Daniela Ortega Aepli
“The woman revealing the sweeter side of Mexico, to the world”
The saying goes that “If you make it here (in New York), you can make it anywhere” and that is exactly what inimitable Mexican chef, author and entrepreneur, Fany Gerson did.
Currently, being a chef is a very popular career, while some are in it seeking fame and fortune, Fany is one of the few true artists left. As Vinna and I approach her to begin our interview, we realize she is a vivid representation of her food creations, very authentic, simple yet flavorful and of course very sweet!
Fany is not only an amazing pastry chef; she founded her company, La Newyorkina, dedicated to spreading the joy of eating popsicles around NYC and soon to have a space dedicated to yummy genuine Mexican desserts, and has also written two books, My Sweet Mexico and Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Aguas Frescas & Shaved Ice.
Is your mouth watering already? Her journey began some years ago, when Fany was a little girl Mexico City. She dreamed of cooking and forming a successful career in the industry in a time when only four cooking schools existed in Mexico, and the title of chef only belonged to men… She calls it breaking the “Sombrero Effect.”
D.O Fany, how did you turn aspirations into a reality?
F.G. I always loved to cook, so when I had to choose a career, I didn’t even know that could be a career, that it was even a possibility. Still as I grew up I kept saying ‘I want to be a chef,” So I first applied to art schools in Mexico City, and then I found out about cooking schools. My parents were not happy at all! They wanted me to study art, not even be an architect or a lawyer! I kept saying, well cooking is my art! I wanted to attend the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) right away, but they though I would pursue it eventually only as a hobby, or that I would get tired of it. The exact opposite happened, I fell in love with it! After cooking school in Mexico, I enrolled in the CIA. However, I am very happy that is how it happened, because I learned so much about Mexican culinary culture and food per se. Back then the CIA would only have a day devoted to Mexico, now I think they do a whole week, but still is mostly French cooking.
D.O. I have the biggest sweet tooth, so I can understand why… Actually, why did you choose sweets over savory?
F.G. I have always been more attracted to the sweet side. Even though I started working on the savory side of the kitchen, if I had to choose only one, I would choose the sweet side. I find that you can be more creative. Therefore, I kept working more and more on the dessert side of restaurants and in pastry programs, and I just loved it. My first job as a pastry chef was in the second Rosa Mexicano they opened in NYC. I responded to an ad because they were seeking a pastry chef with French training and knowledge of Mexican desserts, so it was almost made for me. At first, I did not want it, but I took the job mostly because I connected so much with the main chef, then I loved it.
D.O. We now know how you became a chef, where did the inspiration come from to become an author?
F.G. It happened when I traveled back to Mexico to wait for my visa. I thought, I am going to start looking for old recipes and old cookbooks and maybe reinterpret and modernize them a little bit. That is when it all started, even though it was a little grain in my mind at the time. Then my aunt told me about an ice cream town, and I thought I had to go! My sister, my aunt and I decided to go looking for it with no address, just an idea of the area it was close to. Somehow by asking people around, we found it, I swear I am so glad my sister and aunt were there to prove it existed, because I could never find the place again! LOL! It was not even a town, it was a strip of seven blocks devoted to ice cream vendors with the old-fashioned ice cream churns, fluorescent signs and flavor names like the mermaid’s sigh and the angel’s whisper, so we had no clue which one to choose. Until this little boy approached us and told us to try his ice cream because they made it with the purest raw milk, and his parents hand-pick the fruit everyday…I don’t know if its true or not, but it was the best ice cream I had ever tried!
D.O. This ghost town from Mexico… Sounds all very much like “Realismo Magico.” Did said experience made you want to portray an entirely different side of the typical Mexican cuisine known around the world?
F.G. Yes! It was the beginning of everything, not just the food, but also the culture in general. I realized, just like this there must be so many places and so many stories… Mexican cuisine and particularly the sweets are part of an oral tradition, so it has been passed down from generation to generation and there is not a lot of documentation. Old recipes would have you use two cents of sugar… and I did not even know what that was! In addition, in Mexico, everybody uses his or her own measurement; a spoon means the spoon you have in your own kitchen. Therefore, I though about writing a book that everyone could follow and understand. I went back to the US and started working in a private kitchen. Since the idea would not go away, and I still wanted to write the book, I decided to take a food and a travel-writing course. I thought if I want to get something published, I should start with magazines or something like that. I did not know if I was going to be any good, but I really enjoyed.
D.O. So that is how your first book, My Sweet Mexico was born?
