Chef Iliana de la Vega
I grew up in Mexico City in a time when only European cuisines were viewed as elegant and worthy of being served at restaurants. Back then, and only until fairly recently, Mexican food was considered home cooking, prepared for one’s family but never for dinner guests. It was not fine dining, and Mexicans were not necessarily proud of their own cuisine.
My mother was from Oaxaca, which seemed mystical and remote in comparison to the Mexican capital. My grandmother would often send boxes full of Oaxacan delicacies: earthy, smoky chiles, almond or vanilla laced chocolate, sesame seed speckled breads, and bags filled with fragrant spices like oregano and cinnamon. It was like Christmas day for me. My mother was traditional with her cooking, hand-picking each ingredient from the market, making everything from scratch, and preparing each dish exactly as her mother and grandmother had before her. I loved watching her cook, going to the market with her, and travelling around Mexico with my family, tasting picadas in Veracruz, or cemitas in Puebla. I found the flavors of Mexico complex, diverse, and soulful; nothing if not elegant.
Hoping for others to see how worthy and tasteful Mexican food can be, and that it can belong in fine dining, I moved to Oaxaca and opened El Naranjo in 1997. I had always enjoyed teaching, and after a few people asked for my mole recipes, I opened a cooking school as well. Unfortunately, a period of political unrest forced my family out of Mexico, but I reopened El Naranjo in Austin in 2012. A few consulting projects allowed me to take chefs and companies to a couple Mexican cities, and after various requests for guided tours to Oaxaca, Mexican Culinary Traditions was born.
Through El Naranjo and the culinary trips, I keep my dream of sharing the food and culture of Mexico with the world alive.
Iliana de la Vega won worldwide acclaim for her restaurant and cooking school in Oaxaca, El Naranjo, which was featured in numerous newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times and Bon Appetit.
The reincarnation of El Naranjo, in Austin, has been recognized as the best Mexican restaurant in the city. Before the brick and mortar restaurant came into being, de la Vega owned El Naranjo Mobile and Catering, a successful food trailer that was called,“ the only real Mexican restaurant in Texas” by The Texas Monthly.
She is a passionate teacher, and she served as the Mexican/Latin Cuisines Specialist for The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) from 2007 to 2012.
She is a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest.
In 2014, the Mexican Government granted her the prestigious Ohtli award in recognition for her work with the Hispanic population and for furthering Mexican gastronomy. In 2014 the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named her Hispanic Female Entrepreneur of the year. She currently also serves as a consultant for the prestigious Stanford University Dinning Enterprises.