allende, it was a different era. There weren't a lot of restaurants back then and good ingredients were difficult, if not impossible, to find. Many of them drove across the border every few months just to load up their car and bring them back. Despite the challenges of the day, they survived, by perseverance and hard work; getting through the tough times with each other… and a lot of faith.

Gender can complicate matters and back then, men had the lockdown on the restaurant kitchens. Many of the women disclosed that it was hard work to gain respect. It was sink or swim; all of them endured the turbulent ride by staying true to who they are: Exceptionally strong women who have a lifelong passion for cooking. Even the Culinary Institute of America, founded in 1946, one of the world’s most acclaimed culinary schools, didn’t accept women until 1970 so imagine what it was like to be an entrepreneurial female in Mexico back then. Every one of them will tell you it wasn’t easy.

As far as the culinary history of women in San Miguel de Allende, there is little. In fact, most of these women wouldn’t have been included in the history books unless they were in civic affairs or linked to famous men. Despite all the obstacles, these women are a tough but gentle sisterhood, each having her own brand of confidence, bringing experience and style to the table.

We introduce to you to the Maestras: the culinary pioneers of San Miguel de Allende. They’ll teach you a lot about resilience… and the San Miguel spirit.

Buen Provecho!

Gilda Carbonaro
Culinarian Expeditions

Gilda Carbonaro is 100% Mexican and her husband, Fulvio, is 100 % Italian. Adopting both cultures, Gilda is the owner of Culinarian Expeditions (, a tour company that leads small groups to Mexico and Italy for a hands-on culinary experience. “It’s for people who love slow food and slow travel,” she says. She’s an advocate of the slow food movement, a global organization founded in 1989, to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions. She also teaches cooking classes and does market-to-table tours as part of the experience; exploring the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez in San Miguel as well as the Mercato di Sant-Ambrogio or Mercato Centrale in San Lorenzo in Florence, where 83 year old Italian Chef Anna Bini is the star of her tour. As one of four sisters born in Laredo, Texas, her strong willed mother determined that she was going to be the daughter who cooked for the family when she was twelve years old. She would give Gilda cooking assignments but Gilda, who was far more adventurous, loved studying cookbooks and would test out different recipes, much to the disapproval of her father, who preferred traditional, Mexican cooking.
She met her husband at the University of Houston and in 1983, they moved to Washington, D.C., where she got her Masters degree in Linguistics from Georgetown University. She was the Director of the Spanish language program at Georgetown and for over thirty years she has taught in private schools in the D.C. area, including the prestigious Saint Albans School, an all boys’ school - grades 4 through 12. Gilda created a summer program, Saint Albans in San Miguel de Allende, to bring students here to learn about Mexican culture, including language, soccer, cooking and dance. The program is now in its twelfth year. A blogger, she and a friend, Gilda Claudine Karasik, created Dos Gildas, a blog dedicated to authentic Mexican cuisine, recipes, and stories surrounding the Latin culture. The blog was recognized by NBC Latino.
She first came to San Miguel back in 1974 when she was in her 20’s and has, over the years, grown to love her adopted home, especially the food. Her flan, she said, is “silky” and her Calabacitas con Carne de Puerco is always a hit. On the Italian side of the table, the Neapolitan version of Pasta e Fagioli is her husband’s favorite dish. Guests love her Spaghetti-allo-scoglio, a pasta and seafood dish. When she talked about her Peposo, a peppery Tuscan beef stew cooked in red wine and fall-off-the-fork tender, we decided it was time for her to teach Italian cooking classes in SMA as well. Gilda said that she’ll announce a new project soon in memory of her son Alex, who passed away in the war in Iraq.
A lifelong educator, both in and out of the kitchen, Gilda Carbonaro is a true Maestra.
Gloria Espinosa Briseno
Jefa de Cocina
Tacos Don Felix

