By MM Pack
Photography by Bill Albrecht
“I don’t like to be sitting, waiting for something to happen,” Iliana de la Vega says, expressing what, by anyone’s standards, would be an understatement. The former chef/owner of the internationally praised restaurant El Naranjo in Oaxaca, Mexico, de la Vega is a recent transplant to Austin. She commutes to the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) San Antonio campus, where she teaches, writes, develops curricula and conducts culinary research.
And, lucky for us, she and her husband, Chilean-born architect Ernesto Torrealba, are busy with plans to open an Oaxacan-style restaurant here.
De la Vega never expected to find herself in Austin, and her path here has been circuitous. Born in Mexico City, she studied literature, communications and hotel administration, then worked for many years in her family’s machine-parts business.
Yet her heart was always in the kitchen.
“I wanted to be a chef—to cook—from the beginning,” she says. “My father loved restaurants, and we’d travel for food. He’d want a certain Veracruz dish, and we’d get in the car and drive to Veracruz to eat it. I always wondered what was going on behind the kitchen door. Where did all that beautiful food come from?”
Her chemist mother, however, just couldn’t see Iliana as a chef.
“In Mexico, who was cooking wasn’t considered very important,” de la Vega says. “So I learned to cook from books, and I did catering for fun on the side. I started teaching cooking because a friend was getting married and didn’t know anything.”
For six years, de la Vega taught six hands-on classes per week in addition to baking for clients—all the while honing her skills and studying the foods of Mexico. By this time she was also married with two young daughters.
After a sojourn in Santiago, Chile, the family returned to Mexico and settled in Oaxaca. There, she took over a relative’s ailing Domino’s Pizza franchise, turned it around, and within six months was honored as the company’s International Rookie Manager of the Year. “That experience taught me a lot about the restaurant business,” she says. “To me, there was no soul in that food. But it was a way for me to learn.”
Crackling with entrepreneurial spirit and confidence, de la Vega was anxious to open her own place. “I wanted to serve the same kind of food that I grew up eating at home—traditional Oaxacan dishes.” In 1997, she and Torrealba opened El Naranjo (the Orange Tree) in a colonial-era house with an orange tree growing in the patio.
“Mexican food is a fusion of the Old World and the New,” she says. “And oranges were one of the first fruits the Spaniards brought. Naming the restaurant El Naranjo just seemed right. But,” she says with a laugh, “that tree never gave us oranges.”
The restaurant wasn’t an immediate hit; residents were shocked by de la Vega’s very personal and adventurous interpretations of traditional cooking. And, unlike Mexico City, she notes, “Oaxacans don’t eat out much.” However, Oaxaca is a premier tourist destination, and before long, the world was flocking to de la Vega’s door. After being profiled in The New York Times in 2002 and Bon Appétit in 2003, her international culinary reputation was secure. But challenges lay ahead for the restaurant.
In 2005, violent political upheavals hit Oaxaca, keeping away droves of travelers. The city’s infrastructure suffered greatly. “We tried to keep things going, but we couldn’t get deliveries and there were days when we had only one customer.”
With deep sadness, de la Vega closed El Naranjo in 2006, and the family moved first to Santa Fe, then to Austin. “It was very difficult to leave Oaxaca,” she remembers, “to close our life.”
Today, de la Vega enjoys teaching classes in Mexican cooking at both the professional and enthusiast level. She considers her most important work to date to be her compilation of a comprehensive catalog focusing on Latin American cooking for CIA’s archives.
“What we’re doing,” she explains, “is similar to what Escoffier did for French cooking—defining and quantifying the Latin American food practices. An example is Mexican mole. What is a mole? What makes it a mole? Why is something that’s similar not a mole?”
Still searching for the perfect restaurant site, de la Vega spends her limited free time learning the local markets and growing Mexican culinary herbs. Of living in Austin, she says, “we thought it might be a good place for us. People are friendly here…in a very Mexican way.”