By Iliana de la Vega
It is a wonderful thing when you can share your work and passion with your children, and I am lucky to do so with both of my daughters. Especially meaningful during Hispanic Heritage Month, it is with pride and joy that I can share this momentous occasion in the story of El Naranjo, Austin’s cherished traditional Mexican restaurant. Today, we introduce my daughter, Chef Ana Torrealba, as the newest Chef de Cuisine of our beloved establishment. This appointment marks not only a continuation of our family’s culinary legacy but also an exciting chapter in the evolution of El Naranjo.
In Mexican culture, the passing down of culinary traditions is not just a practice; it’s a profound act of preserving heritage, a connection to our roots, and a celebration of our diverse culinary tapestry. Food is the heart and soul of Mexican identity, a bridge between generations that transcends time.
Ana’s journey alongside me in the world of cuisine began long before the doors of El Naranjo Austin first opened. It commenced in the vibrant city of Oaxaca, where she witnessed the birth of our original El Naranjo, a place often described as “the soul of Mexico.” The flavors, the aromas, the laughter, and the shared moments with our patrons were woven into the fabric of her early memories.
In 2006, our family’s culinary odyssey took us across borders, and we embarked on a new adventure by opening El Naranjo in Austin, Texas. This chapter was a testament to our unwavering dedication to Mexican cuisine and our desire to share its sophistication with a wider audience. Ana was there every step of the way, her youthful enthusiasm and boundless curiosity infusing energy into our venture.
Ana’s formal culinary education journeyed through The Culinary Institute of America, where she earned an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry. Upon returning home, she contributed her expertise to our family’s restaurant and local bakeries, garnering recognition as one of Zagat’s “30 under 30” best chefs in Austin in 2015 .
Yet, Ana’s passion for cuisine extended beyond the culinary arts; she sought to understand the very chemistry of food. This quest led her back to Mexico, where she pursued a degree in Food Engineering at the prestigious Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. Armed with this profound knowledge, she joined me in El Naranjo’s bustling kitchen two years ago.
As her mother, mentor, and partner in the culinary world, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to share the same kitchen with Ana. The synergy we have developed over these years is nothing short of magical. Ana’s expertise, combined with her genuine love for our craft, will undoubtedly take our culinary team to new heights. Together, we look forward to continuing our deep dedication to creating memorable dining experiences at El Naranjo.
As Ana steps into the role of Chef de Cuisine, she brings with her an unwavering commitment to preserving the cherished culinary traditions that have defined El Naranjo throughout the years. Simultaneously, she infuses a breath of fresh air into our restaurant, embracing youthful trends and innovative ideas. Her passion for food and flavor will add a new dimension to the El Naranjo experience, ensuring that every visit remains a memorable culinary journey.
Ana herself encapsulates our shared vision eloquently: “I could not have reached this point in my culinary career without the reliable support of my mother. I am honored to continue the culinary traditions that have been passed down through generations, preserving our family recipes and the flavors that define our heritage. Yet, I also look forward to adding a touch of novelty to El Naranjo, ensuring that we remain vibrant and relevant in the ever-evolving world of cuisine.”
In the heart of Austin, El Naranjo has always been more than a restaurant; it upholds the enduring power of family, tradition, and culinary excellence. As we embark on this new chapter with Chef Ana Torrealba at the helm, we invite you to join us on a gastronomic journey that transcends borders, celebrates tradition, and embraces innovation. Our culinary legacy continues to thrive, and Austin’s dining landscape is richer for it.
In every dish, there is a story – a narrative of resilience, adaptation, and the fusion of indigenous ingredients with foreign influences. Whether it’s the complex mole sauces of Oaxaca, the vibrant salsas of Veracruz, or the delicate flavors of Yucatecan cuisine, each regional specialty is a testament to the enduring legacy of Mexican culinary traditions.
I am lucky that both my daughters and my husband share my love for food. Leading culinary tours through Mexico with my daughter, Isabel, through our Mexican Culinary Traditions program, is a profoundly meaningful experience. As a cultural anthropologist and food journalist, she brings a unique perspective to our journeys. Isabel understands that food is a tapestry woven from history, people, and place. Together, we guide our guests through the rich histories of Oaxaca, Mexico City, Morelia, and Mérida, unearthing the stories and flavors that make our homeland so extraordinary. These are journeys of discovery and connection that deepen our bond as mother and daughter, and as lovers of authentic cuisine.
Meanwhile, my husband Ernesto, a trained architect who initially lacked professional experience in the kitchen, jumped in and, as he likes to say, “became my best student.” Together, he and I own and run our restaurant, where our shared passion for food continues to flourish.
Passing down these traditions–through the food at El Naranjo and the trips with Mexican Culinary Traditions– ensures that the mosaic of Mexican flavors continues to evolve, while remaining firmly rooted in the customs and wisdom of those who came before. It is an expression of love, respect, and a commitment to preserving the soul of Mexico, one meal at a time.