Armed with an abundance of charisma and an enormous smile, Chef Gloria Espinosa is one of SMA’s best loved chefs. She is a classic cook turned chef who has earned the respect of eaters and competitors alike. Growing up, she learned to cook from her mother and was always experimenting with family recipes. For fifteen years, she cooked at El Campanario, a mansion at #34 Canal; formerly one of the best restaurants in SMA owned by her brother. Gloria then moved to Café Colon, a popular meeting place for locals.
In 2005, she began cooking for the street cart that her husband Felix opened just three blocks from their house in Colonia San Rafael. Felix ran the street cart, along with his son Diego, daughter Connie and nephew Lalo. After two years, it became so popular, they transformed the first floor of their home into a restaurant and it’s been dishing out authentic, Mexican cuisine ever since. Known for their enchiladas and fish bowl size Margaritas, the restaurant is currently celebrating its ninth year. During the week, Gloria and her staff also serve over five hundred meals to local high school students.

Gloria and Felix have been married for twenty nine years and have two children and three grandchildren, all who help out in the restaurant. No surprise that Gloria’s specialty is enchiladas, some of the best in SMA. The popular dish, Enchiladas Gloria (chicken and pork topped in red and green sauce) is named in her honor.

Guadalupe Ramirez Agundis
Banquetes Marcela

Guadalupe Ramirez Agundis is a SMA institution. Her aunt, eighty- two year old Mucia Agundis, who still helps out in her kitchen, put Guadalupe in charge of event planning at the Hotel Quinta Loreto fifty-six years ago and the rest is history. Growing up, she lived with her Grandmother, Maria de Jesus, her father’s mother. Maria was a really good cook and Guadalupe memorized everything she did. Her grandparents also sold dairy products. She smiles at the mention of cooking with Nata and mantequilla.

In 1987, she started a catering business named after her daughter, Marcela. Widely known as La Bola, a nickname she's had since birth, Guadalupe does major events for the who's who of SMA. Her typical week, especially in December, is hectic. Her energy is relentless. Her specialty dish is Chiles de la Hacienda.
If she could pick one chef to cook with, it would be Paco Cardenas, owner of El Petit Four. Last year, she won an award for the best sweet dish, Empanaditas del Senor de la Columna, at the International Summit of Gastronomy held at the IV Meeting of Traditional Kitchen in Guanajuato, where fifty one chefs participated. Guadalupe has worked many events including feeding film crews like the one for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, where her staff had to keep the coffee hot for 24 hours.

After nearly thirty years, Banquetes Marcela has become a household name. She has a staff of thirteen full-time workers and twenty waiters. Her grandson, Jose Pedro Hernandez Trejo, who graduated from culinary school and got his Masters Degree at Vasco de Quiroga University in Morelia, has taken over most of the cooking. Of course, she still runs the show. Guadalupe is a culinary gem who has established the standards for catering in SMA. No one can set the bar higher.

Holly Sims
Sous Chef
Casa de Cocinas

With over sixty years of culinary experience, Holly Sims is an accomplished American cook who also enjoys eating good food. The former owner of Behind the Scenes Catering and Holly’s Place Restaurant, she’s currently the Sous Chef for Chef Michael Coon at Casa de Cocinas. Holly’s mother did not cook and her father, an Air Force pilot, was gone a lot, so she and her twin sister Lil learned to cook when they were just twelve. Her father said she’s a natural chef.

There were few opportunities for women back then, so Holly made her own. She attended San Diego State University and majored in Women’s Studies. Early in her career, she was an ATC technician at a NATO bunker in the Alsace-Lorraine hills in Europe; a Manufacturing Engineer for weapons of mass destruction (yes, seriously) at Ford Aerospace in Newport Beach, Ca. and a private chef for the band leader of New Riders of the Purple Sage. She said her experience with assembly line techniques as a manufacturing engineer taught her how to mass produce food. When she lived in Europe, she discovered what fine dining was about and learned to make all the foods she ate out in the restaurants. She cooked with friends; most of them chefs.
If Holly could pick three chefs to cook with now, they would be Chef Lalo Garcia of Bistro Maximo, Chef Julia Child and Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. She’s passionate about French food and California eclectic. A girl after our own heart, her specialty dish is anything that includes chocolate. She dreams of going to Lyon, France for her last meal, often called the gastronomic capital of France. In SMA, she frequently eats at her favorite restaurants: Nómada cocina de interpretación, Aguamiel cocina rustica and MiVida Restaurant.

