Pati Jinich is an Emmy and James Beard-nominated chef with two cookbooks, a PBS TV show filmed at her house (Pati’s Mexican Table) and an ongoing residency at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. She writes a blog, is a frequent guest on talk radio programs, and in 2014 she was invited to the white house to cook for President Obama. She manages all this, somehow, while being a wife and mother of three sons—oh, and did I mention she used to be a political analyst? I spoke with Pati by phone recently to learn more about her newest cookbook, Mexican Today, her approach to balancing family and career, and how she got started as a chef after achieving success in an unrelated field. The fact that Pati was feeling under the weather when we spoke, but never suggested canceling the interview, speaks to her generosity and work ethic. Here is that conversation, lightly edited.
HipLatina: Thanks so much for speaking with me today. We are big fans of Pati’s Mexican Table over here at HipLatina, so this is a treat.
I suppose I’ll begin by asking you about your new book, Mexican Today—what can be found in this book that is different from your previous book and what you’ve done on your PBS show?
Pati Jinich: In this book I tried to incorporate where I see Mexican cuisine today. These are traditional recipes that have been passed down through generations, but adapted to today’s kitchen and doing things in the most accessible way possible. Looking to the past and honoring what came before, but keeping the door to the future open.
The enchilada chapter is a good example. I have many regional enchilada recipes that many people don’t know, although they may feel they know what enchiladas are. The idea is, now that you know the enchilada concept, here are some new recipes to play with.
HL: One of the goals that we have in our delish section is to include traditional recipes but to put a healthy twist on them. My question for you is what would you say to someone who loves cooking the old family recipes they were raised on, but also wants to move their diet in a healthier direction?
PJ: Absolutely, so that’s what I’m trying to do, too—we’re on the same page. I would say my new book can provide ways to do just that, like to take the taco concept but to introduce healthy vegetarian options for making tacos at home.
HL: Ok great. So tell me, how does one of your cookbooks come together? Do you begin with the overall concept and then find the perfect recipes to go together under a main idea, or is it more of a collection of your latest greatest recipes?
PJ: Great question! It takes me like three years to come up with a new cookbook. I know there are a lot of cookbook authors who come out with a new one every year—not me. I try to come up with something new and fresh, but something that will be accessible for anyone to make in their kitchen. I do consider what I’ve been doing, what I’ve been testing, what I’ve been doing on the show. But even if you start with an idea, things change sometimes after you begin the project. Mexican Today for example was going to be Mexican Tonight originally. The different chapters were going to be things you could prepare for dinner—but I changed it because I realized some of the recipes I wanted to include could also work for breakfast or lunch.
HL: How did you choose the photographer for this book?
PJ: My publisher chooses someone and I can say yay or nay, which is great. We had Ellen Silverman on this book, and she was extraordinary.
HL: I know that you do many different things with cooking—you do live cooking demonstrations, write a food blog, appear on Television, and write cookbooks. I want to ask about the differences to you between those different methods of disseminating your knowledge of Mexican cuisine—do you have a favorite? Are they very different to you, or do you feel you are doing more or less the same thing though different mediums?
PJ: I feel they’re all very different, using different skills. I enjoy the different mediums in different ways. They each challenge me in different ways. I love radio, because it’s so clear and direct, with no distractions from the conversation. Also, on TV, your imagination goes as far as your screen goes, but on radio there is no end to where your mind can go. I love doing TV because of the travel and the way I can invite the viewer into my home.
Also, I am fascinated by my topic. I could study Mexican cuisine all my life and only scratch the surface—it’s the broth that I cook in.
HL: I was reading about your affiliation with the Mexican Cultural Institute—tell me more about that center and your involvement.
PJ: They are a non-profit dedicated to all things Mexican cuisine. I am the resident chef there and we have been doing a live program there for 10 years. We do from 4-6 programs a year, and it can vary from a historical view to cooking with vainilla to foods from the Mexican revolution to regional foods from Oaxaca. We try to prepare programs where people can learns a bit of history and cultural as well as learning how to cook something.
HL: Many of our readers are moms and abuelas, so I wanted to ask about cooking with kids. I have seen a few of your cooking videos featuring one of your sons—do all of your boys like working in the kitchen? How young do you recommend starting them out with helping prepare meals? At what age would you encourage kids to try preparing a main dish by themselves (or with parents or siblings to assist)?
PJ: I think there are no rules there, because kids having different personalities, but I feel strongly about involving kids in the planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
My main idea about kids in the kitchen is that if they see you enjoy the process, they will too, but if they see you dread it, they won’t want to do it either. If you are always telling kids to eat their vegetables but you don’t eat them, they won’t either. You have to practice what you preach.
HL: How do you balance being a chef, a mom, and an entrepreneur?
PJ: I don’t know, everything is so mixed up in my life. One episode of my show came about because I was grocery shopping with my son Alan and talking to him about him leaving for college. I said, “No son of mine is going to college without knowing how to choose an avocado, come here!” And my son was looking at me and he said, “Mom, all that’s missing is the camera—I feel like we’re in one of your TV shows.” So we actually did it! There’s an episode called “Alan goes to college” and it’s airing soon!
HL: How long can you imagine doing the show?
PJ: Me? Forever! I could be doing an episode with my hand on my hip!
HL: Do you have any advice for women trying to balance their work lives with family?
PJ: Yes—don’t do what I do! Because I have a home office I find it hard to stop. When you’re a mom, it’s hard to work and assert yourself in the business world. If I could be a little more strict with myself I think I would stop at a certain time, and I think I would do even better.
I get a lot of questions from women who want to know how to switch careers or pursue a passion, and what I say is to jump in blind. Throw yourself into it, because sometimes if you know all the competition and all the possible problems that could arise, you will freeze. You can start to feel bad about yourself and question your approach. I think that after ten years of doing my own thing and trying not to compare myself to others, I have built my business the way I want.
HL: Who inspires you?
PJ: So many people! My husband is really balanced. My kids teach me things everyday. I’m always amazed by their comments. And in terms of chefs, I can’t even begin to tell you—Mexican and non-Mexican chefs. There are so many.
HL: Did you grow up watching any cooking TV shows?
PJ: There was a show in Mexico with a woman named Chepina. She was a really warm personality and made basic staples, so I grew up watching her.
HL: Finally, I want to ask what your hopes are for 2017.
PJ: This year went so fast. I think if I can continue doing what I’m doing, that will be great. I will be very happy if I can help more people and meet more people, I will be very happy.
Read one of Pati’s recipes, for No-Bake Chocolate Pie, here.