Pablo Salas of Amaranta.
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Mexico's Vanguard

Anne McBride - March 2014

THE NEXT WAVE
From "The Mexican Ambassador"

Restaurant-driven Mexican cuisine began to take hold in Mexico with a generation of chefs led by Patricia Quintana, Mónica Patiño, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Arnulfo Luengas, Alicia Gironella De’Angeli, Carmen Ramírez Degollado, and cookbook author Josefina Velázquez de León, among others. At the fine dining level, the focus of their restaurants has often been to offer exquisitely prepared—and researched—versions of regional dishes, the most traditional of which are to this day often still prepared by women cooks over open fire and comal in villages. In Mexico City, that might mean offering cuisines from some of the other regions of Mexico in addition to the local one, while cities like Oaxaca or Veracruz might favor their own specialties first.

These traditional chefs are still held in high esteem and recognized for the quality of their food and depth of their knowledge. But a younger generation has taken hold and received international recognition in the process, transforming Mexico City into a gastronomic destination coming on par with Paris, New York City, or Tokyo.

A desire to use ingredients and techniques unique to their culture but within a transformative creative (often fine dining, tasting menu) framework is what unites these chefs, resulting in what they call la cocina de autor—literally translated as “the author’s cuisine,” but more accurately described as creative chef-driven cuisine. They work with farmers, producers, anthropologists, historians, botanists, and cultural experts to leaven their creativity with authenticity. Not following in Enrique Olvera’s footsteps as much as marching confidently alongside, what they cook is not just Mexican cuisine, but what Mexican cuisine means to them, and the freedom to express that.

Not all of these chefs who are the forefront of modern Mexican gastronomy are located in Mexico City, but the capital understandably forms the movement’s core, not the least because of Olvera and his restaurant Pujol. For some, who they are reflects their training as much as their heritage, and their menus are French bistro or Italian.

At Quintonil, Jorge Vallejo uses plants and ingredients “that people don’t eat because they think it’s cheap” to tell his customers the story of what it’s like to be a Mexican in 2014. Eduardo García (Máximo Bistrot) worked as a migrant worker in farms of the southeast United States and cooked at Le Bernardin in New York City before returning to his homeland. Elena Reygadas worked in London for five years and launched Rosetta after establishing her reputation and raising funds with pop-up dinners. Edgar Nuñez (Sud 777) features a vegetable-centric menu coming largely from his own urban garden, produces his own mezcal and coffee, and runs a food truck. Daniel Ovadía opened Paxia at the age of 21 with a Mexico-only wine list because he couldn’t afford wines from elsewhere. And Pablo Salas used to sell desserts to restaurants before opening Amaranta, which uses ingredients nearly exclusively from the State of Mexico.

A NEW GENERATION OF MEXICAN CHEFS

Vallejo and Garcia each cooked at Olvera’s Pujol for three years before setting out on their own. Both also met their wives, who now work front-of-the-house at their respective restaurants, there—Vallejo’s interviewed him for the job, and they started dating two weeks later, which sealed his fate since he had thought he would just spend a few months at Pujol while on shore leave from his job at Princess Cruises. He opened Quintonil in 2012, with a menu that reflects deep investigations into the traditional and historical cooking of Mexico and features ingredients—often plants—that had been cast aside because of their perceived low value. In just two years, Quintonil has garnered international attention and placed 21st on the inaugural Latin America 50 Best Restaurants list. Vallejo defines his cooking, and modern Mexican gastronomy, as working with very traditional ingredients and flavors, but treating them very freely, with no strings attached.

“Our food is more complex than what you might eat at your grandmother’s, but it goes deep into your heart and memories,” he says. “At the same time, you also remember what it's like to be a Mexican today.”

The tall and gregarious Garcia now towers in the tiny kitchen (they are expanding it) of Maximo Bistrot and always finds a minute here and there to chat with regulars who stop by the pass while he’s plating. His petite and more reserved wife, Gabriella Lopez, runs the front of the house with a smile that belies the rush required by the always-full dining room and the lines outside. Garcia opened a seafood restaurant and plans on more expansion in 2014, but Maximo is where he cooks every day; if he’s not in the kitchen, the restaurant is closed. His interpretation of Mexico is imbued with the many years spent cooking French food, and has a Mediterranean brasserie bent, with dishes that might include on any given day a langoustine crudo, artichoke heart salad, or mussels in a broth lightly flavored with jalapeños. The menu changes daily based on product availability.

