Lila Gault - September 2014
A transplanted Brooklynite uses nothing more than wood fires to produce a personal cuisine based on local ingredients that taps into the roots of true Mexican flavors.
Tulum—home to the most impressive seaside Maya ruins in Mexico, more recently a popular hippie enclave, and now an eco-chic resort—lies on the Caribbean coast some 75 miles south of Cancún on one of the most beautiful powder white sand beaches in the country.
Ever-evolving Tulum is a perfect setting for Hartwood, an off-the-grid wood-fired kitchen, restaurant, and bar, on the jungle side of Tulum Beach Road, created by Eric Werner and Mya Henry, transplanted Brooklynites with vision, passion, and an enormous capacity for hard work. Trained for nearly a decade in several New York City restaurants, Werner oversees the kitchen, while Henry, schooled at the Soho and Tribeca Grand hotels, directs the dining room and runs the business side.
“I worked at Peasant for more than four years. Chef Frank DeCarlo and his wife, Dulci, were like parents to me. A lot of what I’m doing today is based on the teachings that they gave me,” Werner explains. Living and working in Brooklyn, where food and flavors from many Caribbean and African countries are readily available, provided additional inspiration.
In 2008, Werner and Henry sublet their apartment and moved in with his grandmother 90 minutes from their jobs in the city in order to save enough money to move to Tulum, where Henry and her family vacationed for many years.
Guests begin arriving at 5 p.m., an hour before service, on Wednesdays through Sundays. They queue quietly in front of the open-air restaurant, built on a small parcel of land tucked between the beachfront road and a mangrove swamp. Tables and chairs, made from local trees, sit on limestone gravel. Hurricane glasses and kerosene lamps light the space while a 1970s playlist of mostly rock music fills the air.
Werner designed the simple open kitchen by work stations. “Simple is best in a location like this,” he explains. A large wood-fired oven, built to comfortably accommodate his reach, dominates the space; a small wood grill is two steps to the left. These 600 and 900 degree fires burn day and night, using sapote, a local tree wood as fuel.
The number of seats was determined by the number of dishes that could be prepped and served for a single seating. The 50 seat restaurant turns almost every table once every night.
The six starter and eight entrée menu changes frequently, based on the daily catch and seasonal availability of produce. Nearly 300 pounds of fish are caught weekly by two dayboats that work exclusively for Hartwood. “The second largest reef in the world is just offshore, and the variety of sea life is enormous. On any given day, we get several kinds of tuna, mahimahi, marlin, grouper, snapper, and many other fish. We also work with a lot of lobster and octopus. And just four hours away in the Gulf of Mexico are Maya prawns, some of the tastiest shrimp in the world,” Werner points out.
Mackerel seviche—avocado, serrano chile, chaya (a spinach-like local green), radishes, and pea shoots—was a palate-wakening marriage of sea and soil. Yucatán tomato salad artfully combined grape and garden tomatoes, orange chunks, and pickled onions with cotija (a hard cow’s milk cheese), pea shoots, and sweet sunflower sprouts sprinkled over the top. Costillas al agave (pork ribs) marinated in agave cider and spices were slow roasted for seven hours overnight to fall-off-the-bone tenderness. A side of roasted sweet potatoes, flavored with chamomile honey, could have easily been dessert.
The bar features 12 fresh juices daily and a creative cocktail menu. The wines on the list, mostly Mexican, pair nicely with the food. After-dinner drinks include artisanal mescal from Oaxaca and pox (a corn-based liquor) from neighboring Chiapas.
With only one appliance—a blender powered by a small generator—Hartwood depends on skillfully wielded knives to prep virtually everything. One crew comes in around 10 a.m., and another starts around 3 p.m.
“We have a true belief in community,” Werner says proudly. “Most of our 20 kitchen and service staff have been here since we opened.” There are two sous chefs: Jamie Klotz from New York oversees garde-manger and procurement, and Oswaldo Orozco from Guadalajara is the kitchen manager.
A family milpa (farm)—90 minutes into the interior—is Hartwood’s primary source for squash, tomatoes, dried corn (for masa), honey, and various other fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Everything is organic, grown without pesticides—a huge challenge in this tropical climate.
Werner also sources from other microfarms and makes a weekly four hour market run. “The fun is to discover these small farmers at the end of the dirt road just off a desolate road. It takes persistence.” Much of his time in the first years was devoted to developing personal relationships with farmers.
Hartwood is a complete and sustainable system, determined to leave the lightest possible carbon footprint. All organic waste is composted. There is no plumbing; an anaerobic biodigester uses good bacteria to turn cooking oil and bathroom waste into water, which is then pumped into the mangrove swamp.
It took a full year from concept to opening in December 2010, by which time “we had just enough cash left to stock the bar on opening night,” Werner says, with a smile.
Nearly four years later, with lines of eager diners at the door and a growing international reputation, Hartwood is a grand slam.
Lila Gault is a career food and wine marketing expert who now devotes her life to recreational eating and drinking around the world.