Isabelle Ortega
Madame la lune

Her quiche and cakes are recognized as some of San Miguel’s best sweet and savory comfort foods. Isabelle Ortega, owner of Madame la lune (her nickname since she was little) says she’s not technically a chef, she’s never been to school, but she’s passionate about cooking and dedicated to the fine art of eating good food. She went to college because her father forced her to go; earning a degree in English/Business from Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. After graduation, she accepted a position as the Assistant Manager of Public Relations at the prestigious Westbury Hotel in London. She went on her dream vacation to Acapulco and fell in love with Mexico and Miguel Angel (Miguel Angel Munoz, owner of La Isla). Isabelle never left, working in sales at the Mayan Palace for ten years. Arriving in San Miguel just seven years ago, she brought quiche to daughter Paloma’s school and that launched her career. Isabelle first sold her pastries at Marcia Dolce’s Black and White store and did very well, in fact her business exploded, so she moved to the Organic market.

The chefs she would love to cook with are Chef Pierre Hermè, the Picasso of pastry; Chef Alain Passard, the chef/owner of the three-star restaurant L'Arpège in Paris and Chef Anne-Sophie Pic, best known for gaining three Michelin stars for her restaurant, Maison Pic, in southeast France. If it were the last weekend on earth, she would be in Paris or somewhere in the state of Perigord, her Shangri-la for eating duck, truffles, Bergerac and Monbazillac wines. Isabelle says her recipes come from her large family: great grandmother, grandmother, mother, and aunts. Her fondest childhood memory is when they would gather together during the holidays to cook and eat French cuisine. Isabelle said “I don’t eat to live, I live to eat.”

Kirsten West
Mayora de Cocina
La Piña Azul Escuela de Cocina

Kirsten West, a true culinary explorer, is the Mayora de Cocina at La Piña Azul Escuela de Cocina. Her entire life has been devoted to food; her most rewarding were the eight years she spent as Director of the test kitchen for Chef Rick Bayless. At her office in Chicago, she was surrounded by the collection of Bayless cookbooks; the largest, privately-owned collection of Mexican cookbooks in the U.S. An authority on Mexican food and ingredients, she gives cooking classes and speaks at the Instituto Allende on the history of Mexican food; her most recent on chocolate and coffee. She grew up in Germany during the war and had so little food, she never forgot what it was like to be hungry. At the age of eight, she was already cooking for her mother and her younger siblings. There was no time to teach her to cook; she learned as she went along. Her friend Diana Kennedy and former boss Rick Bayless taught her about the Mexican cuisine she is now so passionate about. Her curiosity for all things Mexican started when she was twelve, in a history class, back in her native Germany. From a career as a nurse and a tabletop designer at Neiman Marcus, she’s always gravitated back to food.

When Kirsten started a catering company, she was asked to be Mick Jagger’s (the Rolling Stones) private chef, a short term job that turned into a four-year gig. After fifteen years of catering, she moved to Chicago to work for Rick Bayless, where they developed Mexican food lines for such industry giants as Crate and Barrel, Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods. She said she has deeply ventured into the mysteries of moles, experiencing some ‘near religious experiences’ preparing them.

Kirsten is the Director of the Food in Film Festival, March 7 – 9, 2017, at Bellas Artes; a benefit for DIF. The festival will celebrate six classic food films this year: Chef, Dinner Rush, The God of Cookery, Mostly Martha, Who’s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? and Sideways.

