Friday, March 4, 2016

Chef Haydee Segura - Adapting Mexican Cuisine in Norway

Chef Haydee Segura
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2016
- They say there are two reasons that may bring you to Norway.  The first is the search for oil, and it’s evident that I’m not a petroleum engineer, and the second is love.  I fell in love with a Scandinavian, born in Oslo, Norway.  We were married in Mexico and soon after, we moved to Oslo with the promise that it would be a short stay and his career would move him to another country.

Chef Haydee Segura, in love with challenges, describes how in February of 2012, her life went from cooking in her own restaurant in Mexico City to a country that on the day she arrived, temperatures greeted her with a chilling 6 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Haydee Segura was an established chef in Mexico City and her sensibilities and knowledge of food are what lead her to become an Ambassador of Mexican Gastronomy in Norway.  “It all came as a surprise,” she says.  

HS - It’s a long story… I graduated with a degree from the University del Valle in Mexico City in graphic design, but jobs were not easily available in my field.  After four years of having a degree in hand, I finally landed a job at a magazine editorial as an illustrator.  I was able to move up in the company until I became director and editor for at least three editions.  All three editions were related to tourism and lifestyle.  I had just turned 25, and at that age, my health insurance under the parental umbrella would terminate unless I was still a student.  In those days, I was already interested in becoming a pastry chef and had started taking classes on weekends. But it was when I started observing the gastronomy students that I became curious in the art of food.  I had my parents’ loving support, so I began evening classes the very next semester.  I worked in the mornings and to make it to my culinary classes in the evenings, I had to drive two hours every day in traffic, which posed a big challenge.  Finally, after four years of the same routine I left my job at the editorial to become a full-time culinary student.  I graduated from Instituto Gastronómico Corbuse as a Chef Patissier and Chef Master, and later trained in the specialty of international bread making at Cessa University.

LA - Did you learn any traditional dishes from your mother or grandmother?

HS - Not really… I was never interested in the kitchen even though my mother cooks delicious and my grandmother had a small restaurant.  Although I did have a strong interest in making cakes.  I would bake a few pastries but nothing spectacular, that’s why I thought that being a pastry chef would be exciting for me, but after cooking savory dishes, nothing was the same, I was hooked!  After I became a chef I bought an already established restaurant that was popular since the 1970’s in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City which had a very big customer base, but when I left for Norway, I sold it to another chef.

LA - I’m sure the extreme cold temperatures must have taken some time to get used to especially coming from a very warm and mild climate, but how did you sense the Norwegian hospitality?

HS - I'll be very sincere, this is a little bit uncomfortable for me to describe, but I don’t feel Norwegians are very hospitable, they’re very quiet people, serene and shy, and it takes some time to warm up to.  They enjoy solitude and at first they’re not very friendly.  What I observed is that since winters are very long, dark, and cold, people only go out when necessary.  They’re completely covered from head to toe and they walk very fast stopping only when strictly needed.  That makes them a little bit antisocial.  Another factor I noticed is that families are not as tightly bound as in México, they only see each other on very important occasions like Christmas and New Year and it’s frowned upon if you’re sixteen years old and still living with your parents.

LA - What about the food?  What did you feel the gastronomic scene was like?

HS - Norway is a poor country, gastronomically speaking.  Their traditional food is very simple, this is due in part because several decades ago before they started drilling for oil, they did not have the funding to import food, therefore, they would consume what was locally produced and since it’s a very cold country with so little sunlight for over half the year, it’s not very easy to grow food.  Their diet is based basically on fish and potatoes.  But nowadays the food panorama is changing with the availability of ingredients and they’re quite in love with Asian food.

LA - How did you adjust to the new food culture?

HS - In reality I was never 100% adjusted, I always had that syndrome so characteristic of Mexican people, the very famous ‘jamaicón’.  Basically it’s a word based on the legend of Jamaicón Villegas, a Mexican soccer player whom while playing for the Mexican National team in England and losing a game, declared that the loss of the game was because he had not eaten birria, a famous goat dish, and that life is not worth living unless he was in his own homeland.  It’s the way Mexicans living far from their mother land suffer from nostalgia.  I missed my family and friends very much, I yearned for Christmas because I knew I would return during that season and enjoy a few months of the warm sunlight and climate. 

LA - How did you celebrate your roots in Norway?

HS - Well, I’m what could be called the sesame seed of all moles, meaning sauces, so it was not very difficult for me at all to make friends and I love hosting.  So I would make any excuse to invite friends and host dinners, lunches, brunches, etc.  I also met a few Mexican ladies living in Norway so the Mexican Independence day was always celebrated at my house.  I was always eager to cook Mexican traditional dishes and there was always an abundant flow of Tequila, and spicy, sour sweets that made the journey from Mexico in my luggage.

LA - What difficulties did you encounter while trying to cook your favorite or signature dishes?

HS - All the ones you can imagine!  Products imported from the American continent were very scarce or null, I couldn’t find hardly any staple ingredients.  There was no corn or maize, no chiles, the only thing I could find were ready made commercial ‘taco shells’, not even close to our Mexican tacos, even meat was a problem, I could only find certain cuts.  So if you were really in the mood for ‘pancita’, a specialty dish made with tripe, forget it!  It was a prohibited item by the Norwegian health ministry.

LA - What did Norwegians think of your food?

HS - I had many different experiences.  Adventurous Norwegians, those that love to travel and try new things loved my food; those that were more conservative, or even in the older age group were not very enthusiastic and they took a while to appreciate the complex flavors.  Their taste buds are used to very simple bland foods like boiled potatoes and a slice of roast beef.  Many did like to try the foreign dishes, especially the very young people, even though there are exceptions.  But I would say that a great majority wanted to try new dishes.  Norwegians normally travel in the wintertime to different destinations in Europe; they spend long seasons outside of the country to escape the cold and that undoubtedly changes their food habits while abroad.

