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Duncan Tucker


 It’s not every day that the Pope walks into your kitchen to congratulate you on your cooking, but that’s precisely what happened to Mexican chef Joe Ibarra this week.

Ibarra, who ordinarily runs Mexico City’s Brazilian steak restaurant Don Sazón, had been asked to prepare the pontiff’s meals at the Vatican’s diplomatic headquarters throughout his stay in Mexico.

“He thanked us this morning and told us that everything had been delicious and that he was very satisfied,” Ibarra told me over the phone on Pope Francis’ fifth and final day in Mexico.

“He’s a very warm, humble person who’s very close to the people.”

Joe-IbarraChef Joe Ibarra. Photos courtesy of Joe Ibarra.

Ibarra and his team of five chefs served up a mix of Mexican, Italian, and Argentine fare that drew a positive response from the Catholic Church’s first-ever Latin American leader.

“Last night for dessert, we served up Argentine alfajores and he went crazy for them. He absolutely loved them!” Ibarra said. “He even took home two or three loaves of a Mexican wholemeal artesanal bread that we baked for him.”

A 35-year-old Mexico City native, Ibarra said he developed an interest in gastronomy at an early age: “I remember watching my mom cooking when I was very young, and it was something that really captivated me.”

Upon graduating from a local gastronomy school, he worked his way up the chain at different restaurants. In 2008, Ibarra started working at an apostolic center, which eventually led to him cooking for Pope Benedict when he visited Mexico in 2012. And with that experience under his belt, he was the obvious choice to keep Pope Francis well-fed throughout his recent stay.

12705456_10154155821084156_3432811709284334712_nIbarra with the Popemobile.

“I think my success is due to the passion I have for food. I’ve become very demanding in my way of working and I have very high standards,” Ibarra said. “My speciality is traditional Mexican cuisine, but I like to serve and present it as haute cuisine. This is what the Italians love: Mexican food, but with beautiful presentation and smaller portions than we’re accustomed to here in Mexico.”

Given the sensitive nature of the task at hand, Ibarra and his team had to be vetted by the Vatican’s Gendarmerie security personnel and Mexico’s presidential guard ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. They were told to avoid anything that might upset the 79-year-old Argentine’s digestive system.

12687907_10154148762839156_3492023232555586405_nIbarra with Pope Francis.

“There were certain restrictions, which were obvious because of his age: nothing spicy, no irritants, nothing too greasy,” Ibarra explained. “All the fruits had to be seedless to avoid digestive problems.”

So, what exactly does the Pope eat? “

Breakfast was the same every day: cold meats, cheese, fruit, toast, pan dulce, marmalade, green tea, and orange or mandarin juice. He didn’t drink coffee, which could be an irritant at his age.”

As for lunch and dinner, Ibarra said: “The Pope really likes steamed white rice. We also cooked short-cut pasta for him, with a pesto or pomodoro sauce. They were all very simple dishes.”

Nonetheless, Ibarra tried to liven things up by using typical Mexican ingredients like pipián sauce, maize, and huitlacoche, alongside Italian classics such as Parmesan and basil.

Pope Francis is known to enjoy the occasional glass of wine, and in a meeting with a Mexican tourist last month he enquired whether they’d have tequila ready to welcome him. Yet as far as Ibarra knows, the Pope did not touch a drop of Mexico’s fiery national spirit throughout his trip, nor any other kind of alcohol for that matter.

IMG-20160217-WA0000A mariachi band bids farewell to the Pope, with Mexican pop singer Carlos Rivera in the middle.

“He’d only drink water with his lunch and dinner,” Ibarra noted. “This water was the only thing they brought from the Vatican, but that wasn’t for security reasons; it was simply because this particular brand of water was very low in sodium.”

The Pope’s one and only vice, he said, was Ferrero Rocher: “The Holy Father really likes chocolate. Ferrero Rocher is his favorite, so we’d always serve a tray of chocolates after dinner.”

The highlight of the experience for Ibarra, a Catholic himself, was when Pope Francis came to greet his team of chefs. “I’m going through a spiritual phase, and one of the things that Pope Francis represents for me is the faith that I have in God,” Ibarra said. “I told him that I believe in him and he showed me that he’s only a conduit for God to bring us the Lord’s word.”

12733528_10154148776474156_6953216009397563680_nPope Francis with Ibarra and his kitchen team.

On the Pope’s final morning, Ibarra’s team arranged a small farewell party with a group of mariachis and Mexican pop singer Carlos Rivera. Ultimately, Ibarra said, it was a less pressured and more enjoyable experience than the last time he catered for a pontiff.

“I had a lot more contact with Pope Francis than with Pope Benedict. They’re so different. Pope Benedict was always very tired and he would go to bed very early and he didn’t speak Spanish—only German—which makes a big difference. Pope Francis had so much more energy.”

Now that the hard work is over, Ibarra intends to relax for a few days before contemplating his future.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do next after the Pope’s visit, which has generated a lot of offers,” he said. “I think the fact that I’ve done a good job twice now has opened up a lot of opportunities for me. This is a very Catholic country, so cooking for the Pope really draws people’s attention.”

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker