The Almost Grown-Up Kitchen of Alan Del Rio Ortiz

When Alan del Rio Ortiz hangs, he hangs deep. Maybe you haven’t seen him in a while, because he’s been on the road; maybe you’re worried because you’re running late to the bar; but, rounding the corner, you feel a sudden relief—because you know that he is there, and he’s found the quietest corner, and he’s already ordered you a drink. 

When del Rio Ortiz isn’t shooting music videos for Blood Orange, short films for Purple Magazine, or tour footage for St. Vincent, he is fixing up his new apartment in the Lower East Side. He invited Aftertastes over for lunch, and over micheladas and picadillo, he talked food, family and the mixed feelings of adulthood. 

I grew up in a matriarchal family in Monterrey, Mexico, with my grandmother as the fulcrum. She had thirteen children. We are 70+ grand- and great-grand- kids. Last year, we were 93 for Christmas dinner. Most of my family still lives in Monterrey and every Sunday my grandmother cooks for thirty to forty people. If she wasn’t around, I don’t know if we’d all make the effort to see each other.

Most people think that Mexican food is simple and easy to make: tacos, guacamole, things like that. But a lot of the meals are complex. Mole, for example, takes a couple of days of your life. There is also a lot of Spanish and French influence in Mexico, and a lot of French cooking. My grandmother has always cooked elaborate, Julia Child–style food. A few years ago, she made a cookbook for her grandkids. She is getting older, and she wanted to give us something to remember her by. The only problem is, all the recipes are complicated! Many of them feature crèpes and traditional French birds. Also, the cookbook is in Spanish—my vocabulary is a little stunted, I have to look up the strange herbs—and in the metric system, which requires some figuring out. I’ve never successfully made anything from the book. I once tried with my cousins and it was a disaster.

My grandmother is the most patient woman. I have seen her mad twice, and we’ve like, destroyed her life. My cousins made paper airplanes at her house once, and threw them off the roof; it turned out the paper was her graduate thesis. This was in the typewriter days. So she just scrapped it and started over. Three years of her life, just wiped out.

When she was in her sixties, my grandmother went to the beach, and decided that she wanted to take lessons to become a certified windsurfer. When we asked her why, she answered ‘so I can hang the certificate on my wall.’ She did, and it’s still hanging there.

ON GROWING UP AND LIVING ALONE

I recently moved into a new place, and am living alone for the first time. My apartment is a tiny studio and I am trying to make it a home. I took down the cabinet doors and added some wallpaper behind the cupboards. I bought an island for the kitchen. I have never cared about possessions, but overnight I became an insanely domestic man. I’ve been researching silverware, like which kind of metals are most resistant. I wanted to buy the perfect pan, the perfect knives and cutting board, not only because I like to cook, but so that I would never have to worry about it again. It’s this channeled desire of wanting to be an adult; you know, owning knives that can actually cut through a tomato. I had always ensured a temporary living situation, with a backpack in a corner, ready to move. Only now am I starting to appreciate the value of laying down roots.

My at-home eating is very simple, and consists mostly of breakfast. I make two eggs and coffee every morning. I bought a pour-over coffee brewer because I am a bachelor, but now I realize I drink more than one cup of coffee in the mornings. During the day, I usually just make small snacks like open-faced sandwiches; simple things I can eat while I work from home. I graze: olives, cheese, Mediterranean type foods. I doubt I’ll keep a fully stocked kitchen because, again, I am still a bachelor, cooking for one. That said, I am looking forward to the winter when I will have more time to set up the kitchen and cook.

“I feel a little bit conflicted about my current lifestyle versus the one I had growing up.”

ON COOKING IN HIS YOUTH

When I was younger, I would cook without any idea of what I was doing. Once, I tried to make an ex-girlfriend a Valentine’s Dinner, and I bought the stinkiest cheese; we had to open all the windows and ended up throwing it out. It really killed the mood. I tried to make chicken for another girl once, but her oven was busted. We left it in there for hours but it still came out raw.

Once, in high school, I made ravioli from scratch. It was really good, but I remember thinking to myself: “Nothing is worth this.” It took us the entire day. I don’t have that in me—I’m not like my grandmother in that way. It’s like, at that point, let’s just go out for dinner.

I had a few different childhoods. My grandmother’s house in Mexico was always chaotic, with kids and people running around. The food was homemade. When I was living in Dallas with my mother, who was a single mom, everything was thrown together. We are a very small family:  just me and my brother and her. We didn’t have anything. We ate very poorly and she didn’t teach us anything about nutrition. I grew up eating a lot of fast food; we would get the extra large sodas and reuse the plastic cups at home.

So now I’m finding things out on my own. I feel a little bit conflicted about my current lifestyle versus the one I had growing up. I’ve become more upper class, a little bit snobby, and I don’t know how comfortable I am with it. I think I’m taking better care of myself and I want a better life, but it’s tricky.

PICADILLO

Picadillo is a dead simple dish with many varieties and preparation methods. You can eat it in tortillas, on rice, or on its own. My mom, who was a single mother, would prepare it and let it sit on the stove. My grandmother would make it when she was tired of cooking elaborate cuisine. It’s not fussy. You can make it with any ground meat. If you were trying to be healthy, you could make it with ground turkey, but you would never catch anyone in my family doing that.

We’re making the dish ‘al chile’, which is slang for ‘without any preparation’. I’m also not going to measure anything. Start by sautéing onions and some garlic in vegetable oil on low heat. Add some salt and pepper. Let that mellow for a while. It’s kind of hard to fuck up this recipe.

In the meantime, make yourself a Michelada: put some ice in a glass, add a little Worcestershire sauce, a little Maggi’s, a little lime. Then Clamato juice and Modelo. Maggi’s is a kind of hydrolyzed soy liquid that my cousins put on everything. It’s good on popcorn.

Add a pound and a half of ground beef to the onions and garlic. Keep everything on low heat. Once the meat is cooked, chop up some carrots and throw them in. I add ground cumin as well. That is not something my family would do. I’m going to throw in a few tiny potatoes.

My grandmother taught me to buy the reddest tomatoes. Mexican ingredients are always the color of the flag – green (avocados) white (tortillas) and red (tomatoes). Add some tomatoes in. Add a lot if you prefer your meat a little stew-like.

After that it’s sort of up in the air. People definitely have strong opinions about what should go in and what shouldn’t. Potato and carrots are my essentials. I try to add things for color as well so that it doesn’t just look brown. And I put in chili flakes.

In Mexico there are these incredibly spicy tiny chilis that grow after a bird eats the seeds and then shits them out. A lot of restaurants or bars will have them on the table. My uncle eats them like popcorn. He says that food doesn’t taste like anything without them.

When all cooked, put some in a warm tortilla. Top with crème fraiche and serve.

Once, I said to my grandmother that there were no vegetables in Mexican food. She was like, ‘what are you talking about? Tomatoes….? Avocados….?  Corn? She was really struggling to make a list.