October 28, 2014
“Cook’s Corner” by Nancy Miller
The movie “Food, Inc.,” about corporate farming, had a profound influence on Bruce Ucan, chef and partner at Mayan Cafe. The movie was in stark contrast to the foods and cooking of his native Yucatan Peninsula, and particularly, how his mother cooked at home. “Everything was bought and cooked the same day, and the flavors were very intense,” he says.
A passion for locally grown foods led to a discussion with his restaurant partner, Anne Shadle, about initiating a farmers’ night at their restaurant. The idea was an immediate hit. Other than a few items, such as avocados and cactus and sustainable fish from Florida, Mayan Cafe now serves only local meat and produce.
Memories and heritage run deep, and for Ucan, they come alive on trips home. “When I return, I like to go to people’s houses and see how they live and eat, and observe how one neighbor cooks differently from another,” says Ucan.
He also says he’s a very picky eater, and he gives credit where it’s due. “My mom does a good job, but my aunt is a wonderful cook.” His mother has changed her philosophy about life in the kitchen. “She used to make tortillas by hand, but not anymore. My dad will get up at 6 in the morning and say he’s hungry. She gets up and makes a meal for him. He won’t lift a finger. At least she buys enough tortillas to last all day,” says the chef.
His career path to becoming a chef had bumps along the way. Bosses and fellow workers could be mean, and they made fun of him when he couldn’t do things correctly. “They were rough and strict. I’d be punished if I couldn’t make a sauce. I learned the hard way.”
Over the years, he has also learned a lot about reinventing his menu, even with simple dishes. “We have done all kinds of things with chicken breasts. Then we took them off the menu and replaced them with boneless thighs. I like the little bit of fat. We pan fry them with butter, then bake them until they’re really brown. People love them, and we sell tons of them.”