Kris Rudolph
El Buen Café, La Cocina Cooking School and Delicious Expeditions

Kris Rudolph made simple, American desserts mainstream in SMA. She’s the owner of El Buen Café, La Cocina Cooking School and Delicious Expeditions culinary tour company. A cookbook author, culinary teacher and tour leader, she still finds time to blog about her adventures (, as well as consult and develop recipes for Tabasco brand products. She originally built her business making desserts for restaurants in SMA back in the nineties. Some places acknowledged her; others kept it a secret and told their customers that there was a pastry chef in the kitchen.

She started in the food industry when she was just fifteen; now with thirty five years of experience. In 1991, Kris opened El Buen Cafe and worked as the principal chef and baker. After twenty one years on Calle Jesus, she downsized the cafe and moved it to Colonia San Antonio in order to devote her time to other projects, mainly her culinary tour company, where she’s combined her love of food and travel. She also teaches Mexican cooking in the U.S. as well. Her grandmother influenced her early years; she was a great Southern cook and Kris still considers Southern cuisine one of her specialties. For years, she offered Southern Comfort Wednesdays at the café; it was always packed with chicken fried steak-loving Texans.

Academically, she concentrated on the business end of the industry, graduating with a Masters in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration from the University of Massachusetts. While she was there, she taught cooking and banquet management to undergraduates in the department. She loves Diana Kennedy, not just for her cooking, but also for her dedication to the history and culture of Mexico. She once asked Matteo Salas of Aperi if she could be the President of his fan club. He laughed; she said she was serious.  “I think he's one of the best chefs in the world, not just Mexico,” she says. Like most of us, she doesn't want to cook with him, she just wants to watch him and to eat. A former, professional ballroom dancer, Kris taught Salsa and Latin dancing in SMA, first at Mama Mia in 1993 and then at her own studio. Kris believes in the art of eating well and says “not one bite should be wasted on mediocre food.

Her book,”Voices of San Miguel”, an oral history of SMA, is coming out next year. 

Maria Laura Ricaud
Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School

Maria Laura Ricaud (Marilau) is the owner of Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School and has been a force of Mexican cooking tradition for over thirty years. Her grandfather was a gourmand; influenced by his French parents. Both of her grandmothers, all of her aunts and her mother were impressive cooks. Loyal to tradition, she developed a true pleasure for Mexican ancestry cooking. She was trained in the kitchens of her grandmothers, aunts, and mother. She says that today’s women do not identify with home training and family cooking. “They want education from a school and schools put little emphasis on teaching traditional Mexican cooking. The knowledge of the traditions in cooking, family recipes and Mexican cooking techniques are not truly understood,” she says. She’s passionate about Ancestry Mexican Cuisine, no fusions. If it was the last weekend on earth, she would be in Mexico City in her grandma´s kitchen; “there, cuisine was unique,” she said.

              Maria Ricaud's grandfather Agustin Ricaud and her grandmother Laura Santos are circled
Fiercely independent, she’s always been her own boss. Her culinary history is as Mexican and eloquent as it gets: Her grandfather, Don Agustin, was born in Oaxaca on 1901. He married Dona Laura, born in Ozumba, whose family owned a wheat and corn mill and was the Kitchen Director for Kodak and the National Rural Confederation in Mexico City. Her other grandfather, Don Jesus, was born in Mexico City in 1881. His family owned the Hacienda Maderera San Andres. He married Dona Esperanza, who was born in Morelia in 1891. She inherited the tradition of Morelia cooking, preparing her sweets on carbon embers or in a wood burning stove instead of using gas when it became available. This is how Marilau learned to cook sweets. Her mother’s sister, Dona Maria Luisa Solorzano, married Don Francisco, owner of Hacienda Ganadera de Torros de Lidia “La Punta”, where bullfighting bulls were raised. The Hacienda was famous for its kitchen, where international celebrities like Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Dolores del Rio were served. Another Aunt, Dona Guadalupe, worked for forty two years at the Jockey Club in Mexico City.

Marilau’s kitchen is a museum; she’s inherited cazuelas, ollas and other kitchen treasures from her family. Maria Laura Ricaud is the keeper of a remarkable piece of Mexican culinary history: Handwritten family cookbooks, one of them from 1798.

