- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2012

JUAREZ, Mexico — The violence got so bad and touched so many corners of this city and the surrounding state of Chihuahua during recent years that many of the region’s best and brightest simply fled.

Some packed up their families and headed to Mexico City. Others found a way to cross the border to El Paso, Texas, where the crime rate is among the lowest ones in the United States.

For chef Oscar Herrara, the journey began in November 2009, when thugs burned down the Chihuahua City branch of his family’s signature restaurant, Maria Chuchena.

“I got the call at 5:45 in the morning,” he said. “They’d sprayed a mixture of gasoline and diesel, and the fire was so intense nothing survived.

“That’s when reality hit. I became one of the cowards. I left. We went to El Paso and opened a restaurant there.”

While the price of doing business was higher, the new restaurant was surviving during its first year on the U.S. side of the border.

But something inside Mr. Herrara just wasn’t right.

The family still owned the original branch of Maria Chuchena in Juarez and Mr. Herrara was soon losing sleep because he had allowed criminals to drive him from his homeland.

He could not clear from his mind a famous saying of Teofilo Borunda, a Mexican leader who long presided over Juarez politics during the 1940s and ‘50s and once served as governor of Chihuahua state.

“Chihuahua has given me everything,” goes the saying. “The pride of my heritage, the blessing of my family and the treasure of my friends. I owe Chihuahua what I am and to Chihuahua I belong.

“It came to the point where I had to ask myself, what am I doing for my country,” Mr. Herrera said. “That’s when I decided that I was coming back. At the beginning of 2011, I came back to Juarez and my position was, ‘I’m going to take my city from the stove.’”

In a twist of poetic justice, Mr. Herrera’s return to Juarez coincided with a break in the violent crime that had been gripping the city. Soon, he found himself among a group of hungry, uncorrupted business owners striving to put a new image on a place so overrun by organized crime that it had earned the nickname, the “murder capital of the world.”

Now, Mr. Herrara is determined to take back the city by the stove. The Maria Chuchena restaurant hosts cooking classes for visitors and is a staunch participant and supporter of “Juarez Gastronomica,” the city’s newly organized annual gourmet cooking competition and festival.

The pursuit of five-star culinary mastery might be the last thing to come to mind when one thinks of Juarez. But in March, Mr. Herrara aimed to put the city on the world’s elite culinary map by opening Cocina Artesanal, an exclusive-menu, private restaurant nestled behind a closed-door section of Maria Chuchena.

“Everything here is either made in Mexico or from Mexico, whether it’s the tablecloths or the wine glasses or the wine selections we serve,” Mr. Herrera said on a recent evening as he set out plates of seafood ceviche across a broad oak table inside Cocina Artesanal.

The fish was paired masterfully with a 2009 Cabernet Franc. The grapes were grown and pressed in the vineyards of Guadalupe, about 700 miles southeast of Juarez.

Later in the seven-course meal came a handcrafted shot of orange sorbet topped with maguey worm salt from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Mr. Herrera stood nearby as guests devoured the piercingly succulent treat. It’s point, he noted, was to “clean the palette.”

“I’m more than proud to be a Mexican and even more proud to be from Juarez,” he said. “The new attitude of my people is an attitude of picking up the ashes.”

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