LA - How did you start your catering business in Norway?

HS - I didn’t have a job and I didn’t speak Norwegian.  While I was there, the Norwegian government changed a few rules for immigrants and one of them was to require foreign workers to have completed at least 600 hours of Norwegian language courses or having passed a test of advanced Norwegian.  That was a major impediment for me because I had just started learning the language of my husband.  I met a lady that introduced me to another person who was looking for someone to cater an event for her for 50 people.  It was just my luck and just what I needed.  Most of her guests were Mexicans.  They were ecstatic with the food because the dishes I prepared were unavailable in Oslo.  That first catering opportunity lead to many more.

LA - Did you visit many markets and restaurants?

HS - There are no markets in Oslo, only small super markets where they sell very basic items.  In neighborhoods where the majority of people are Asian immigrants, there are many small stores that they themselves have opened with hundreds of imported products.  You can find Asian, Indian, middle eastern, Thai and a few Latin American products.  A year after I arrived, a gourmet market called Mathallen opened it’s doors in Oslo.  There, the choice of products and produce was more varied and each store had their own restaurant.  As far as restaurants go, I went to the ones I could.  I love to eat out and try everything.  I really enjoy when I find a very good restaurant, so I go back many times.  My favorite was an Indian restaurant that served the most delicious karahi chicken that I have ever eaten, its a dish from Pakistan and northern India.

LA - What was the ingredient you most missed that you had to go without?

HS - Without a doubt it was corn or maíz.  But I did find in an import store PAM corn flour, its the famous Venezuelan flour to make arepas or corn cakes.  With that flour I made everything imaginable.  My cooking became all about the ingredients.  

LA - How did you go from catering to become an Ambassador of Mexican gastronomy; did you participate if food festivals?

HS - I started participating in food festivals and expositions, mostly in schools.  I was invited to the University of Oslo to participate in a festival for Days of the Dead.  I was also invited to private colleges and government agencies.  The object was to introduce Mexican gastronomy to Norwegians.  I catered events for the Mexican Consulate in Norway and right before I left Norway, I catered the very first inaugural gala called “Noche Mexicana” at the newly established Embassy of Mexico in Norway.

LA - To become spokesperson and Ambassador of Mexican Gastronomy in Norway must have been quite a thrill.  How would you describe your overall general experience?

HS - I would say it was definitely a challenging lesson in survival in all aspects.  I understood that nothing could stop me while I had the determination and dream.  Norway represented a competition with my own self, with my limitations and I overcame them.  I had the lesson of my life.  

LA - How would you define your culinary style?

HS - I love classic gastronomy, but I like to work with established recipes, play with the ingredients, deconstruct a dish and create a new dish over a classic base, utilizing different textures and colors; that way my creative, designer side gets a turn too, but in the end, in the final taste I like for a dish to have the same classic essence.  I do consider myself a contemporary chef.

LA - Perhaps this question does not even have an answer; but what would you say is your signature dish or your favorite recipe?

HS - I don’t have a particular dish, out of each gastronomy that I have learned I take the dish that I like the most and I have practiced it until I have perfected it.  When I serve it to diners they’re ecstatic.  Of my own creations, I have a few dishes of prehispanic origins that contain insects, the kind that many people won’t even try even though they’re delicious.  A beautiful thing that came out of not having ingredients is my dish called Chile Atole Nordic style.  It’s a traditional dish that contains as the main ingredients chiles and masa from the corn, but since both were hard to come by, I adapted it to locally availably ingredients.  It’s bold and delicious and I will share the recipe.  You’ll love it.         

LA - What gastronomy do you most admire?

HS - That’s the most difficult question of all.  As a chef, I should compulsorily admire French cuisine, but that’s not my case.  In my highest esteem is Mexican cuisine, in second place is middle eastern, and third is Thai cuisine.  It’s my personal taste.  

LA - Now that you live in Texas, what are your future plans and aspirations as a chef?

HS - I love to taste local food and I’m fascinated with Texan BBQ.  I’m interested in learning Cajun gastronomy and its history.  Cooking for Texas diners will be next and perhaps even a cookbook.

LA - Thank you very much for sharing your culinary story and your Norwegian Chile Atole recipe.  It has been a tantalizing talk and I’m looking forward to sampling more of your delicious dishes and seeing your cookbook in publication.

Recipe For Chile Atole: Nordic (Norwegian) Style


1 bunch of cilantro
1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
2 bunches of spinach
green chiles to taste (serrano or jalapeño)
2 corn cobs cut in large pieces
1 Corn Cob (kernels removed)
250 grams of corn maza (Maseca)
chicken bullion to taste
1/2 an onion chopped
1 shredded chicken breast (optional)
2 liters of water
2 to 3 limes for serving


Chile Atole (Nordic Style) by Chef Haydee Segura
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2016
In a large stock pot boil two liters of water.  In a separate cup or bowl of warm water add the masa to dissolve, stir until it becomes thick and smooth.  Once the water in the stock pot starts boiling, add the masa mixture to the pot a little at a time and keep stirring over medium heat.  Rinse and chop the green ingredients including the chiles.  Place the chopped onion and all green ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth a little at a time, adding liquid from the stock pot to help in the process.  Once all the greens are puréed, add them to the stock pot.  Next, add the corn kernels and keep stirring.  Add the corn on the cob pieces and the chicken bouillon to taste.  Continue simmering on a slow boil until the color changes to a less bright green.  Season with salt and simmer another five minutes.  Remove from heat and serve with shredded chicken in bowls.  Add a dash of lime squeeze.  Enjoy!   

Written by Leticia Alaniz © 2016 

Recipe by Chef Haydee Segura

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