Maria Mercedes Arteaga Tovar
Former Owner
La Bugambilia

In the glory days, La Bugambilia was the place to go because of Mercedes Arteaga; she was the soul of the restaurant. Born on August 10, 1945 to parents Gabino and Carmen Arteaga, she was the last of four sisters and one brother. Her family loved food and they all learned to cook when they were very young. When she was small, “the life of the house (family) was the food and everybody put their hand into the batter” she says. Her grandmother, mother and father all influenced her cooking. She remembers many of the stories from her childhood. Her grandfather’s house was on Callejon de Los Muertos, just a few doors down from where I live. When she was young, Mercedes took cooking classes in Mexico City, Querétaro, León and in Europe. She never graduated but she said it didn’t matter; people loved her cooking anyway. She says “back then, men ruled the kitchen and if they had a secret recipe, they would make it at home and bring it into the restaurant so no one knew the ingredients they used.”

Mercedes was a trained accountant but taught cooking on the university level. Her first café, Pan y Vino, was the place to be during the early seventies hippie culture, with live guitar music and Bob Dylan on the stereo. She started working in her family business in the mid seventies. In 1983, her father died and the family decided to open a restaurant in their house at Hidalgo #42. All of her employees back then were women. From 1983 -2012, La Bugambilia thrived. During the eighties, it was the only upscale, “gringo” restaurant in town. People would go to get a taste of their famous Chiles en Nogada, Fajitas, Guacamole and Sopa Azteca. She taught cooking classes in the restaurant which included trips to Ignacio Ramirez market to do the shopping. She has one daughter who does not like to cook. Mercedes has great genes; her grandmother died at 106 years old. She wants to continue to be an influence in the culinary community in SMA; she’s talking about going back to work.

Melissa Sumner
Panaderia La Buena Vida

Melissa Sumner is a true entrepreneur. She came to SMA twenty seven years ago with a mission: she wanted to bake nutritious whole-wheat bread. Now the owner of Panaderia La Buena Vida, shoppers stand in line every Saturday morning at the Organic market just to buy her breads, empanadas and her famous, oversized doughnuts.

Born in Arizona, her father was in the Air Force so her family lived in England and all over the U.S. She learned to bake from her mother, who had a talent for making magnificent cakes and came from a line of great bakers. She taught all four of her children how to bake bread. In 1984, after graduating from Indiana University, she went to work at the corporate headquarters of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City for three years. Realizing that the corporate world was never going to satisfy her, she traveled to France to perfect her French language skills, hoping to work in some area of traditional artisan food production. Melissa’s plan was to stay for one year but it quickly turned into five after feeling more comfortable with her contacts and the language. She spent the last two years in France doing an apprenticeship in a bakery in the region of Les Alpes- de-Haute-Provence. In February 1989, she was working the winter and summer tourist seasons in Castellane and had some time off so she came to Mexico for a vacation. She had already decided she wanted to work on her own and was seriously considering baking bread, but she wasn’t sure where. San Miguel felt "ripe" for whole-wheat bread so she decided to stay for a while. 

In February, 1989, Melissa started baking bread in her Santo Domingo apartment; whole-wheat sandwich bread and a whole-wheat raisin and pecan bread called “Pan de la Mañana.” She started small because she knew she didn’t want to work baker’s hours. About this time she met Ismael Chaveznava, a musician, her partner in the bakery from 1991 - 2009. With her business growing and some help from investors, she bought a large bread oven and moved to Colonia San Antonio, where she operated a “mini bread factory” for three years. She wanted a top-quality line of bread, but good flour was difficult to find. She would buy the wheat in Celaya and take it to a dry mill in San Miguel to grind into flour. She moved to her current location, in the historic center of town, in 1994. The business grew, and in response to customer demand, Melissa opened a coffee and juice bar in 1996 and then expanded into a full café, Cafetería La Buena Vida, which she owned until 2009.

In the summer of 2010, TOSMA started the Organic market in Juarez Park. It moved to the Rosewood property in 2011 and then to Mercado Sano in 2016. Melissa has been part of that market project since it started; joining just one month after it opened. She recently did a start up in Mercado Sano, an “expansion step” she says.  

