The Mexican Ambassador
Anne McBride - March 2014
Enrique Olvera steered the cooking at his Mexico City restaurant Pujol away from a flirtation with the conceits of modernism to a full-on embrace of the exuberance inherent in his nation’s foodways (with twists), freeing a growing cadre of compatriots to express their identity. Olvera’s next move: New York City.
Enrique Olvera didn’t set out to be a chef to be famous; chefs were not famous in Mexico in 1995. He hadn’t heard of Paul Bocuse until he attended culinary school. He just wanted to cook.
His parents agreed, but only if he studied toward a bachelor’s degree. He enrolled in a tourism program in Mexico, but dropped out after a couple of months. His future mother-in-law—he is married to his high school sweetheart, Allegra Piacentini, with whom he has three children—had read something about The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and suggested he attend, while Piacentini went to SUNY-Stonybrook on Long Island. Four years later, degree earned, a bad experience as a stagiaire in a French kitchen in Chicago convinced him he should open his own restaurant back home.
Olvera, 38, was born in Mexico City making him a Chilango in local parlance. Just 24 at the time—which allowed him to not think twice about the risks he was taking, he says—he raised $100,000 with nine partners and bought an existing Argentinean restaurant in the cosmopolitan Polanco neighborhood. They painted the walls white and gave Pujol a minimalistic look that appeared purposeful, but was really due to lack of funds. For the first few months, the ancient coffee shop around the corner made more money than Pujol. Olvera earned $250 every other week. “I had done really well in school, well at my externship, and I thought I was the shit,” Olvera says. “It was a good reality check that it didn’t quite work out at first.”
The first year was particularly hard, the second barely better, and by the third, Olvera’s remaining four partners said that if Pujol didn’t start making money, it should close that May. Miraculously, May was the first month they turned a profit; media was starting to realize that food is important, Olvera says, and that something special was taking place at Pujol.
Today, Olvera’s partners are his father, mother, and brother, who all work for his restaurant group. Piacentini helped him open Pujol, but they quickly realized they were better off each doing their own thing if they wanted to stay married. She now owns the Gaia Group in Toluca, which grows vegetables for Olvera’s restaurants in the State of Mexico.
Today, the coffee shop at the corner that used to make more money than his restaurant is Eno, one of three outposts in Mexico City, a sleek and warm European-style coffee shop where one can have breakfast or lunch. Olvera also consults for Moxi Restaurant in the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel de Allende, about four hours outside of the capital, and owns Maíz de Mar in Playa del Carmen, on the Yucatán Peninsula. He says he’s always wanted a restaurant in the city, one in the country for the weekend, and one at the beach. “I have a big problem,” he says with irony. “Everything that I desire happens to me!”
Pujol invites lingering, as is proper for a Mexican restaurant, where conversations around a table last long after the last plate is removed. The sophisticated, yet relaxed, atmosphere is created by gray leather seats, wooden floors, dark gray walls adorned with mirrors that expand the 44 seat room and allow diners to keep an eye on their neighbors, recess lighting over each table, and music—mostly rock—loud enough to create an informal vibe without preventing hearing one’s companions. Cookbooks from the world’s top chefs are shelved wherever there is room. The entrance is set like a small salon, where one can wait while perusing more cookbooks, including a sizeable collection of Mexican works, or admiring the photo of Olvera’s grandfather, whose nickname he shared as a youngster: Pujol.
“Pujol is how I picture Mexico City, and how I want people to experience Mexico,” he explains. “It’s not nostalgic, it’s a little bit loud, a little bit of a mess, very Mexican.”
The restaurant is, by the standards of fine dining, affordable. The 11 course tasting menu, which includes about 14 different dishes with amuse bouches and mignardises (and diners can choose among three options for four of the courses), is MXN$950, or about $72 (tax included). That’s part of Olvera’s desire to make his restaurant, and by extension his philosophy, as approachable as possible. Pujol is also an antidote to what he says he doesn’t like about fine dining: high price point, lack of fun, overwhelming quantities of food, and robot-like service. By extension, his signature footwear is tennis shoes—he likes to be relaxed, he says—and when not in a chef’s jacket, he usually wears jeans and a T-shirt. Short and with a graying beard, he looks at his interlocutors with focused brown eyes as if to pierce through them, often breaking into a warm grin. Olvera, who is more reserved than his high-profile public persona might seem, tends to avoid going into the dining room at Pujol, observing diners from the kitchen door instead.
