Saturday, August 8, 2020

A Tribute to Chef Michael Coon

My palate has undergone something of a renaissance over the past 8 years since I  first met Chef Michael Coon. He’s been cooking in San Miguel de Allende since 2009 with a brief, 3 year stint in Mexico City. I met him in 2013, the year I moved to SMA. What impressed me the most is that he lives and breathes all things food, 24/7. He’s influenced my taste in food more than any other chef in San Miguel de Allende.

Channeling San Pasqual, Marco Polo, Anthony Bourdain and having a lookalike complex with Richard Branson, he’s always favored Jamie Oliver’s teaching style. Wolfgang Puck was the first, famous chef he met that influenced him. I’ve never come across anyone, curious about the world, that isn’t just a little bit envious of this chef. He’s traveled over 40 countries to get here.

A well-known world food and travel expert, Michael Coon is the former Travel Director and Co-Creator of the Culinary Institute of America’s World of Flavor tours. He created culinary adventures  went far beyond the momentary food experience. If you want to know the dishes that will find their way into mainstream dining this next year, he’s the chef to ask. He’s worked as a consultant to one of our favorite stores, Williams-Sonoma and General Mills is among his many, devoted clients.

His knowledge of global flavors and ingredients is astonishing. He says the wood grilled fish in Laos, the high-fire hawker stands in Thailand, grilled lamb intestines in Sicily, Pide at a back road restaurant near Ephhesus, Turkey, sardines in Essorira, Morocco, wok fried river fish basted in butter and soy on a crowded street in Cambodia and eating barefoot in the sand in Kerala, India, are some of the many experiences that have shaped his cooking style.


Chef Michael Coon’s favorite ingredient right now (it changes often) is Coco Amino Acid. A salty, savory seasoning sauce made from the fermented sap of coconut palm and sea salt, the sugary liquid is used to produce a variety of food products. Coconut aminos is similar in color and consistency to light soy sauce, making it an easy substitute in recipes. It’s available at Luna de Queso. Another ingredient we discovered from the chef is Spicy Chili Crisp which he used as a topping on ice cream. With a huge cult following, it’s actually good on everything from noodles and soft serve ice cream to peanut brittle. It’s spicy, salty and savory all at the same time and contains umami. The crunchy bits are everything from fried shallots to garlic and chili flakes. The brand, Lao Gan Ma, has been around since 1997; addicting the better half of China’s Guizhou province before it came to North America.

Living in Mexico, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the food I want on my altar at Day of the Dead, after I’m gone. Chef Coon’s Butternut crispy tortilla short rib tacos is my first choice. This chef, who is crazy about all things tacos, just created one of the best taco in SMA. Don’t tell La Azotea; but it rivals the Jicama taco, which has reigned as the best in SMA for over a decade.

What else has he cooked for us lately besides the Butternut crispy tortilla short rib tacos? Fresh sautéed porcini mushrooms over buttered toasted sourdough, a Bahn Mi sandwich with pork chops, pickled daikon and carrots, apple, spicy mayo and cilantro, Udon Noodles with pork dumpling meatballs, fresh sweet corn, pork belly and umami sauce and Ice cream with spicy chile crisp topping.

My first tasting in his kitchen was the Best of World Street Food, back in 2013 - a menu that included Spicy Ginger Pork Dumplings from China, Vietnamese Ban Mi Sandwiches from Saigon, Tacos al Pastor from Mexico, Herbalicious Fried Dough from Italy and Homemade Creamy Ice Cream. He changes up the offerings every time; it’s a fabulous, southern BBQ one night and at the next dinner, the entire meal is made with Tequila. Michael has come into his own with Asian food; he’s one of the best Asian chefs we know.

In addition to organizing festivals and other food events, Michael does culinary tours and has cooked with some of the best chefs in the world. Even when he isn’t on the road, he makes you feel like you’re on tour. On one culinary trek, he transported us to Japan; eating one of his best dishes ever: Okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake that’s made with cabbage and shallots topped with crispy pork belly, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, bull dog sauce and toasted nori. At that dinner, he also served Pok Pok Wings marinated in fish sauce and garlic sweet water, twice cooked, then stir fried with sweet chili paste and fried garlic; Korean Short Rib Tacos in lettuce cups with rice noodles, kimchi, cucumber relish, snow peas, and Asian pear and Pork Dumpling Ramen with shiitakes, smoked corn, carrots and criminis.

