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Pati Jinich: Made for TV

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When chef and writer Patricia Jinich warms up to a subject on Mexican cooking, any subject on Mexican cooking, she’ll start talking fast, her musical words barely keeping up with the thoughts racing through her head. Her hands will become animated, as much to make a connection as to punctuate a point. She likes to touch people lightly on the arm or, more emphatically, point at them when they say something she likes. She laughs as if everything you say is comedic gold.

Sometimes it seems as if Pati Jinich — she prefers the informal name — could turn a misanthrope into butter or, perhaps more surprising, hold her own against an outsize caricature like Paula Deen. When Jinich appeared on “Paula’s Best Dishes” in August 2009, the host predictably pandered to her Southern-leaning audience by teasing her Mexican guest about her heavy accent (which is sort of like the pot calling the molcajete black, right?). But within minutes, Jinich’s enthusiasm toward both her dish and the host acted almost like a brake, slowing down Deen’s runaway freight train of shtick. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but Deen actually seemed to relax for once, free to revel in Jinich’s good humor. “You’re like the cutest thing,” Deen pronounces at one point.

That is Jinich’s power. She’s a walking antidepressant. She makes life seem more colorful whenever you’re around her. Why someone hasn’t given her a TV show before now is a mystery, but the moment has arrived. “Pati’s Mexican Table” debuts Saturday at 11:30 a.m. on WETA-TV and will be distributed nationwide by American Public Television.

“I think we were on the phone for probably an hour that first night” when they talked about the show, says Bernadette Rivero, vice president of development for Cortez Brothers, the Southern California company that’s producing “Pati’s Mexican Table.” “Her passion and her love for cooking was so fresh and amazing. How could we not be involved with that? It felt like a lucky taco fell from the sky and right in my lap.”

Funny, but this taco took a rather circuitous route. As the youngest of four daughters born into a Jewish family in Mexico City, Jinich (pronounced HEE-nich) was a loner as a child, she says, content to escape to the roof of their home with the family dog and a snack. She enjoyed the solitude of writing and exploring her own thoughts. Her ambition was to study philosophy and literature.

Jinich’s sisters were the ones to latch on to cooking, whether through catering or writing a cookbook or running a bistro. Their adult interests seemed a natural extension of their childhood home, where they enjoyed the finer things in life. Their father was a jeweler and their mother a dealer in Latin American art; home-cooked food was a routine source of pleasure, the kitchen skills passed down from generations of talented cooks on the maternal side of the family.

“We loved to eat,” says sister Alisa Romano, 44, a trained chef who owns Alisa’s Painted Bistro in Miami. “That’s something that really got our interest.” She recalls how her father would bring home French marmalade to great fanfare. “Once a friend of mine from high school told me, ‘Why does your father get excited for jars of marmalade?’ ”

Food was always a pleasure for Jinich, too, but cooking was a dormant gene. “When I first got married, I didn’t know how to scramble an egg,” says Jinich, who just turned 39. In fact, as a wedding gift, Jinich’s mother passed along her prized comal to her youngest daughter, a break from tradition.

“You usually don’t pass down comals until you die,” Jinich says of the seasoned griddles used to cook tortillas. “She was hoping I would become a good cook. . . . I think it was her way of saying, ‘Put a little effort in it.’ ”

Her marriage to Daniel Jinich proved to be the jump start she needed. When he took a job in Dallas in 1997, she sought out a volunteer position at KERA-TV, where she became a production assistant for “New Tastes of Texas With Stephan Pyles,” whose host was a pioneer in Southwestern cuisine. She loved the job: the research, the travel, the food.

But when her husband moved to Washington two years later for another job, Jinich felt an obligation to continue her education in political science, which had begun in Mexico City. She eventually received a master’s degree in Latin American studies from Georgetown University and promptly took a job as a policy analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

“I thought it was my dream job,” she says. “When I got there, I really didn’t like it at all.”

Her husband encouraged her to give up her dreary desk job in favor of cooking. Jinich, after all, had already earned a certificate at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg and was thinking about the differences between Peruvian and Mexican ceviche as much as the differences among democratic governances in Latin America. She decided to pursue her desire to cook and write full time.