It’s while studying in New York City that Olvera realized just how Mexican he feels, and who he was, he says. But it took him a decade to be able to express that at Pujol in the way he does now, with a cuisine that is, and feels, 100 percent Mexican. His first cookbook, I, which was published just before the restaurant’s 10 year anniversary and recapitulates Olvera’s culinary journey, features dishes like liquid quesadilla, escamoles (ant eggs) with “soil,” foie gras with zapote negro (a persimmon-like fruit), and a taco of powdered pork skin, guacamole puree, gelée of salsa Mexicana, and tortilla air, all served in a jar.
When Pujol turned 10 on May 6, 2010, Olvera decided to completely change the restaurant, adopting its current philosophy and style of modern Mexican cuisine, “doing our own thing,” as he calls it, rather than the deconstructed dishes he was cooking until then. The date is so significant for him that he had it tattooed on his right arm (the left is for family-related tattoos, like his children’s birthdates in Mayan, and the right for ideas he embraces as life philosophy). The importance of the moment has not diminished in his mind, even if he sometimes debates lasering out the tattoo: “It’s just a restaurant.”
“In 2000, the scene was very quiet internationally,” Olvera says of the opening of Pujol. “There were no restaurants trying to evolve traditional food. Most openings were international franchises. A lot has happened in 14 years, but we still have a long way to go. This country needs to realize its own potential.”
That potential resides everywhere, from taco stands and market stalls to high volume and government, Olvera says. He wants to see not just the type of cuisine that he does celebrated and recognized internationally, but all of Mexico’s culinary treasures. That said, he doesn’t think that it would be wise to only have Mexican restaurants, and feels that some chefs who focus too strictly on creating a sense of place have closed themselves by using strictly local ingredients.
“I’m not afraid of things from other places,” he says. “Some things are meant to travel, like olive oil; others are not. We’re quality driven, not locally driven. But most times, local is good.”
Olvera serves few fish, since he doesn’t feel he can get the quality he’d like with enough consistency. A winter 2014 dish features salt cod with a charred eggplant puree meant to mimic the fish’s skin, lime, and salsa verde—“because it makes sense, it tastes Mexican.” Salt cod is traditionally eaten around Christmastime in Mexico, which might not be an obvious aspect of an ever-evolving culture for those unfamiliar with it.
“It’s like contemporary art,” Olvera explains. “The more you know about it, the more you enjoy it. But if it’s a good piece, you will enjoy it without knowledge nonetheless.”
As the most recognized of a young generation of Mexican chefs, Olvera is undoubtedly the leader of new Mexican gastronomy. The chefs who are part of the group with him (see sidebar) willingly anoint him so, but he adopts a more modest stance. “To make a strong movement, you need strong people,” he states. “Usually, when you see a movement in a country, there’s a head and everyone is following. Here, we have things in common, but we all have different takes and approaches.”
“Enrique is one of those too-cool chefs: I've never once seen him raise his voice or seem stressed or doubtful about a decision,” says René Redzepi, chef/owner of the acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen and longtime friend of Olvera. “He's very confident. Maybe that comes naturally to him, since he has the bounty of all of Mexico's cuisines to support his actions. It's something that manifests itself in his restaurant and in his food.”
Many of the representatives of modern Mexican gastronomy have been influenced by Pujol because they worked there at some point. And it’s hard to find chefs and culinary professionals in Mexico who don’t mention at least once in conversation the ways in which Olvera has supported or helped them over the years. “He’s working for Mexico, it’s not for him,” says Jorge Vallejo, who spent three years at Pujol before opening his own acclaimed restaurant, Quintonil. “Everything he does is so the country does better.”
“Before him, no one really cared about Mexico on the restaurant scene. He went national and then international,” agrees Eduardo García, who also worked at Pujol and opened a wildly successful restaurant of his own, Máximo Bistrot. “I tell everyone that he’s a genius; he’s done what no one else has done in Mexico. There probably won’t be anyone else like him in the next 100 years.”