Melissa created Panaderia La Buena Vida because she wanted to introduce her customers to a more nutritious way of eating and also wanted to teach women a trade traditionally done by men in México. For many years, she only hired women. “La Buena Vida is more than a bakery, it’s a way of life” she said. She’s been active in martial arts for 12 years; it helps keep her centered in order to run her business. She says she’ll never complain about living and working in Mexico. “The "Mexican experience has much to teach all of us about the need for humility and awareness of our attachments in life... which is all good in the end.”
Noren Caceres
La Frontera

Noren Caceres is responsible for kicking off the California-style burrito in San Miguel. Noren has always loved to cook. By the age of three, she was heating up Campbell’s soup when her mother decided to sleep in. At twelve, she started looking up recipes and making dinner. She was always open to different types of food; liking almost everything she tried.

Noren came to Mexico twenty three years ago from San Francisco after she graduated from college. She decided to track down her father’s side of the family in Mexico City. She never really knew her father; he died when she was four. She didn’t even have a photograph of him. Within weeks of deciding that she no longer wanted to live without an image of her father, she located his family. Shortly thereafter, a woman who had been a friend of her parents told her about SMA. She came here with her mother, went back to Puebla where she was staying, packed up her car and moved. She owned a boutique here for seven years and for three years, she exported Mexican crafts. She then opened up El Burrito Bistro, on Correo in the center of town. When it closed, she did International dinners out of her house and ran the kitchen at the Sunset Bar for Tim McCoy. She returned to catering out of her home until the space at Plaza Pueblito became available, at which time she opened La Frontera. She originally partnered with a Texan who has since left.

Her life as a writing student at Emerson College in Boston was responsible for her learning to cook. She’s from California, so Mexican food has always been a staple. She went to high school in Italy, where she ate a lot of pasta. She lived in the North End of Boston where there are Italian delis, butchers and fresh seafood stores so she was always making healthy, fresh food that took her very little time to prepare. She never thought about cooking as a career. It wasn't until she was in her second year of college, hanging out in the Boston Commons, when one of her friends pulled out his set of kitchen knives; school supplies for culinary school. She never had formal training to do what she’s done, spending the past thirteen years focusing on running a successful restaurant.

Noren says she needs more than one weekend to eat her way through San Francisco again; eating sushi in Japantown, Mexican in the Mission, pasta at North Beach, and salad at Harvest's salad bar near the Castro. When she’s here, she goes to Tacos Don Felix, because she likes the atmosphere and respects what he has done. She enjoys cooking alone with a glass of wine and Motown. She would also love to eat with Anthony Bourdain sometime.

Norma Guerrero
Chef Patissier
El Petit Four Bakery

Norma Guerrero, who describes herself as happy, anxious, optimistic, disciplined, and demanding, is the Chef Patissier at El Petit Four bakery and is one of SMA’s top pastry talents. She was in graphic design school when she first met her partner, Paco Cardenas, and they’ve been joined at the hip ever since. During school, she and Paco use to cook together all the time. It was then she realized she wanted to become a chef. After graduation, Norma and Paco went to work with Pastry Chef Dominique Le Marrec at the Marriot Hotel in Mexico City. In 1998, Norma and Paco came to SMA to open El Petit Four bakery, the first European style patisserie. She said she gets her daily inspiration just by putting on her pastry apron. She is motivated by the fact that Paco pushes her every day to be better. Of course, she pushes him too; they’ve been partners for nineteen years. If it was the last weekend on earth, she says she would be in Oaxaca eating. If she moved from SMA, she would probably end up in Germany, a country recognized for their superb breads and cakes. A specialty, nobody does Chocolate Truffles better than Norma.

