Taqueria Chef Taps into Aztec Tradition

May 31, 2024 | Press

Cinco de Mayo celebrated as taqueria chef taps into Aztec tradition for sophisticated, modern Mexican flavor
Early cultures were ‘in tune’ with world around them — techniques are used today to create unexpected dishes

Chef Scott Koshnoodi of New York celebrates Cinco de Mayo by reaching deep into Aztec culinary tradition. He then recreates the indigenous food of Mesoamerica with magic he learned at the forefront of modern molecular gastronomy. Koshnoodi is chef-owner of Parklife, a modern taquería with multicultural influences, in Brooklyn.

He says the two worlds of the Aztec Empire — centered 600 years ago in what’s now Mexico City, and contemporary New York City — are not as distanced by culinary time and space as they may seem. “Our ancestors were more in tune with the world around them and smarter than people today give them credit for,” Koshnoodi told Fox News Digital in a phone interview.

Koshnoodi in the early 2000s was a chef at WD-50 restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. WD-50 was one of the toughest tables in town for scoring a reservation and helped to popularize molecular gastronomy. It’s a sophisticated style of cooking that “relies on chemistry to create unexpected dishes that push the boundaries of traditional food,” writes MasterClass.com. Molecular gastronomy sparked a sensation as the most progressive restaurant trend in the United States. The culinary “alchemy” that wowed the food world at the time, the chef said, was actually nothing new. He proves it with his menu at Parklife today. The eatery’s house-made masa uses a traditional method of chemical transformation that dates back to Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs, among the last of them, ruled an empire for centuries before Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s.

They soaked dry corn with limestone, the chef said, before cooking and grinding it to make dough for tamales, tortillas and other corn-based breads. The Aztecs probably didn’t know the molecular science behind the process. But they knew the results. “The added alkalinity does many things,” said Koshnoodi. “It allows the husks to be released from the corn easier, and it adds a lot of niacin. The dough becomes more pliable and more delicious.” The team at Parklife soaks corn kernels in Mexican Cal, a form of hydrated lime, for 24 hours before grinding the corn with lava rocks. The masa is used to make taco shells, nacho chips and Parklife’s signature blue-corn tortillas.

Koshnoodi’s cuisine is influenced by more than just Mexico: It’s influenced by his cultural home, Iran, and the U.S. state of Texas where he was raised. Parklife’s chef-driven version of casual Tex-Mex classic Frito pie is made with beef-and-potato chili, adobo, escabeche and queso chips. Carnitas tacos are made with pecan-smoked pork shank; the bones are cooked into a broth to add moisture. Koshnoodi expresses his Persian roots and his experience with molecular gastronomy in Parklife’s lamb Beryiani taco. The star ingredient is dramatic sumac glass. It’s made from a sumac tea transformed through the magic of molecular gastronomy into a sleek solid crisp that looks like glass.