Of the six, he’s the most vocal about just about everything, from ingredients to politics—a result of his American upbringing, perhaps. Garcia was raised in the Southeastern United States in a migrant worker family and started picking fruits and vegetables as a child. He doesn’t much know how to read or write, he says; his brother and sister taught him a little bit, but he never went to school because there was work to be done. He began cooking out of necessity, at 14, when the family settled in Atlanta and his father’s dishwashing salary was not enough to cover all expenses. At 14, Garcia began washing dishes, too, to help; he was promoted to the salad station six months later, and to the sauté station within a year. It was the early 1990s, and Eric Ripert would come down from New York City to supervise Brasserie Le Coze every few months, where Garcia got a job after lying about his age, his talent hiding the fact that he was just 16. Ripert asked him to come to New York to work at Le Bernardin, which he did for three years.

Garcia’s father passed away in 2005. For a year and a half, he sorted out the family’s affairs but lacked direction, not knowing what to do next with his life. He met Olvera while visiting his grandparents in Mexico City. Olvera offered him a job right away, and continued to call him in the United States every few months, asking why he had not accepted yet, until Garcia finally relented and came back to Mexico.

Olvera being responsible for young chefs deciding to make a career in their home city is not an unusual story; many share similar anecdotes of ways in which he helped them carve a path in Mexico City, from seeing the potential of a career and finding the right suppliers to realizing the enormous gastronomic potential of their country. In doing so, he also helped create the demand necessary to support local producers who would take a chance on chefs seeking to do things in ways previously unseen in Mexico. “Maybe producers were there,” Reygadas says, “but no one was paying attention, and the quality of what they were doing went down. Once we create a market, everyone pays more attention.”

As in, or perhaps because of, the United States’ exploding food culture, chefs have gained much in stature in recent years in Mexico. This gives them the power—and the responsibility—to build networks of producers who'll grow or make what they ask for, and affect profound systematic changes on their country’s gastronomy. “We work together as a collective, which gives us a strong voice,” Vallejo says. “Now chefs are popular, and people listen to us. We teach them how they can do what we do at home, too.”

Reygadas, who studied literature at the Universitad Nacional Autónoma de México and graduated from The International Culinary Center (then The French Culinary Institute) in New York City, came back to the capital after cooking in London for five years at Locanda Locatelli. She had loved London and didn’t really want to be back in Mexico other than for her architect husband’s job. Olvera took her under his wing and introduced her to local producers, as she began hosting pop-up dinners. She opened Rosetta in 2010 in an old mansion in Colonia Roma, turning the open courtyard into one of the several dining rooms. Like Garcia, her food reflects her background: 85 percent of the ingredients—including meats, cheeses, and olive oil—come from Mexico, but Reygadas turns them into Italian favorites like risottos, burrata, or salads, which are not common on Mexican menus. In culinary school, Reygadas also discovered a love for bread. She has now opened several locations of Panadería Rosetta, a bakery where local flours and ingredients turn into European-style breads and other baked goods.

At Sud777, much of the produce on the vegetable-centric menu come from his urban garden. A juice pairing is offered for the tasting menu, with revelatory combinations such as beet and rose. In season, a tomato dish will feature close to a dozen varieties on a plate. He works with coffee and mezcal producers to create proprietary products for his restaurant, that “taste like the soil,” he says, and express Mexico’s terroir. “There is pride, as a Mexican, in our produce, in our people, in our traditional foods,” he says. “My philosophy is to try and show that.”

Nuñez adds that his food is easy on the technique side, more complex on the flavor one. Born in Mexico, his family is Catalonian originally. At 16, he got his first job in the kitchen of a hotel in Barcelona while spending the summer with relatives. After finishing high school, he worked with a French chef in Mexico, then spent close to six years cooking in France and Spain. The 32 year old opened Sud777 in 2008. The menu was more French early on, until he realized what was available in his own country.

“It’s difficult to change how people think,” he says. “Mexicans always believe that things from outside are better than those from inside.”