So how do you top a dinner like that? With a little alchemy, and a lot of tequila. 

I was fascinated with his menu for his Tequila dinner, using Herradura and Casa Dragones, two of Chef Coon's favorite tequilas. His menu boasted some pretty spectacular tequila combinations: Alder Smoked Jalapeño stuffed with cheese - but when we got there it was also stuffed with shallots and crab and was wrapped in bacon and served with a shaved beet, tomato jam and tequila Serrano Chile jam; Gazpacho Macho: a tequila infused tomato and roasted red pepper juiced, minced cucumber, yellow pepper, orange and yellow carrots, cherry tomatoes, crushed almonds with cilantro, basil and olive oil; Tequila Lime Chicken smothered with Tequila, lime, garlic, shallots and olive oil with tequila reduction sauce, served with cabbage and red onion, tangy Asian slaw and tequila vinaigrette tossed green beans and almond Tequila and lemon and orange zest cake with whipped tequila cream. Like all of his food, every dish was complex, with layers upon layers of flavors. Every dish was perfectly executed, taking tequila to a whole new level for me.

There were many remarkable meals to follow. I'll be the first to admit I was on an Italian kick after I went to the dinner honoring Italian chef, Marcella Hazan. We were rewarded with three of the best Chicken dishes: Pan-roasted Chicken with Rosemary, Garlic and White Wine; Fricasseed Chicken Abruzzi-style with Rosemary, White Wine, Cherry Tomatoes and Olives and Chicken Cacciatore. 

Remember, this chef was cooking all these remarkable, global menus before most of the restaurants opened in SMA; he was a one man show. In fact, it’s no surprise that the dozens of meals we ate with the chef remain, to this day, some of our favorites. His dinners were also teeming with fascinating people, like Melissa Perry Barnett, an alumni of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and Susan Purdy, author of Pie in the Sky, who joined him for a high altitude baking class.

Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar

 Micha Tsumura of Maido 
Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz of Central

Chef Rodolfo Castellano of Origen, Oaxaca and Winner, Top Chef Mexico, Season 1.

One of the things he does best is to inspire people to travel. You could tour on your own but then, you wouldn’t be standing in the kitchens of Chef Eduardo García or Chef Rodolfo Castellano if you did. We were also honored, thanks to Michael, to finally cook with Top Chef Mexico’s Season one winner, Rodolfo Castellano, of Origen Oaxaca and my culinary idol pictured above, Chef Susana Trilling, of Seasons of My Heart in Oaxaca. I ended up doing two, month long trips to Oaxaca and month long trips to Peru and Guatamela just to eat. Michael provided me access to many chefs: Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar; Micha Tsumura of Maido - a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant in Lima that delivered the best 10 course lunch we’ve eaten anywhere in the world and a culinary rendezvous at Central; then the #4 restaurant in the world and the #1 restaurant in Latin America, where Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz  transported us from the Pacific ocean to the Amazon to the Andes; feasting on 17 courses that were innovative, thought-provoking, and artistically complex. In all the travel experiences I’ve had in the past 50 years, these were some of the most rewarding.

So what’s he been up to now that he’s back in SMA? Private dinners for smaller groups; bring your favorite pod. He’s also doing guest chef spots and consulting. 

Michael also happens to be a great guy. With a larger than life personality, he speaks with authority and laughs with total passion. He’s spiritual and deeply religious; Guadalupanas from another mother. A perfect salesman, he can easily get to yes without any effort at all. To know him is to love him. Men aspire to be him and women want to be his best friend. If there’s a strong cast of characters in the room, he’s always at the head of the pack. A master storyteller, he’s seasoned by his culinary treks throughout the world. He’s also a singer, an actor, a yogi, a photographer and has served as the Master of Ceremonies for the Napa Valley Film Festival. He also writes; he’s working on his first book.

We love a culinary pioneer who can still surprise us after all these year. 

Welcome home chef and Buen Provecho!

Contact Chef Michael Coon by calling 415-117-6570. Touch base on Facebook or cookcoon Instagram or email him at