Patricia Merrill Márquez and Mónica Navarrete Merrill
Our Mexican Cooking Vacation

You can’t separate Architect and Maestra Patricia Merrill Marquez from her daughter, Monica, when it comes to most things, including cooking. Patricia Merrill Marquez, whose parents Yaya and Don Ricardo, pioneered Mexican culinary tourism as a “vacation with a purpose” back in the late sixties, is keeping up with Yaya. She’s the author of “The Buen Provecho Book”, a collection of traditional and contemporary Mexican recipes that also contains insights into every day Mexican life. As a cook, she’s been in the kitchen all her life with her mother and her grandmother, Lorencita. Her company, Our Mexican Cooking Vacation, is an extension of her parents business, International Memorable Learning Experience (IMLE), where celebrities like Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless and Barbara Hansen passed through the kitchen.
Patricia’s daughter, Mónica Navarrete Merrill, has a Diploma in High Cuisine and is a 2010 gastronomy graduate from the Instituto Gastronómico de Estudios Superiores. She also attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. Patricia has brought culinary tourists to SMA from all over the world including the U.S., England, Canada, Japan, Holland, Australia, Argentina, and Colombia. Their business was featured as one of the “Top Ten Girlfriend Getaways in the World” by Travel and Leisure magazine. Their guests, including important researchers, restaurant owners, honeymooners, mother-daughters, doctors, tequila companies and corporations, get a chance to see what Mexico is really about. “We break the stereotype of sombreros, tequila and donkeys, Monica said.” Patricia said the women in her family - grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law - are all hands-on cooks and have influenced her cooking. She relied on her father to teach her the history of Mexican cuisine, which gave the cultural connection a wider sphere. Patricia says “women are still the most influential in Mexican cooking.” Monica replied that “being able to go out and get a better education has given women the same opportunities as men.”  
Patsy Dubois
Patsy’s Place

A free spirit in every sense of the word, Patsy Dubois, or Pepsi as her friends call her, learned to cook in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the early age of five. Her father put her on a wooden box in front of the stove and said “if you can read, you can learn to cook.” And she did. In 1966, when she was just nineteen years old, she took a Greyhound bus from Tulsa, Ok. to San Antonio, Texas and then came by train to San Miguel, a 19+ hour trip. It was May when she arrived in SMA, before the rains, and she said all she could see when she got off the train was dust. That summer, she attended the Instituto Allende and in 1969, she got her Masters of Fine Art there. She speaks fondly of Nell Harris Fernandez, wife of the former governor of Guanajuato, who was running the Instituto and the hotel close to the school where Patsy stayed. At the time, there were over six hundred students from twenty three countries attending the school. After graduation, she planned to go to Greece but like most people who come to SMA, she fell in love with Mexico and never looked back.

Patsy went to Mexico City and taught at the Modern American School and also did private tutoring. She had a favorite student and was invited to live with his family at Los Pinos for five years. She said “the party never ended until 1986, when I became sober at The Meadows and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.” She’s been sober for thirty years. She returned to SMA and started a catering company, Fiesta Party, with a group of friends. She tells stories about when they would all sneak down to the Jardin at 3:00 AM in their bathrobe and slippers to smoke cigarettes and make plans for the future, a future that was suddenly taken from her good friend Grillo Villareal when she died in a car accident. In 1994, she wanted to try something new so she started cooking; doing catering from her ranchito and teaching classes. The ranchito grew into a venue and party pavilion where people went to celebrate their holidays. Semi-retired now, she still does private parties, lunches and cooking classes by reservations plus catering in private homes.

An artist, Patsy quit painting forty years ago and just resumed. She has traveled, exploring new cultures and foods around the world. She spent a month in San Francisco to improve her palate. She also goes to New York City twice a year, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood eating. She just returned from a trip to Bali and New Zealand. She’s currently building a new house, making plans to travel Mexico and will start on a cookbook after the first of the year.

Toni Cherry
Toni Cherry's Cooking School

Toni Cherry is responsible for introducing ethnic food in San Miguel.  Although she was never taught how to cook, cooking was in her blood. Her father was the chef at El Rancho Vegas, the first resort in Las Vegas where entertainers  Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Julius LaRosa, comedians Joe E. Lewis and Buddy Hackett, opera star Roberta Sherwood, actresses Jane Russell, Eartha Kitt, Rita Moreno, Gloria DeHaven and Zsa Zsa Gabor performed.

