The Chef: Of Flavor and Sound
Gabriela Ruiz was named Mexico’s best chef by the Mexican Gastronomical Council in January 2019. She is most known for her gift of synesthesia, in her case the rare ability to taste music. We sat down with her to learn more about her story.
1. Tell us about yourself and how you started on this journey?
My name is Gabriela Ruiz and I’m a cook. I’ve been doing this since I was 15. I was at a restaurant with my dad and I saw the chef. He was wearing his white jacket, and was giving out orders to his staff, and I was like, “Wow, that would be nice…” But I started to cook when I was even younger. My parents are divorced, and when they used to fight, I would take my younger sister to the kitchen and make her something to eat so she wouldn’t pay attention to the arguing. And suddenly cooking became a magical thing.
2. When did the sounds and colors come into the picture?
My mother is a musician. She always wanted me to be an orchestra director, but I decided to cook instead. [Laughs] She opened a music school when I was a kid, so I was always surrounded by music. One time, I told her that my best friend tasted like Anise and Milk. She laughed and said I had a big imagination. And I was like, “No mom, I promise, it’s true!” She said, “I believe you, that’s nice.” One time, I told her a song tasted like the mole she makes – mole poblano.” She always thought I had a big imagination but always encouraged it. She’d say, “Keep doing that, imagine everything. You can try everything.”
Later, I went to a neurologist because I was having trouble sleeping and told him about this thing I had where I could taste music. He told me that it’s a condition called synesthesia. It’s a brain condition where your senses are connected. He told me that you see that with creative people, and that was the first time someone had told me that it was normal. He explained that as newborns we’re all synesthetic people, but at 6 months, our senses get separated into categories. I thought, “Wow, it has a name, it’s not just an issue I have!”
So, one time, I decided to cook songs. It was when we were opening the restaurant. I was in the elevator with an artist, and I thought, “Wow, I can imagine cooking his music.” But I didn’t say anything because he was with a lot of people. The next day I went to a restaurant and he was there! I said okay this is for me and I went up to him and explained by brain condition. He stopped me and said, “Gaby, I don’t believe it has a name, I have it as well!” “Every time I write a song, I have to see a landscape, otherwise I don’t put it in my album.” He agreed to collaborate, and we met a few weeks later. You should’ve seen his face when he tasted the food of his music!
3. Is the menu always based on songs? No. To understand the dish, you have to eat it with the song. I was at a food event recently, where the theme was technology. So, I had people put on headphones while they ate the dishes. The result was crazy, like 5 people cried! I couldn’t believe it, I cried as well. [Laughs]
4. We noticed that many dishes on your menu are inspired by the Tabasco region, why?
I was born and grew up in Tabasco. I think it’s the most beautiful state in the country. It’s the biggest producer of cacao, so you can imagine the landscape. It’s very hot and humid, which makes it difficult to live in. You can smell the water in the air. It’s like an adventure everyday living there. But because of that, the vegetation is incredible.
5. Is there anything you’d like to share about your culinary experience and your country?
I believe that in every country, the people are the reflection of the food. When I want to learn about a country, I go to the market and I see the ingredients. Mexico is a huge example of that. Our food is passionate. I have a friend who came to visit from New York and when he returned, he told me, “Gaby you guys are like a soap opera!” I laughed and realized that we are like that; we’re passionate and our food is like that, too. For example, when you think of a mole, and all those ingredients mixed together, it doesn’t make sense: chocolate, chili, and a hundred other ingredients! It’s chaos, but a harmonic chaos. At the end, you try it and you understand why [the ingredients] are together. When [Mexicans] travel to a different country, we take that with us, we’re the mole in the room, we’re the passion and chaotic, but we’re also very warm and welcoming.
I always think about that and I also think about how you can tell someone’s personality from their favorite dish. When you think about the ingredients and the way the dish is cooked, it makes sense. One time I had a customer who asked for a very simply cooked fish, tossed about a few times on the pan and sprinkled with lemon. And I thought, “That’s exactly him: to the point, a perfectionist.” Because when cooking fish, you have to have the perfect technique. If you cook it one minute more, it’ll be dry, you can’t fix it. And he’s like that; if you make one mistake, that’s it.
6. Well then, what’s your favorite food?
That’s a complicated question for me… it changes. I was just in Oaxaca and had the best mole negro. I feel like I can die after having a good mole negro, you know? The color, the intensity, the richness. So, mole is my current favorite, but I think in a week it’ll be something else. I’m like that, I’m like a mole. A big mixture of a hundred emotions, thoughts, ideas. No one understands me, but at the end of the day it’s not bad, people like it. [Laughs] I’m complicated but it works!
7. A big part of your work recently has been very experimental – you started to link food to emotions. Tell us how that started.
I was cooking nopales one day. They were spicy and sour. I was grimacing as I was eating them, almost to the point of tearing up. And it hit me that the feeling was like dating somebody new. The intensity of a new relationship, the adrenaline. That’s when I started to link emotions to dishes. I wanted to cook a love story. The very beginning is a mixture of textures—crunchy, creamy and intense; then, as time passes, you start to feel the sourness and the spiciness; and then once you’ve passed about two years, it tastes more like slow cooking—the flavors are less intense; they become sweet and more neutral, like beef bourguignon, warm and soulful. So, I’m wanting to create a menu that’s a love story. The appetizer would be the beginning of the relationship, and by the time you get to the main course, you’ve gone through an entire relationship. I want to invite all our senses into this experience. Imagine listening to a song before the first dish, reading a story before the second dish, etc. Your entire sensory system is participating. I’ve tried this on my friends, they almost always cry.
To experience the taste of music, book a table at Carmela Y Sal, in the Miguel Hidalgo borough of Mexico City. If it’s a Thursday, you may have a chance to meet Ruiz yourself. Tell her we sent you!