But Olvera is not looking for undue glory: “I see no merit in that. It’s obvious; if you were looking for jobs, Pujol was the best restaurant, so you had to work there. Then to open your own place, you take things you like and don’t like, and you don’t make the same mistakes as where you learned.”
Olvera credits Mexican cuisine legends like Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and Mónica Patiño as having had a huge influence on him. “Ricardo is my strongest reference,” he says. “He made me go deeper into Mexican food.” The two chefs met when Olvera was still cooking what he calls modern food with Mexican references. Zurita is the author of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mexican Gastronomy and the country’s foremost expert on chiles, while also owning several restaurants. It would be easy to think of him at the traditional end of the Mexican gastronomic spectrum and Olvera at the other, but as with everything, the country and its cuisine are in constant movement, and they both represent stages of its inevitable evolution.
The profound sense of Mexican identity felt at Pujol, mixed with modern aesthetics and techniques, has resonated with gastronomes and media from around the world, who have embraced the restaurant as one of the best there is. But Olvera doesn’t pretend that it was easy to arrive at this stage when the restaurant creates its own points of reference rather than reflecting others’.
“We have our own way, which is very clear,” he says. “There’s clarity in the proposal, in the style, that is ours. You don’t feel as if you’re anywhere else. The aesthetic of the dishes, of everything, is ours. That’s very difficult to achieve. Few chefs develop their own style. To us, it’s very important.”
Olvera credits curiosity and the simple desire of “trying to be human” as part of what gives Pujol this unique identity. “A carpenter is always trying to make a better chair, or seeing how he can make it his,” he offers as an analogy. It’s also reflective of what he calls the multiple layers a chef must possess to succeed today. It’s no longer enough to be fast and precise and master recipes, or even just to cook. A good chef needs to have a good sense of anthropology, design, aesthetics, and business.
“Cuisine is culture, and cooking is part of cuisine,” he says. “At Pujol, it’s culture.”
One of the dishes perhaps most representative of Olvera’s approach at the moment is his mole madre, a mole he first prepared for the one year anniversary of Vallejo’s Quintonil. Almost for fun at first, Olvera decided to age the mole and keep it going as long as he could. Nearing a year now, the mole—made with three rare Oaxacan chiles: black, red, and yellow chilhuacles—is ladled on top of a tortilla and speckled with sesame seeds, with no other accompaniment. The cooks feed it every day, adding fruits and nuts that vary with the seasons (apples, plums, pecans, macadamia nuts, for example), and alter the mole’s taste, which can be sweeter or more bitter based on its components on any given day. “Three years ago, we might have served the mole with sous-vide turkey and dehydrated skin,” he says. “We know how to do that. But we don’t need to anymore. Adding anything else would make it worse; why try to make it better when it’s already there?”
When Olvera decided to change everything at Pujol, the restaurant was ranked 72nd on the British magazine Restaurant’s list of best restaurants in the world (the list is commonly referred to as the S. Pellegrino’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but classification goes to 100). In 2013, it was elevated to 17th on the global list and third in the first Latin American version. But it’s clear when hearing him talk about his cooking that he didn’t change anything looking to climb in rankings. Rather, the timing was ripe to embrace Mexican food as worthy of the same treatment as other world cuisines, without having to look to Europe or the United States to find points of reference. Olvera wants Pujol to “feel Mexican.” The dishes are circular and flat, because that’s what Mexican food is, he says. The shape represents the sun and the moon—the tortilla used to be the interpretation of the sun, he adds. “We cannot lose this. We need to cherish that and never forget. Not for stupid reasons, but because it’s good.
“We got on that list by making tacos, just being ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we can’t do better or that I’m saying the past is better. There’s a huge space for creativity.”
In contrast with the jarred taco of the early days, among the definitely round tacos that have featured on Pujol’s menu recently are a fish taco with beans and hoja santa, (where the iconic Mexican herb is embedded in a blue corn tortilla), and a suckling lamb taco with avocado, peas, cacao, and poblano chile. Olvera also employs nixtamalization—the technique in which an ingredient is soaked in an alkaline solution (most traditionally to remove the hull of corn or other grains)—on chilacayota squash, which is then served with tomato sauce in a preparation that makes it resemble fish, and in a papaya dessert, where the nixtamalized fruit is served with yogurt, honey ice cream, and crystallized lemon.
