Azucena Tovar of Los Sombreros, Part One

Call her a chef if you want. Heck, she probably wouldn't flinch if you called her whatever you like.

But if you ask Los Sombreros owner Azucena Tovar what she'd call herself, she would likely say one of three things: a business woman, a restaurateur, or "a sommelier of food."

Tovar opened Los Sombreros in 1994 with her then-husband, now the owner of Eltoe in Sedona, Jeff Smedstad. After parting ways in 2007, Tovar took charge and has since molded the Los Somberos menu into a "collage" of her favorite dishes and ingredients.

"To me, it has to be perfect. And I have a palate for that, at least that's what I believe. I believe I have the palette for perfection. People like what I come up with. I don't like to think that I'm an artist or inventor. I'm more like a collage artist."

Every year she travels to Mexico to see family and friends and gather information on the latest trends in the Mexican food scene. Over the past few years she's noticed an explosion of culinary schools in central Mexico, near her hometown of Miguel Allende.

To Tovar, the schools offer a constant source of innovation from which she draws inspiration for her menu at Los Sombreros.

"Once a door opens, there are more doors behind that door and then you can take the idea farther. So these people in Mexico in these culinary schools are coming up with amazing dishes, and for me those are doors that I'm opening. That helps me to come up with new ideas because those are things I would not have come up with."

When Tovar first began her career in the business, Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy were just emerging to introduce the culinary world to the wonders of traditional Mexican cooking. But to Tovar, it was nothing new, just the same food she'd been eating at home for years.

Her recent discoveries, however, have her reinvigorated and feeling lucky to be able to share what she discovers with her customers.

"To me I was like 'Ah, I grew up with that.' But it was a big deal and I didn't see it as a big deal. Now I see this as a big deal and people don't see it yet. I'm bringing it here slowly, as I'm finding it. But Mexican food is going to the next step. I'm very excited. I don't get impressed very often - I'm impressed with what I've seen."

Tomorrow, we'll have the second half of our talk with Azucena.

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