F.G. I knew I wanted to write a book about Mexican candy, because there are so many and so delicious and nobody knows about them. My Chef friend, Roberto, from Rosa Mexicano got me an appointment with his book agent. She told me that my book would never be published because it was so specific. Therefore, I met with a friend of mine who owns a small bookstore and picked his brain about why some cookbooks sell and how to broaden my audience, etc. That night I went to dinner to a friend’s house and it hit me, how the book had to be! I excused myself and left immediately to write the book proposal, this time I had something much more concrete to work with. So I sent it to the agent and she said she would represent me, and not to hold my breath for anything, but that she would try to get the book published. We got some nice rejection letters, but in the end, I got my book deal! I was like yay!! I have a ton of books from that publishing company!
D.O. Tell me about La Newyorkina, how did you transition from author to entrepreneur?
F.G. After I got the book deal, I went to Mexico for a year to do research, when I came back, I knew I wanted to open a business, for a long time now. You work so hard in this industry, I might as well work so hard for myself. I also had a book coming out soon, so if there was ever a time to open something, it would be now. This time it was not even a desire; it was a need, a need to continue sharing the sweets of Mexico. Writing the book and being in Mexico definitely changed, and I also wanted to break the “sombrero effect.” However, I did not know what type of business I should open, but eventually I decided on an ice cream shop. Everybody loves ice cream and can relate to it! Then I though about renting a kitchen, the kitchen had to have an ice cream machine… etc. So I just thought maybe I should do paletas (popsicles), which is quintessential Mexico anyways. So I applied for a market, and they accepted me. Ok, so now I have to make get some molds and make the paletas! I had to have them especially made in Mexico because I need the ones with silver lining, and brought them myself, I looked like a gipsy! The first day of the market, was also our first day, and it was a complete success, we ran out of paletas by the middle of the day. I even broke my nose when I was loading the carts with popsicles and one of the trays slipped and hit me, it kept swelling, but I kept going! My friend, and me were so tired we had not slept at all that week getting ready for that day, but it was fantastic! We were there every weekend that summer. When the next summer came around, we thought it was a great idea to do it again, but we did not have a logo or anything… People loved it, they really responded to Mexican flavors (mango chili, avocado, tamarind, among others), we were getting so much press and I had no idea how this happened. In NYC, you cannot randomly have a cart wherever you want, so we applied to have one in High Line Park, and were accepted. We were there everyday of the summer and again was a complete success. Towards the fall, we started doing some sweets other than popsicles. That is how La Newyorkina was born and that was also when my agent approached me about writing my second book, Paletas.
D.O. I feel like so much of you is represented in your food, it almost has a nostalgic element to it…
F.G. Definitely, as I said I am not just about my creations, and me but I also want to represent the culture. Flavors in general remind me of my childhood, going to the park and to the markets…
I am currently looking for a space, when I expand and open the shop, it will have all types of Mexican sweets, from ice cream to paletas, to even churros in the colder months. Also real coffee, hahaha not espresso or latte, “café con leche” and “café de olla” very Mexican… I am also planning to import from small producers to have real fresh and authentic ingredients and to help them out. I always knew I wanted to give back because I was so humbled by all these experiences. While researching my book, I found this organization, CREA, which helps women with small business in Mexico flourish. For instance, the chocolate that I use comes from one of the women that work with this foundation that I help. I found that the people that have less comfort and money-wise are usually the most giving…
D.O. That sounds amazing, and delicious! Tell me the truth do you lick your fingers when you are cooking?
F.G. Oh yes! Hahahahaha! Yes, it happens all the time! But you have to wash your fingers immediately after! Lick and wash… hahaha
D.O. I am intrigued by your boozy popsicles; I think I need to have them at some point!
F.G. Yes, I started thinking one day, wouldn’t it be fun to have alcohol in some of the popsicles? I started making them, you cannot put a lot of alcohol in them because it won’t freeze, but still… I make my own version of the most popular drinks like white sangria, pinacolada, white Russian, mojitos and of course, margaritas!
D.O. Who inspires you as a chef and as a woman?
F.G. I think the people that I met through my travels while researching the book, like the farmers. I have a friend that has a small hotel in the south of Quintana Roo. The wife of the guard of the hotel makes candy for a living. After she has put the five kids to bed, she sleeps for a few hours and starts making candy at three or four in the morning. I went to visit her, and she cooks in a very small, rustic kitchen her husband built her in the backyard. After she cooks it, she rides her little bike around town to sell it! Her candy is so delicious, she is so talented and she doesn’t even know it. She cooks without thermometers or scales, or anything! Everything is innate. That’s the type of people that always inspire me…
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