For Tania Cienfuegos Harris, her grandmother’s way with “mind-blowing” moles and other savory, made-from-scratch dishes served as mighty inspiration when she chose a culinary career. Born in Mexico City to hard-working parents, she spent her formative years in “Amparito’s” kitchen, observing her techniques and learning the fine points of baking.
These precious memories often loop through her mind while performing her own bake-craft at the Lazy Goat in Greenville. As a pastry chef, she combines the cooking habits she was taught as a child with a new-found love for Southern ingredients. The results have put her on the pastry map and made her a natural choice to represent the state as a South Carolina Chef Ambassador for 2019. As part of an initiative begun by former Gov. Nikki Haley, each year chefs from across the state are selected to promote South Carolina's culinary heritage and local food culture through cooking demonstrations, guest appearances and educational programs.
Harris was born with a strong creative flair, though it took her a few years to discover that food was more than an expression of familial love—it was also her preferred art form. So, she decided to hone her artistic skills by earning a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts from the Colegio Superior De Gastronomía in Mexico City. Upon graduation, she worked abroad for a year, then landed in Texas where she joined the pastry staff at a large resort and solidified her love for baking cakes, breads, pies and more. She was mentored by Thai chef Tong Suvanaratosot, from whom she learned chocolate and sugar techniques. From there, it was back to Mexico City where she created recipes for Nestlé and wrote several cookbooks. Soon, her desire for new experiences nudged her to Greenville, where the final career ingredient was added to her already impressive aesthetic: a broader understanding of farm-to-table ingredients and how they define the vibrant food scene in South Carolina.
Here, Harris provides a deeper look at how she developed her aesthetic in the kitchen:
What first sparked your interest in a culinary degree?
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been my grandmother’s sous chef. For as long as I can remember, my grandma would be always in the kitchen cooking, baking, drying herbs, mixing spices and even doing her own charcuterie. She had a bunch of hidden skills, and she has always been so passionate about it. She is, no doubt, one of the biggest influences in my pursuit of a cooking career."
What makes being a chef in South Carolina so appealing?
“South Carolina is a state with amazing historic sites, customs and culture. It is also a very eclectic place, filled with different kinds of people, traditions and interests. I love that the arts are very important across the state. We’ve got so many venues for visual and performing arts—places where people come together and share their creativity. This is super important to me because I like to engage with my community. When I cook, I tell a story as a cook and as a person. So, loving the place I live makes my work so much easier.”
Which South Carolina products are a must in your kitchen?
“Carolina Gold rice and regional honey are two of my favorites. Also, I love all the seasonal fruits. If it’s in season in South Carolina, we are using it for a dessert!”
What dish best represents your creativity and culinary style?
“One of the desserts currently on the menu is Moroccan rice pudding. It is one of my personal favorite desserts. I grew up eating rice pudding, so it’s very close to my heart. I love to have that connection with a dish, but I also like to push the boundaries and experiment, sometimes with the ingredients, sometimes with the technique or maybe just the presentation. Desserts for me are an empty canvas, and you can express feelings and emotions. I also try to incorporate some cultural aspect. I’m Mexican, so somehow my culture is always going to be printed on my food.”
As a Chef Ambassador for South Carolina, what ideals do you hope to share with the dining public and why?
“Consume local, get out of your comfort zone and explore the state. I believe that as chefs, we have the responsibility to educate people about the abundance and wide variety of amazing products in our state by showcasing them in our dishes. When people find a new ingredient or dish they love, I hope we can help encourage them to incorporate it into their meals at home, too.”