Food, entrepreneur profile

Name: David Sterling

Nationality: U.S.

Age: 59

Living In: Mérida, Yucatán

Someone’s in the kitchen with David. Luckily, it’s me…and a dozen or so other food lovers. We’ve come to study the art of Yucatecan cooking with David Sterling and none other than the grand dame of Mexican cuisine herself, Diana Kennedy.

Her classic cookbooks have been on my bookshelves forever, it seems. And now here she is…in person and just a few steps from my home…at a cooking school in Mérida.

But the real star of this show is my neighbor, Chef David. In the eight years he’s been living in Mexico he’s already launched three successful businesses, one of which has made him the darling of notables like Diana Kennedy. No less than Mexicophile Rick Bayless (owner of Chicago’s award-winning Frontera Grill and star of his own PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time”) and the inimitable Martha Stewart herself have come to Mérida, camera crews in tow, to spend time with David at his Los Dos Cooking School.

David’s kitchen—with its massive center island and walls decorated in a dizzyingly eclectic hodgepodge of colorful Mexican tiles—alone inspires confidence that no matter your culinary skill (or lack thereof) you’ll soon be pattycaking tamales and grinding seeds for pipián sauce with skill.

Rick Bayless was so taken with Los Dos that he returned a few months later with more than 25 staff members from his culinary empire for the group’s annual retreat and inspirational tour. Martha Stewart posted videos of her Los Dos cooking class at her website (See: http://www.Marthastewart.com).

Los Dos is the only culinary institute in Mexico devoted to Yucatecan cuisine. And sitting in the Los Dos dining room with Diana Kennedy and my fellow class members, we’re in awe of David’s complete recall of dates and events… from pre-conquest through last week…that have shaped the cooking and food of the peninsula.

David has always been a student of Mexico. “I started studying Spanish when I was 11 years old—a requirement in Oklahoma City Public Schools in the 1960s,” he says. “I became obsessed with Mexico. I even went so far as to secretly plot with my aunt to entice my parents to take the whole family on a road trip ‘south of the border.’ It worked! We at least made it to El Paso and Juárez.”

In high school and college, David found his childhood infatuation turn into a hunger to learn more. At 17, he began traveling to Mexico—primarily to Mexico City—where he studied Aztec culture and the Mexican muralist movement.

And then life happened. Twenty-odd years flew by as David had his nose to the grindstone in the advertising and design business in New York City.

“I’ve always had a dual career path,” he says, “food and art. While I was studying for my MFA in design near Detroit, I supported myself by working in a French restaurant. After graduate school I did a bit of private catering.”

And, he says, many of his first clients in the ad business were in the packaged foods or restaurant industries.

“During my last years in New York, my business partner and I discussed launching a line of gourmet Mexican food products. He, too, had a gourmet foods background. This, then, became a good excuse for moving to Mexico, where I would be able to source ingredients more easily. While product development was going on, I decided to also launch a cooking school with the idea that there would be cross-promotional synergy between the school and the product line.”

As luck would have it, David and his life partner, Keith Heitke, had just bought a home in Mérida capital of Mexico’s Yucatán state Mexico. They’d made their first visit there after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, just five blocks from their New York apartment.

A friend in Mérida invited them to take a breather in her tropical home, David remembers. “On the first morning of our stay she arranged for a realtor to show us properties. I was quite put off, and was keener to visit Uxmal or other Maya sites. Still, we went, thinking at least it would be interesting to see how people lived. By February of 2002, we had bought a ruin of a home in Mérida and we immediately began renovations.”

For 14 months David and Keith shuttled back and forth seven times from New York to Mérida to check on the renovation process. They didn’t have a clear-cut idea of what the future would hold. They’d considered that the property could be used for their eventual retirement – but they weren’t ready for that just yet.

“We’d also thought we could flip it, or use it as a rental,” David says. “But ultimately, we were just so in love with the place that we decided to give it a go.”

In April 2003, they moved to Mérida.

“While we had no jobs and no source of steady income, we leapt off the cliff. It was a huge act of faith that, looking back, I still can’t believe we managed. But it worked. We told ourselves that we were bright and talented, and that surely we could figure out some way to support ourselves. We were also clever to give ourselves a couple of cushions: enough to live on for a couple of years, and the knowledge that if it didn’t work out, we could always move back to the States. That never happened, and we are in our eighth year here, with no desire ever to leave!”

Less than eight months after arriving in Mérida, David opened Los Dos, a cooking school devoted to the local cuisine.

“It was an instant hit,” he says. So much so that the product development of his gourmet food line took a back burner for a while. But there’s good news on that front as well. The first shipment of the Los Dos brand of artisanal honey was recently exported to the U.S. where it will be available through gourmet food website www.chefshop.com.

While David was launching these two businesses, Keith was busy, too. He’d jumped into the Mérida real estate business and found his clients clamoring for help renovating the stately old colonial homes Mérida is known for. Soon business #3 was born: Worldstudio International.

“We began offering remodeling and renovation services,” David says, “which worked out conveniently for my schedule, since the school is slow in summers, which is the time when most of our design work happens.

“Right now we’re working on a fabulous renovation project just a few blocks away. It’s a great house, a big budget, and we are having a blast with all the design details. So my days typically begin with a stroll to the job site to check on progress. Then I spend time in my ‘laboratory kitchen’ testing out all sorts of Yucatecan recipes. During the class season, I am busy preparing menus and shopping. And I’m working on a cookbook, too.”

Why does that not surprise me? Cooking school, local gourmet products for export, design and renovation business, and now a cookbook in the works.

Where does the energy come from?

“I wake up to the sound of tropical birds. I step outside the bedroom door and jump into the pool for a swim. I sit in the lush tropical garden and read the newspaper while I have coffee and a bite to eat. I don’t have to put on a suit to go to work and I can honestly claim that at least 80% of my time “at work” is full of creativity, learning and spontaneity. What could be more energizing than that?”

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