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?’ ”