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Kirsten West, Born to Cook

My friends all think I moved here from: The US, which I did three years ago, via San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. But I am German, and was educated in Germany and Denmark. In order to learn English, I took a job as an au-pair girl in the US, which eventually morphed into a long-time cooking career. First as a private cook, then with an eight-year concession at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in San Francisco and Los Angeles selling strawberry crepes - on a good day I'd sell 2,500. That was a lot of batter to whip by hand, since there was no electricity or running water on the faire site! At that time I lived in a remodeled UPS truck, but the nomadic life eventually lost it luster. I finally settled in L.A. in a converted brewery, where I started a catering business and taught cooking classes for the UCLA culinary program.

Stateside, I told people my occupation was: Chef and caterer, which is actually very unglamorous - and at times excruciatingly hard - but I was simply born to cook! As much as I tried to escape via other job stints, I always came back to cooking. Through a catering client, who is Mick Jagger's banker, I ended up becoming Mick's private chef for 4 years when he was in L.A. recording music. He turned out to be one of the nicest clients I ever had. He is smart, funny, and unpretentious, and lives way below his means. I introduced Mick to Mexican food - the first was an Oaxacan mole (chichilo negro) we served to a guest from Oaxaca. When the guest asked for a doggy bag, Mick declined with the remark "Certainly not, we will recycle this dish on Saturday!" After 15 years I sold my catering business and accepted an offer from Chef Rick Bayless in Chicago (the foremost expert on authentic Mexican cuisine in the US) to become the recipe tester and researcher for his upcoming cookbooks. My love for Mexican cuisine - which I cultivated with studies, a 20 year friendship with Diana Kennedy, and many trips to Mexico - landed me on my culinary Olympic. For eight years, I devoured Rick's 600 Mexican cookbooks and prepared thousands of his delicious recipes, which are now all part of three of his seven cookbooks.

In San Miguel, I wanted to reinvent myself as: I didn't really need to reinvent myself, I just pooled all my experiences into the job I was first offered here in SMA: general manager for Sazón, the high-end tabletop store and cooking school. I addition to my deep knowledge of Mexican cuisine, I had earlier been a tabletop designer at Neiman-Marcus in Beverly Hills, and apprenticed in an award-winning pottery in Germany. After one and a half years here, I ventured out on my own - now I can teach Mexican cuisine and cater small dinner parties to a wider range of people, and have time for my research travels.

Here is how I describe the perfect night on the town in San Miguel: I love to take a walk around town during what the French call l'heure bleu. The night is starting to set in, the day's pace slows down, and the lights turn on in the streets and stores. This is the perfect time to enjoy a drink on one of the rooftop bars and watch the final rays of the day sink into the horizon. A hearty bowl of pozole at La Alborada is always very comforting and strengthens me for my walk up the steep hill to my casita, where on a clear night I can star gaze from my terrace.

I'd love to support all our local charities, but these are special to me: I give all my support to CASA (Centro para los Adolocentes de San Miguel de Allende ). Recently, I cooked for their fundraising Thanksgiving dinner, serving 150 guests. My personal cause is to encourage the replanting of amaranth, an indigenous and highly nutritious grain that thrives with minimal amount of water and fertilizer.

My favorite personality in San Miguel? Don't tell, but it's: My landlady, Betty Kempe shares a long history here, similar to to Martha Hyder (both from Fort Worth), whose style spurred my move to Mexico. Betty always surprises me with her SMA stories, beginning with her move here in the late 1950's as a young widow with three little girls. She is a true example of living history in SMA. And I can't forget mi amiga, Angeles Peiñado, who is eking out a living with her rancho, and relentlessly works to better the lives of her fellow rancheras, always with a big beaming smile and a bear hug. She is my hero.

By Greg Gunter, Atencion San Miguel, March 5, 2010

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