Growing up in the Northeast, my experiences with coconut have generally been limited to the dried, sweetened, flaked stuff sold in the baking isle of grocery stores, and as the colada in my pina.  Coco: An Exploration of the Coconut in All of Its Creative Forms— one of the many seminars part of the Gourmet Latino Festival that took NYC by sexy, firey storm last weekend–brought me to my senses. Quite literally.  Cool, sweet and savory coconut milk ceviche, spicy, deep and heady seafood soup, and a lavish, colorful and devastatingly delicious paella, whipped my taste buds  into a frenzy of flavor.

Focusing on seafood and island cuisine, famed Chef Máximo Tejada, of Rayuela and Macondo, cracked the shell wide open on all the different ways the coconut has been incorporated into Latin American cooking.  He also explained the “Estilo Libre” philosophy of cooking, which is about the chef’s relationships with the culture and cuisines that inspire his dishes, incorporating them in an almost stream of flavor consciousness approach to composing a meal.  It’s not about sticking rigidly to one tradition, but instead, loosely moving between them, emphasizing the best parts of each one–much the same way that Latin American culture has evolved.

To help balance the rich food, Master Mixologist Amaury Robayo, also of Rayuela, mixed up a cocktail to pair with each of Maximo’s dishes, utilizing the coconut in fresh and unique ways. The sweet and refreshing flavors were the perfect compliment to the spicy food, and rounded out my delicious coconut education.

– Ava Fedorov