“It was one of those dinners that you wished would last longer,” says April Valencia, the cook and founder of Masa Memory, a community centred on family food traditions and specialising in Mexican culinary heritage. April invited friends to her 102-year-old home on a hilltop in Laurel Canyon - known as the Christmas cabin due to its bright red painted exterior - for a seasonal celebration, serving her signature heirloom masa to guests.
Through set design, photography, heading up restaurants in New York and a catering business that saw her serve food across the world from a tiny kitchen on a sailboat, April’s journey has been rich and varied, with all roads leading to Masa Memory. Offering small batches of Mexican family staples, from tortillas, mole and hot sauce to cacao and tamales, Masa Memory “allows me to explore every part of myself,” April says.
“I was raised on a ranch in Tuscon on the outskirts of Arizona by a family of hard workers, with my mom and nanas providing food for all the kids running around the house. From a very young age, I understood food as an offering of love.” April aims to evoke that sense of home through the food she serves and to foster the idea of family through the community she’s built, from the regenerative farmers' that grow the maíz to the guests at her supper clubs. “With the gatherings we host across LA, Mexico and around the world, I hope my family values carry through - hard work, people who support each other and show love through the food we share.”
With a small yard space, April had been hesitant to host at the cabin, which sits at the top of a hill in the mountainous neighbourhood. After renting a venue for her birthday that fell through at the last minute, she held an impromptu dinner with family and friends on a private road in front of her house. “Since then, I’ve been obsessed with hosting here,” she says. “For our holiday dinner, I wanted to gather everyone who has supported me since I moved to LA. Many of them didn’t know each other, but it felt like old friends coming together.” Masa Memory is as much about recreating childhood memories of food as it is about creating new traditions. “Even if you don't have a big family or go home for the holidays, it is so special to create new rituals and traditions with your chosen family.” April notes. “I’ve taken rituals from my childhood that have inspired me and added to them, sharing them with the community we’ve made here in LA.”
To the sounds of a Brazilian playlist featuring Elis Regina, Luiz Bonfá and Erasmo Carlos, April served a menu that blended seasonal spoils and signature Mexican dishes. Alongside a plant-based posole made with vegetables from April's garden, roasted winter vegetables and a seasonal farmers' market salad, tamales were served with a rich and bittersweet mole poblano. “It felt right to make tamales, they’re a ritual for me at this time of year and it’s the season for them,” April explains. “They’re a labour of love, and they’re what feel most comforting to me, because this is the food I grew up with.”
“I have Mexican, Spanish and Irish heritage, so tamales are connected to my childhood, but also my memories of being in the Yucatan with the women who taught me how to make them.” While sharing the beauty and history of Mexican food with its global community, Masa Memory works to preserve the voices of the people that these food traditions belong to. “Tamales are considered a sacred food, rooted in ceremony and celebration,” April says. “In the production of our food and through the farmers we choose to work with, we aim to support the preservation of biological diversity, ancestral farming practices, soil health and the origin story of food.”
Along with tamales, black beans were always on the table when April was growing up. “I loved bean broth, my mom would tease me because I would eat it like soup. Now, a lot of my favourite chefs celebrate black bean broth in the same way we do soy sauce.” The various aromas of the kitchen are just as indicative of home as the flavours, April explains. “The smell of fresh masa de maíz is so distinct. My mom is Irish and always had pots of water and herbs boiling on the stove, like rosemary and sage or cinnamon sticks and clove. Now when I’m cooking, I want all the spices available to me.”
As guests poured into the cabin, “it truly did feel like the beginning of winter,” April says. “Our friends sat and shared conversation around the table, while I was in and out of the kitchen. Hosting is always a bit of a tornado, no matter how prepared you are, and everyone who knows me knows that when I'm hosting there is never a moment to stop or fully sit until dessert comes out.” Though a proud home cook, April’s experiences in restaurants gave her an idea of the kind of leader she wanted to be. “I understand the stressors of the kitchen, but I had bosses that were intimidating and didn’t inspire me. I have always said that I want to treat my team the way that I felt cooking with my nanas, in a safe and fun environment."
"At one point during the dinner, I was walking in to the kitchen to pull the poached quince and pears out of their pot and saw Raquel, one of my kitchen leads, mixing the whipped cream by the fireplace with the one available plug socket because the kitchen counter tops were full in my cosy but small kitchen. The team always makes anything happen - I can always count on us as a unit. There is an organic flow that takes place when we come together and I love it. Even if that means mixing whipped cream in the KitchenAid mixer on the floor by the fireplace.”
After food was served and the evening’s pace slowed down, “a special moment was when dessert came out and I could sit with my guests, fully absorbed by conversation and each other's company, knowing that all the courses had come out and that everyone enjoyed their meal,” says April. Dessert was pears and quince, poached in red wine and honey, served with vanilla whipped cream. “We provided extra whipped cream in the beautiful recycled Moroccan glassware, too.” Then came gifts. “The furoshiki table gifts were my favourite part of the whole night,” April says. “My friend who is an architect got the drawing pencils. Each one is different, and everyone felt like they opened the one that was meant for them. One included a 'name this quote' game, which brought everyone together, and our conversations grew from this, which was really fun.”
“I love the transition to an early sunlit dinner, when it’s time to light all of the candles,” April says. “The canyon has a magical twilight feeling, especially this time of year.” As the evening drew in, April served Masa Memory’s champurrado to everyone, a traditional warming Mexican cacao drink. “The day of the dinner, the California air had just started to turn cool and everyone looked so at home in their sweaters. It felt like winter, which is rare in LA.”
As everyone said their goodbyes, guests were given party favours of tamales, mole and hot sauce. The lokta paper garlands are still hanging in the corner of the kitchen, ready to welcome future guests at the Christmas cabin, where April will serve up food rooted in family tradition and invite friends to create their own.
Poached Quince and Pear in Red Wine and Honey
I used both quince and pear but you can use just one. I love the pears at the farmers' market at this time of year, especially red pears. If you can’t find quince at the market, you can use apples instead.
1 cup of honey
½ a cup of maple syrup
2 cups of red wine
1 vanilla bean or extract
Heavy cream or sheep’s yogurt.
- In a medium to large pot or saucepan, bring the water, honey, maple syrup, sea salt and spices to a boil. Once at a boil, bring down to medium heat and add the wine and rose petals. Stir until mixed well, making sure the honey and sea salt have dissolved.
- Clean the skin of your pears and quince and place in them whole into the saucepan so they are fully submerged.
- Simmer the pears and quince (do not boil) for at least an hour, until the they are cooked through. Cooking time will vary. I cooked our quince and pears for one hour, depending on how soft you would like your quince, they can cook for up to 2 hours. You can poke into them with a pairing knife to check the level of softness.
- Pull the pears and quince out of pot and allow them to cool for a moment before plating.
- Serve warm with whipped vanilla cream or yoghurt, a drizzle of honey and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Interview by Georgia Murray.
Photography by Arden Vail Sanchez.
April's table features the TOAST Moroccan Glass Jug, TOAST Hand Woven Cotton Tablecloth, TOAST Wind Blown Flower Organic Cotton Napkin, TOAST Furoshiki Table Gifts and TOAST Maple Leaf Paper Garland, the Cara Guthrie Terracotta Candle Holder and Terracotta Bud Vase, Jack Welbourne Large Tenmoku Jug, Wonki Ware White Wash Side Plate and White Wash Pasta Bowl, Wax Atelier Set of Four Dining Candles and Grace McCarthy Pestle and Mortar.