In 1948, when she was just seventeen, Toni moved to Las Vegas and married a man in the Air Force. She spent the next eleven years traveling Europe, Japan and Guam. She loved good food, saving money to eat at all of the best restaurants in Europe. When they returned to the base in North Dakota, she packed up her two children and returned to Las Vegas with $400.00 in her pocket. Shortly after moving back, she met an attorney; they were together for twenty one years. She wanted to do something with her life so she tried working as a travel agent but she was always sending people to the wrong cities and countries. An avid tennis player, she ran club tennis tournaments for three years.

She ultimately went to work at the Desert Inn Country Club, a hotel known for its opulence and top-notch service, first as a waitress, then Banquet Manager and finally the Manager. That club occupied the same property the Wynn Hotel is on today. A customer who owned the Gourmet Factory, a high-end cooking supply house in Las Vegas, pleaded with her to come teach cooking classes. They soon became partners in a catering business. At that time, she was also learning about ethnic cooking from the Time-Life cookbooks, Foods of the World, a popular series of twenty seven cookbooks published by Time-Life beginning in 1968 and extending through the late 1970s. Once a month, she cooked a meal from a different country. She loved to entertain and have dinner parties. During this time, she also taught the maid of Forrest Mars (Mars Candy Company) how to cook and did demos for Williams-Sonoma (founded in 1956).

She moved to SMA in January, 1984, and was the owner of four restaurants: El Cirqo, El Cirquito, Café Lucy and El Retorno. She never actually cooked at any of these restaurants; she had female chefs who did that. Toni worked the front of the house. All of the restaurants were wildly popular because Toni remembered people’s names, what they ate and drank and little known facts about their families. She says “restaurants need to remember they are more about people than they are about food.”

She’s traveled to seventeen countries but leave her in Paris and she will be happy. Of cooking, she says that once you learn the basics and techniques of French cooking, you can make anything. For years, she’s had an assistant, Enriquetta, who has been cooking since she was ten. She has two sons who both love to cook. She counts among her former students Chef Matteo Salas of Aperi and Jacinto 1930, Paco Cardenas of El Petit Four and Gregory Johnson, former Manager of the restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Napa, who said “her Asian cooking classes are divine; her Peking Duck classes are not to be missed.” Toni is a SMA treasure and at eighty-five, she is still teaching cooking classes; her latest one was Sushi.
Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School

Victoria Challancin was born in Belle Glade, Florida, received a Bachelor’s Degree from Florida State University, and a Master’s Degree from The University of Georgia in English Education. She established a school under the auspices of the Alabama State Board of Education for an American company in Abu Dhabi and taught at the University of Bahrain for six years. She’s lived in Paris and London and has traveled extensively throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. A popular tour guide, Victoria leads small groups to locations around the world including Morocco, Paris, and Istanbul. She also led week-long cooking tours for Wild Women Adventures. She worked as a Culinary Producer for Mexican Made Easy, Season Three for the Food Network and on Life’s Adventures: “Castaways San Miguel de Allende”  for the Fine Living Channel. She also finds the time to blog ( Articles about Victoria have appeared in Ladies Home Journal, The Smithsonian, The San Francisco Chronicle, Mode Magazine, Weight Watchers, The Austin Chronicle, Chile Pepper Magazine, The World and I, and Texas Monthly. As a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, she studied with world-class chefs and teachers including Jaques Pèpin, Juila Child, Madhur Jaffrey, Rick Bayless, Wolfgang Puck, Martin Yan, and Steve Raichlin.
In 1998, she wrote the popular bilingual cookbook Flavors of San Miguel de Allende. Victoria is a twenty-nine year resident of San Miguel. As well as offering cooking classes in English, Victoria teaches international cooking in Spanish to Mexican cooks who work for foreigners in San Miguel.