Olvera is not only a frequent presenter at the world’s top culinary conferences, he decided in 2012 to organize his own, Mesamérica, with a group of chefs assembled as the Colectivo Mexicano de Cocina A.C. (see sidebar). He understood the power that events like MAD in Denmark and Mistura in Peru have had in establishing their countries as gastronomic powerhouses. After doing 15 conference presentations in 2013, Olvera has decided to slow down in the year ahead. “I’ve been doing things to keep the restaurant busy, but if I’m not here, what’s the point?” he says, admitting to being tired. He has an executive chef, a R&D chef, and a corporate chef to help him juggle events and the homestead, but when in Mexico City, he expedites both lunch and dinner at Pujol.
So, what is left for the man whose every desire comes true? New York City, of course. This spring, Olvera will open Cosme on East 21st Street in Manhattan. Named after a market in Mexico City, where his grandfather took him when he was little (Olvera wanted to name one of his children Cosme, but Piacentini vetoed it), the restaurant will offer casual Mexican food with a great bar, he says, aiming to price the majority of the dishes below $20. Keeping the idea of the strong sense of place found at Pujol, Cosme will embrace its New Yorkness. “You cannot make traditional Mexican food outside of Mexico,” he says. “You have to adjust. Rick Bayless is a perfect example of having adjusted perfectly for ingredients and seasonality. With a Mexican framework, you can adjust the Mexican identity without just using Mexican products.”
The cuisine of Pujol is not replicable outside of the restaurant, Olvera says—when cooking at events, he always does other types of dishes—and trying to re-create the restaurant outside of Mexico City “wouldn’t mean anything.” Olvera plans on moving to New York City for several months for the opening of the restaurant and then dividing his time between there and Mexico.
Olvera is aware that New York City has not been kind to foreign chefs opening restaurants there while keeping the flagship running in another country. “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” he says with a laugh.
“I have roots and friends here. I feel connected.” The four years he spent studying in Hyde Park have marked him—he learned how to cook, but also the discipline essential to calming down the rowdy teen he was.
“I haven’t accomplished everything I wanted, but I’m almost there,” Olvera says. “I want to focus on the soul of things, on what is important. I do what I do because I love trying to do things better every day.”
Read more about Mexico's Vanguard, by Anne E. McBride.
Anne E. McBride is the culinary program and editorial director for strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America and the director of the Experimental Cuisine Collective at New York University, where she is working toward a Ph.D. in food studies.
Mesamérica: "For Chefs, By Chefs"
In 2012, Enrique Olvera, along with the Colectivo Mexicano de Cocina A.C., launched Mesamérica, a three day conference that aims to promote Mexican gastronomy outside of Mexico and inscribe the country into the global culinary conversation taking place today, similar to other chef-centric events like MAD in Denmark, Mistura in Peru, Ñam in Chile, and Madrid Fusión in Spain. Those events have all contributed to raising their respective countries’ culinary capital and exposing their often-budding modern gastronomies to the rest of the world, as internationally acclaimed chefs and the media who cover them descend upon these cities and prolifically cover their restaurant scene.
The Colectivo was also formed to create a united front that would have more power to attract attention. Each major culinary school was organizing its own micro-conference, Olvera explains; with Mesamérica, efforts, funds, and contacts could be combined under one roof and strengthen Mexico’s hospitality industry.
Like most of the Latin American conferences, Mesamérica offers lower-cost admission to a large number of culinary students, to expose them to some of the world’s top chefs and expand their understanding of all cuisines, including their own. Of the sold-out attendance of 2,000 in 2013, 1,300 were students. It also shows students that they can look at Mexico and Mexican food for success, Olvera says. Well-known foreign and domestic chefs, along with a slew of experts in the history, anthropology, and sociology of Mexican cuisine, have participated in previous editions of the conference. Presentations and demonstrations by chefs are the centerpiece of the summit, but design, photography, and music also function as tools of investigation.
This year, the May 20 to 22 conference is entitled “Street Food and Urban Expressions,” to “reflect on what we eat in large cities, how, and why.” Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Danny Bowien, John Shook, Vinny Dotolo, and David Gelb will represent the United States; other confirmed presenters include David Thompson from Thailand, Renato Giovannoni from Argentina, and Rodrigo Oliveira from Brazil.