To be an entrepreneur requires a certain dose of fearlessness. To be a chef requires perhaps an even higher one. The level required to be a chef/owner in an emerging gastronomy is seemingly off the charts. The line between fearless and reckless is at times blurry. Olvera says that all of them, in this new generation, are “putting all of their eggs in one basket,” investing all they have into their businesses. But none of them, starting with him, would do anything differently. Ovadia recently sold his car to renovate Paxia; it’s a whatever-it-takes attitude because nothing is more important than their restaurant. “It’s my life, not only my job,” says Vallejo, echoing what all feel. “Before, there were no Mexican chefs who owned restaurants. Now almost all of us are owners, and we can be more free because of that. It’s a great time to be in Mexico. Cooks are not afraid.”

Ovadia, who opened Paxia in 2005 when he was just 21, speaks of the restaurant as the most important thing in his life, a living and breathing entity. He has several others now, along with a thriving catering company and expansion plans for New York City, but Paxia is first and foremost in his heart (other than perhaps his bride, married last December). Every inch of the restaurant and every ounce of ingredient embody the love he has for Mexico and for his family, he says. He launched the restaurant with such a small budget that he couldn't afford to feature international wines, a fact that he hid by creating a Mexico-only wine list, with the bonus of an appealing narrative. He was working in a restaurant in the space that now houses Paxia when it became available for purchase. A bank loan for just 20 percent of the restaurant sealed his future.

Ovadia has the most modernist approach of the group, with dishes that feature the nearly exclusively Mexican ingredients in often technically elaborate presentations and tasting menus that can take over a year to develop. “We like people to think when they are eating,” he says. “We don’t want people to feel that they're at home; we want them to feel that theyr'e at Paxia. It’s not simple. We want things to be complex.” Like the others, collaborations are key to his vision of modern Mexican gastronomy; he works with two gastronomic investigators and artists, in addition to producers. Some of the ingredients he uses were almost lost, he says. The lamb dish that capped the savory courses of a recent tasting menu used meat from lambs slightly older than might be typical, raised free-range in the Mexico City area, drinking water from the only river left in the area and taking their flavor from the local grass. The meat is then air-dried for three to four weeks. He visits his producers every week, to see what quail, trout, venison, and produce they have to offer. The 45 seat restaurant has 32 cooks.

Salas’ restaurant in Toluca, in the State of Mexico, is about an hour’s drive away from the center of the capital. The road to get there rapidly shifts from metropolitan to rural, meandering among forests and mountains—the city is 8,793 feet above sea level—with food and tchotchke vendors on its sides. The clientele comes from the city’s governmental, academic, and business communities and from Mexico City, and can vary widely, depending on the success of the local soccer team—a victory guarantees a full and happy dining room. Salas, who used to sell desserts to restaurants around Toluca, his parents, and his brother Francisco, who worked in hospitality in St. Louis, Missouri, for 10 years, bought an aging restaurant 10 years ago. In 2009, they reinvented it as Amaranta and gave it its current focus, where they reinterpret Mexican flavors. Almost everything served at Amaranta comes from the State of Mexico, from the salmon trout that is farmed in the same volcanic area as the bottled water and the nopales cured in salt for a salad to the beer used to make a salsa borracha for a mushroom and egg dish. Although pigs were once abundant in the region, there was no local producer until Salas created a demand with Amaranta.

“We’re proud of our roots, of our food,” he says, showing his tattoo of the hecho en México (made in Mexico) symbol. “There used to be a lot of malinchismo, the feeling that what was made in Mexico was not worth it, but now the culture is changing, and it’s easier to be proud.”

Huauzontles, a type of goosefoot, grow tall in Amaranta’s garden. Salas serves it in croquettes filled with cheese, over rice, and dressed with a tomato sauce. At Quintonil, Vallejo also uses huauzontles, in a dish that features the herb two ways—fried and blanched—served with cheese from Chiapas and with tomato sauce. The combination is a classic Mexican one; 10 years ago, these chefs would have deconstructed it or would have paired the herb with completely different ingredients that might not have made as much sense on the plate. Modern Mexican gastronomy gives them the freedom to honor their roots, their way. That freedom, and its viability as a business model, is possible because of the cohesion in the movement (the current generation alludes, politely, to more infighting among the chefs who came before them); it also means that modern Mexican gastronomy is expressed in as many ways as there are chefs under that umbrella.

“We’re all involved in Mexican cuisine,” Vallejo says, “but we each have our own identity. The identity is in the taste. Mexican cooking comes from inside.”