The MEXICO Report
By Susie Albin-Najera
From the robust, aromatic flavors that came from his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens in Laredo, Texas, Michael Flores took a childhood passion for cooking and turned it into an evolving lifelong profession in the culinary arts. Despite his formal training and graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America, Michael focuses on providing simple solutions for encouraging families to get back to the table.
He may physically wear only one hat but don’t let that fool you. San Antonio-based Chef Michael Flores is a man of many talents: a renown chef – author – culinary instructor – food consultant – television personality – owner of a specialty foods company – spokesperson for the National Dairy Association, Best Maid Pickles, MASECA, the Mexican Avocado Council, Nature Sweet Tomatoes and most recently, spokesperson and partner with the Texas Department of Agriculture’s GO TEXAN Watermelon Campaign. Whew, take a breath.
Interestingly enough, watermelons are Texas’ largest annual horticultural crop. Watermelon production in Texas ranks third in the U.S. and is a major source of income for the Texas economy, pulling in about $160 million. The GO TEXAN Watermelon television campaign is a first for the Texas Watermelon Association.
Where were you born and raised?
I say San Antonio, Texas but it’s actually Albuquerque, New Mexico where I resided for about a year while my mother finished up her masters. My father was born in Laredo, Texas. His parents were from Mexico. I was raised in San Antonio, Texas. However, my family is from Laredo, Texas so as a child we spent almost every weekend there which was great because while in Laredo I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s sides in the kitchen watching and learning how to cook. It was also great because I learned of the nightlife of Mexico at an early age!!!
My mother was born in South Texas. Her mother’s side of the family is from Mexico. My mom’s father’s side of the family was from east Texas.
Do you speak Spanish?
I wouldn’t say I speak Spanish 100%. My mother is always getting after me about my verb tenses. I speak it well enough to have just shot a commercial and four cooking vignettes in Spanish for Univision. I write in Spanish. I understand it. And actually, I’d say that after sipping on some nice reposado for a while I can speak Spanish better than 100%!
Did growing up Mexican American influence you to carry on the Mexican food tradition?
God yes! I loved the aromas and flavors that came from my mother’s kitchen and my grandmother’s kitchens. When we would go to Laredo you could always find me in one of their kitchens. I grew up watching all types of Mexican recipes being cooked. I grew up eating and cooking Mexican food. The foods of Mexico are incredible; they are undiscovered, for the most part, by Americans and the rest of the world. I think that all the food from all of the different regions of Mexico can easy rival the cuisine of France, for instance
I grew up in the Mexican kitchen. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I trained with one of the top female chefs in the country, Susan Spicer at the top restaurant in New Orleans, Bayona. So my food experience is “all over the place” so to speak. Besides the Mexican kitchen I love the foods of the entire Mediterranean. One of my favorite things to do is combine the ingredients and cooking techniques from Mexico with those of the Mediterranean. When doing this I always keep respect to the country, its people, and their culinary techniques. My style of cooking has been coined “Mexiterranean”! I don’t limit myself to the Mediterranean however. The kitchens from all over the world are always calling me.
Congratulations on the Watermelon Campaign: Why did you decide to become involved in this?
I’ve been a spokes person for the Texas Department of Agriculture for over 10 years now. My company is a member of their GO TEXAN program. I love Texas and its people and have always supported buying local. There is so much more to that statement than just supporting the local farm down the street. It includes supporting generations of farmers that are still hanging in there……..that wake up every morning and tend to their fields with love and care. It’s more than just a job. You even get into the whole issue of carbon foot printing. That in Texas we have some wonderful wines. We have olive orchards and produce our own olive oil.
