Imagination and Latin American flavors fuel CIA’s Nao Latin Gastro Bar

At Nao Latin Gastro Bar located on The Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, the chef-instructor and students look to the cuisines of Latin America for inspiration to create a lively menu. An open kitchen, tableside preparations and an outdoor grill give diners a front-row seat to the culinary action, and lunch service is staffed by CIA students.

“This is the live action arena where the skills of the students are put to the test,” said Justin Ward, a lecturing instructor of culinary arts at the CIA who teaches both the Contemporary and Formal Restaurant Cooking courses that take place in Nao. “Although they still learn new skills and foods in Nao, the teaching outcome is for the students to pull together as a team and to demonstrate their cooking techniques, flavor profiles, palate accuracy, knife skills and organizational skills in a realistic environment,” he said.

The courses that take place in Nao are the last classes that CIA students take before graduating, and the class culminates in a lunch designed, cooked and served by students. Called Sabor Latino, the celebratory lunch accommodates 50 diners at a table in the kitchen, and includes four courses with optional wine pairings.

Student-created dishes at a recent Sabor Latino lunch
Student-created dishes at a recent Sabor Latino lunch (Photo: The Culinary Institute of America)

For everyday service, Ward is in charge of creating the staple menu, which changes three times per year. He encourages students to participate in the creation of daily specials, which change multiple times each week.

For menu inspiration, Ward and the students look to the cuisines of Latin America and consider how to interpret them in a modern way. “I consider the food American with Latin influence,” ward said. “I will stick true to the country or region that I pull the food idea from but may modify it to fit into our menu and what our guests are expecting...Therefore the dish may be pulled apart a bit, examined, discussed, Americanized to a degree if necessary, re-assembled and served.”

The current menu features dishes such as charred octopus with a Chilean fresh salsa called pebre, duck carnitas served with salsa verde and a “Choriburger” made with crispy pancetta, and Argentinean chorizo. Seasonal cocktails include the Latin Mary -- a take on the Bloody Mary made with sotol and cilantro.

A chef plates a dish at Nao Latin Gastro Bar
A chef plates a dish at Nao Latin Gastro Bar (Photo: Giant Noise)

Ward draws from the dishes of all Latin American countries when conceptualizing dishes for Nao’s menu, but says one country is an especially rich source of inspiration. “Mexico is by far the easiest country to pull from for several reasons,” he said. “The diversity of food from the many regions of the country, the guest recognition of Mexican food, the popularity of Mexican cuisine in this country... I have many students of Mexican heritage and their ideas are obviously from their country and upbringing.”

In addition to its open kitchen, Nao is equipped with an outdoor kitchen that lends itself especially well to large-format dishes and street food -- two categories of Latin cuisine that have caught on with US consumers in a big way. The word "street" has increased nearly 40% on menus over the past four years, according to Datassential MenuTrends, which found that menu mentions of “street tacos” were up more than 200% over the same time period.

“The outdoor kitchen consists of a wood fired grill, a large gas fired circular burner which is perfect for a large paella pan, a plancha for tortillas or searing meats, a wood fired rotisserie, a portable two barreled smoker and even an in ground barbacoa pit large enough for a whole hog or cabrito,” Ward said. “The beauty of the equipment in our outdoor kitchen is that we can produce authentic street foods as well as foods produced in larger quantities or the entire animal. This volume cooking is handy for asado/churasco type events.”

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