Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Culinary Stamp Collecting: Felipe Rojas-Lombardi

It's fun to explore cookbooks and authors that were popular or widely acclaimed in the past, but are now relatively forgotten. Recently, anticipating a post for today's Cookbook Wednesday, I purchased The Art of South American Cooking by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. This book was published in 1991 and as far as I know has not been reissued. His other cookbook, on soup, is even more obscure.

The brief memoir that begins the book is interesting. Rojas-Lombardi was born in Peru to a family with origins in Chile, Germany, and Italy. He learned to cook first from his mother and paternal grandmother, who quarreled over recipes and traditions while sharing a kitchen. Though his father objected to his son's interest in cooking, Rojas-Lombardi persisted in watching and learning from the women in the kitchen. After moving to New York in 1967, Rojas-Lombardi took on some high-profile jobs, including one with James Beard. He became a US citizen in 1976.

In the introductions to the various sections of his book, Rojas-Lombardi presents bits of the history of food and agriculture in South America, especially that of the Quechua people (Incas). He enjoys and documents culinary traditions and native ingredients from all over South America. The recipes, which I haven't tried, appear to offer good combinations of flavors and culinary influences as wide-ranging as China (from 19th century immigration), North Africa (from Medieval Spanish traditions), and sub-Saharan Africa (from people who had been enslaved during the Colonial era).

This recipe from The Art of South American Cooking suggests how the author was ahead of his time.
In 1991, quinoa was a very obscure ingredient. Years later it became extremely popular.
The international Food and Agriculture Organization celebrated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.
The Art of South American Cooking was a posthumous publication; Rojas-Lombardi died shortly before its release. Though only 46, he had impressive accomplishments as a chef and restaurateur in New York City, including an appointment as "America's Bicentennial chef," consulting for food corporations, teaching, and lecturing. The Chicago Tribune wrote:
"Felipe Rojas-Lombardi did not invent quinoa, of course, but he gets much of the credit for introducing it to North Americans. ... he seemed to be there first on a variety of culinary fronts."
From Rojas-Lombardi's New York Times obituary:
"He became executive chef and owner of the Ballroom in 1982. ...  Tapas, the small appetizers served with sherry in Spain, were synonymous with the festive, open-hearted place. Mr. Rojas-Lombardi is credited with bringing the dining concept to America. After he was featured on a PBS series on "New York's Master Chefs," his recipes with their distinct lusty tapas were imitated both by chefs nationwide and large food manufacturers."
Rojas-Lombardi was obviously quite well-regarded in his day -- enough to be chosen for the celebrity chefs series on US postage stamps, issued in 2014. Such fame, I guess, is fleeting! I never heard of him any way except on the stamp. Some of the other philatelically honored chefs still enjoy a degree of fame, especially Julia Child; Edna Lewis, my subject last Wednesday; and James Beard, whom I'll write about in the future.

Chefs on US postage stamps: James Beard (1903-1985),
Joyce Chen (1917-1994), Julia Child (1912-2004),
Edna Lewis (1916-2006), Felipe Rojas-Lombardi (1945-1991).
It may be worth noting that until 2011, still-living people were ineligible to appear on US postage stamps. That's no longer the case, though the men and women honored here were all deceased. Here is the official USPS explanation of the choice of these particular chefs:
"The five chefs honored on the stamps ... revolutionized the nation’s understanding of food. By integrating international ingredients and recipes with American cooking techniques and influence, these chefs introduced new foods and flavors to the American culture."
With this post, I'm participating in Cookbook Wednesday, a blogging event organized by Louise at Months of Edible Celebrations.


~~louise~~ said...

What a wonderful tribute to Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. I am only familiar with his passion for food from the PBS series. I actually have a copy of the New York Master Chefs cookbook that contains recipes of his.

I didn't know about his influence on introducing Quinoa or Tapas for that matter. Very interesting Mae..

I'll have to keep a look-out for this book. I'm sure it's filled with exciting recipes and flavors.

Thank you so much for sharing Mae and for joining Cookbook Wednesday...

Kitchen Riffs said...

Great tribute to Rojas-Lombardi. I don't know his cookbooks at all. I've heard of him (I think), but that's it. Really great post -- thanks for all the research.

Marjie said...

Nice tribute to a visionary chef. It's sad when someone dies so young.