For César Ramirez, the Burial Comes Before the Last Meal

Getting his goat

César Ramirez, a longtime protégé of David Bouley's, is busy manning the month-old kitchen at Bar Blanc, where he makes things like confit of baby pig with chanterelles, brussels sprouts, and natural jus with cinnamon star anise and orange. We sprung the question of his last meal recently, and he asked for some time to think about it. Not much time—he called back five minutes later with some rich memories.

I decided you have to leave with something that brings you back to the beginning, like a dish I grew up with: barbacoa. It's a goat, cooked in the ground for 24 hours. An amazing dish. Every time I smell lamb, it reminds me of this. I grew up in Mexico—well, I was born in Mexico; I grew up in Chicago.

How old were you when you left? I left Mexico when I was four years old, but I couldn't forget this food. Do you know how it's done? With this charcoal like iron, so it stays hot, and banana leaves. The hole is covered with plywood.

Isn't this where the word "barbecue" comes from? It is sort of similar to barbecueing, and the word is close . . .

How is the meat seasoned? Just with some herbs, salt, and pepper. It's more about the technique of cooking it that makes it special: Everything just melts. It's like what the Hawaiians do with a pig.

Right. In restaurants, I try to cook like this. Not the same kind of food—believe me, I know Europe better than my own country. But if you can bring back a good memory to someone who is eating your food—even if the food is very modern—it makes your whole meal a lot better. You still gotta have one of those homey little touches, a little something. Technique is very important, but I like to cook simply, seasonally. Like figs from my grandmother's tree when they are perfectly ripe, and the honey is spilling out of them. You just bump it with your hand and it falls off.

Yum. In cooking, I rely on my product. Onions and garlic are always the base, because without Italian food, there couldn't be French food. Most people don't know that, but it's true.

Oh, I'm with you there. Anyway, you've been in New York for about a year. What do you think of the Mexican food here? I don't eat Mexican food here. People think Mexican food is tacos, but it's a lot more. I eat Mexican food all my life. Food is the love of a family, to bring it together. At least in my family, it was a big deal. And my mother and grandmother were always excellent cooks. Mexican food is very sophisticated, but that's not where my heart was. I was married to a French woman, and I went there.

Where in Mexico are you from? Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City—a very cultural town, very Spanish. At the end, you go back. You're going to die. You can't take anything with you—nothing material, just memories. That's why you have to live your life well, and one of the joys is eating. And I'd want to bring my kid and show her, too.

 
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