She started putting together a curriculum on Mexican cuisine. She envisioned students coming to her kitchen in Chevy Chase, a spacious, light-filled room outfitted with tiles and lamps imported from Mexico, where she would stuff her pupils with ideas about cooking, ingredients, history and culture. But then she met Juan Garcia de Oteyza, then executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute. Before she knew it, she had agreed to launch a cooking series in late 2007 at the institute.

Pati’s Mexican Table, as her classes are also called, combines Jinich’s fascination for food with her interest in history: She has, for instance, explored the dishes of revolutionary Mexico, when rebel fighters required sturdy foods that could be tucked easily inside a pocket or saddlebag. She taught a class on convent cooking during Mexico’s colonial era. (Both subjects will be explored on her TV show, too.) Regardless of what she offers at the institute, tickets are tough to secure.

“We usually have a waiting list,” says institute spokeswoman Clarissa Minchew. “Pati’s just a charismatic teacher.”

Jinich’s charisma has attracted the attention of various TV producers captivated by her charm, intelligence and made-for-television face. After rejecting one production company’s contract after a lawyer warned her it was too “aggressive,” she took matters into her own hands, approaching WETA-TV about a cooking show. The station was open, with a caveat: Jinich had to secure her own underwriters.

The budding host also wanted to find her own production company, because she wasn’t satisfied with the English-speaking locals who lacked experience with Mexico and its culture. That’s when she learned about Cortez Brothers, a bilingual production company that specializes in commercials for the Latin American market. Jinich was sold, even though Cortez had never worked on a cooking show.

“We’ve done a lot of food commercials, . . . so understanding the time and effort that goes into making food look good for television was something we have,” says Cortez’s Marcos Cline-Marquez, executive producer for “Pati’s Mexican Table.”

Still, the early shoots didn’t go smoothly, Jinich tells me while preparing flank steak tacos drizzled in Jamaica (hibiscus) syrup in her kitchen, which serves as the set for her new show. Part of the problem was the tight deadlines; the production crew and host had to shoot 13 episodes in roughly two weeks. With no time to waste, they jumped right in. Jinich was nervous initially. She wasn’t comfortable with all the makeup. She swayed on camera. She kept asking crew members what they thought of her performance. She had one eye trained on her three boys, ages 4, 9 and 11, who occasionally hovered in the background. She spoke too fast.

“I was asked many times to talk slower,” Jinich recalls.

“Pati’s a mom,” says Cline-Marquez. “She puts down the script, and her kids sneak by to take a look at it and now she’s performing to them. Or she’s worried about . . . their homework.”

The executive producer knew how to fix the problem. All he had to do was show Jinich the takes when she was distracted and those when she wasn’t. “You can see the light turn on and [hear her] say, ‘I got it,’ ” he says.

Jinich’s early insecurity on camera is counterbalanced by her absolute confidence in her approach to Mexican cooking. She talks about it in terms of authenticity and history, but also flexibility. She’s not some Diana Kennedy-like scold looking to tell home cooks there’s only one right way to prepare Mexican food. She’s all about inclusion, which makes sense. Jinich is a Mexican-born chef whose grandparents came from Austria and Czechoslovakia and Poland. Mexico’s cuisine is likewise a compelling mash-up of influences, including Mayan, French and Spanish. So if you want to substitute feta cheese for queso fresco on Jinich’s flank steak tacos, go right ahead. She won’t mind.

“I guess you can say we’re nuevo traditionalists,” says Cline-Marquez.

It’s ultimately about making Mexican food approachable, not rigid. Jinich is not interested in turning the kitchen into a combat zone. “I hate it when people make you feel bad,” she says. “I don’t want to make people feel bad.”

Recipes

Steak Tacos With a Jamaica-Jalapeno Syrup

Peanut and Vanilla Torito

Mini Pound CakesWith Lime-Apricot Glaze and Sprinkles

Chicken in a Tomatillo, Chipotle and Piloncillo Sauce

Jamaica Concentrate

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