When the Department of Agriculture along with the Texas Watermelon Association approached me in 2009 about wanting to do a TV campaign across the state in 2010 and they said we want you to be our chef, face, spokesperson, etc. I was not only excited and honored but scared as well. To have a whole state industry counting on you to increase their sales from the previous year can be quite intimidating. Like everything else I get involved in I jumped right in and said “Michael, let’s do this.” It’s been a challenge and one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. I didn’t just have to create unique and delicious recipes using watermelon, I had to choose stations across the state in our top five markets for media buys. I had to hire production companies and learn 17 scripts in both English and Spanish for commercials and cooking vignettes. This week I start traveling across the state to appear and cook live on lifestyle/ magazine shows. I’m not the just the face, I’m the executive producer. I wrote the eight recipes but also hired the food stylists and photographers. I write the checks to everyone for everything.
Can you tell me about the watermelon crops of Texas?
Right now, most watermelons you see in stores across Texas were grown in either South or East Texas. This is the state’s peak watermelon season (May – September). They should all be good, but I have had particularly good luck with the cut organic melons at Whole Foods Market. Texas A&M University Fruit & Vegetable Improvement Center in College Station reported last year that watermelon may also have Viagra-like effects. The operative substance is a phytonutrient called citrulline, which has the ability to relax blood vessels. Scientists are just beginning to unravel citrulline’s beneficial effects. The more watermelons are studied, the more we realize just how amazing a fruit it is in providing natural enhancers to the human body. Watermelon contains lycopene, more of the antioxidant than any other fresh produce. And you thought it just tasted good. Watermelons are Texas’ largest annual horticultural crop. More than 42,000 acres are grown throughout Texas in over 100 counties. Sequential harvests start in April in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in June and July in the Winter Garden and East Texas areas, and progresses to August in the Rolling Plains area, with late summer and early fall harvests in the Cross Timbers / De Leon and southern High Plains.
Are the watermelon crops you represent organic or pesticide free?
Do you have or can you share any watermelon recipes great for summer?
Sparkling Watermelon Sangria
4 cups cubed Texas watermelon
1/4 cup peach schnapps
1 lime, halved and thinly sliced
1 bottle Cava, chilled
Place the watermelon in a blender and purée. Mix with the peach schnapps and sliced limes in a pitcher and refrigerate overnight. The next day, combine with Cava and serve over ice…….immediately.
Can you tell me about your floating cooking school on San Antonio’s River walk?
Learn Aboard! ™ are Cooking Classes with Michael Flores on a Rio San Antonio Cruiser. These out-of-the-ordinary cooking classes will have you traveling along the San Antonio River. Learn how to prepare regional specialties while enjoying the view of the beautiful sites on the winding banks of this unique river in the heart of the Alamo City. Choose from a variety of classes and menus that include cuisine of San Antonio, Texas, The Southwest and Mexico. All classes are one hour in length and include tastings of your selected menu and related recipes.
Are you involved in any philanthropic organizations and why?
Be cause my younger brother Tommy has Downs Syndrome, the non-profits I usually work with are those that benefit people with developmental disabilities. I like working with children and I have a unique idea of working with some of the less fortunate kids in some of the disadvantaged neighborhoods of San Antonio. My parents taught me to share what God gave me, to share what I have with others. I think that every action we take affects the world some way, some how. I believe in karma, and in paying it forward. Simply put, we all need some sort of help, so let’s help each other out.
Do you teach children how to eat, cook, etc.?
One of my most favorite things to do as a chef is to invite kids into my kitchen. I do teach hands-on cooking classes for kids of all ages. The classes are not just about cooking, but about eating and portion control. They’re about tasting something new that they may have never tried before. When I teach kids we have fun. And sometimes I find creative ways to “slip” certain ingredients in to what were making, showing that the final result is a delicious surprise they thought they’d never eat!
What advice can you give to the younger generations, especially in the Hispanic community?
When talking to younger generations I always refer back to what their doctors have said and try to help them find creative and smarter ways to eat while taking care of their health. We might work on portion control or ingredient substitutions they never would have expected. I encourage trying and cooking new things because you never know what new recipe you might come up with.
For more information on Chef Michael Flores, visit www.CookwithMichael.com.
**Photos used with permission.