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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

David Sterling, cooking school founder and author of 2 epic tomes on Mexican food, dies at 65

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our top headlines will appear in your inbox each Monday and Thursday.

David Sterling, standing, in white, presides over a cooking class that ends in a shared meal. Photo: Los Dos
David Sterling, standing, in white, presides over a cooking class that ends in a shared meal. Photo: Los Dos

Tributes are pouring in on the news of the passing of David Sterling.

Sterling, 65, was a designer, writer and chef. He founded Mérida’s Los Dos cooking school and the local chapter of the Slow Food market while devoting years on a well-received and weighty tome that documents the region’s food culture.

David Sterling, center, in 2015. Photo: Facebook
David Sterling, center, in 2015. Photo: Facebook

His impact as a designer exists today in many of the homes built or renovated in Yucatán since the mid-2000s. His own cooking school’s kitchen and courtyard pool and columns remain iconic, influencing others’ designs across the peninsula.

To many, Sterling’s work was a first introduction to Yucatán. He had appeared on Martha Stewart’s television show, guiding her through the market stalls of the Centro. He was hailed by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who profiled him in his influential column. 

And with all due respect to other Americans who’ve cooked in and written about Mexico, there may be no non-native who knows as much about cooking in the Yucatán as Mr. Sterling does.

This much I had gathered before leaving home, and when I met Mr. Sterling it all rang true; the guy is an encyclopedia.

David Sterling receives the James Beard award in 2015 for his book on Yucatán.
David Sterling receives the James Beard award in 2015 for his book on Yucatán.

Sterling’s Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition (2014) was named “Best International Cookbook” and “Cookbook of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation. The thick, richly designed book has been uniformly praised for its thorough and authoritative documentation of Yucatán’s native ingredients and cooking methods.

And Sterling is seen on the current season of Rick Bayless’ “Mexico, One Plate at a Time,” which is devoted strictly to Yucatán. On the first day of filming, the famous Chicago chef made a beeline to Los Dos’ equally famous kitchen. Most recently, the Travel Channel called Los Dos one of the 10 best cooking classes in the world.

Bayless recalled his time with Sterling in a correspondence today with Yucatán Expat Life:

There was no one more fascinated by, more enthusiastic about, more dedicated to the promotion of Yucatán and its cuisine than David Sterling. I was just reviewing the notes from my last class with David, reminding myself of his thoughtfulness and thoroughness. I am grateful to have spent time with David on so many occasions, to have shared some of his knowledge and passion. He will be sorely missed.  

With all this, it’s easy to forget his other huge accomplishments in the field of design. With partner Keith Heitke, his Worldstudio International built and furnished some of the peninsula’s most gracious homes, while designing restaurants around the globe.

Sterling and Heitke brought the full-service design studio here, drawn to new horizons in Mérida after the 9/11 attacks.

The outpouring of grief came swiftly on social media.

One of the best designers in the world. One of the best chefs in the world. My teacher, my mentor, my friend. What an inspiration not only in the beginning of my design career in New York but also when I opened a restaurant in Oklahoma City. Thank you David, thank you very much. RIP my friend!!! — Thomas Batista Correa

The cuisine of Yucatán is in mourning, rest David Sterling… Representative of the flavors of the east from the two, sharing our culture and flavors to the American community, rest in peace. — Christian Bravo

David, you will be missed so deeply by those who knew and loved you. I will never forget your kindness and hospitality during my time in Mérida. You and Keith Heitke were two of the first people I met and your friendship meant so much to me. Rest in peace–thank you for all you have done as a cultural ambassador to the Yucatán and as a fine U.S. citizen ambassador. — Lisa Vickers

The Los Dos kitchen, built in 2003, quickly captured the imagination of readers around the world. Photo: Travel Channel
The Los Dos kitchen, built in 2003, quickly captured the imagination of readers around the world. Photo: Travel Channel

Sterling was born in Oklahoma City and grew up in a culinary environment that included everything from chicken fried steak and sausage gravy to cheese enchiladas. According to his ow biography, Sterling first came to Mexico in 1972, a trip that focused him on this country’s cuisine.

While a design student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Sterling worked as a pantry chef at the highly acclaimed French restaurant Le Bijou, in a suburb of Detroit. By the late 1970s, he had started his own small catering business.

After graduation, he relocated to New York City, living there for 25 years before moving to Mérida in 2003 to open Los Dos.

Earlier this year, he was interviewed for a LocoGringo podcast. Listen as he describes his personal journey from New York City to Yucatán.

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