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‘Modern Mexican’ steps into the spotlight


Rosio Sánchez, a Mexican-American chef who lives in Copenhagen, makes the best tortillas in Scandinavia.

That, she admits, isn’t necessarily saying much — like laying claim to the best pizza in Indonesia.

“It was so much worse,” she said, describing the state of Mexican food when she arrived in 2010 to work as the pastry chef at the celebrated restaurant Noma. “Imagine the worst Tex-Mex food in America, and imagine that being passed on like a game of telephone, by people who have no idea what real Mexican food is.”

That is beginning to change, and not only in Copenhagen, where Sánchez has opened a taqueria with freshly ground, hand-pressed corn tortillas.

It goes far beyond tacos and tortillas, though: Mexican cuisine has made the leap to the global stage of fine dining. Restaurants like Pujol, Rosetta and Quintonil in Mexico City; Laja and Malva in Baja California; Origen in Oaxaca; and Hartwood here in Tulum all produce creative, world-class menus from the lush variety of fruit, fish, vegetables, herbs, grains and flowers that grow around them.

In places like Barcelona, London and Melbourne, as well as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, food lovers are seeing the cuisine of Mexico in a bright new light.

Chefs are making house-cured chorizo in Toronto, and Michelin-starred chilaquiles at Punto MX in Madrid. Last week, Houston chef Hugo Ortega, who began his working life as a shoeshine boy in Mexico City, received the James Beard Foundation’s award for best chef in his region: a first for a Mexico-born chef.

“Everywhere, I see a new respect for Mexican culture,” said Martha Ortiz, a celebrity chef in Mexico who is opening a warmly elegant restaurant, Ella Canta, in London’s Park Lane Hotel this summer. Ten years ago, when a taco in London might easily have contained canned baked beans, the idea of a Mexican restaurant in a posh hotel would have been mystifying.

“Our traditional food has always had a high value at home, and there is a lot of respect for the women who produce it,” she said. “But for people internationally to be excited about it and willing to pay for it? That is new.”

These developments are part of a movement, inside and outside Mexico, to finally vanquish the rice-and-beans stereotype and to celebrate its vast and sophisticated cuisine. Just as New Nordic cuisine brought global attention to Scandinavian rye bread, smoked fish and Arctic berries, the newly coined “Modern Mexican” shines a spotlight on ingredients like cacao, agave and cactus; pre-Hispanic varieties of tomatoes, squash and pumpkins; and the country’s all-important corn and chilies.

Outside Mexico, at places like Cosme and Empellón in New York; Hoja Santa, the Adrià brothers’ restaurant in Barcelona; Broken Spanish in Los Angeles; and Cala and Californios in San Francisco, chefs are carefully combining Mexican flavors with modern ideas and local references. At Atla, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the tostada with arctic char, farmer’s cheese and capers deliberately echoes the neighborhood’s traditional bagel with scallion cream cheese and lox.

The pop-up restaurant Noma Tulum, an extension of Noma in Copenhagen, is up and running here, built by the innovative chef René Redzepi, along with Sánchez, more than a hundred employees and dozens of local carpenters, metalworkers, farmers, ceramists and cooks. Until May 28, dishes like octopus sealed and steamed in fermented corn husks and a spicy-sweet dried pasilla Mixe chili stuffed with chocolate sorbet will be served under the stars by a cadre of earnest young people in linen uniforms and matching Birkenstocks.

Is this the “authentic” Mexican food that many admirers of the cuisine have tried to recreate? No. But the struggle over authenticity may be giving way to something more rewarding: a worldwide conversation about Mexican food that is respectful and inquisitive.

How did Mexican food, often viewed by those beyond the country’s borders as cheap, dull and heavy, move to being seen as artful, fresh and fascinating?

“It began with more Mexican people being able to travel, with the internet, with a younger generation who started to care about food being fresh and healthy,” said Gabriela Cámara, 42, the chef and owner of several influential restaurants in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco.

Cámara had no culinary training when she opened the restaurant Contramar in 1998 at age 23, to bring fresh seafood from the coasts to landlocked Mexico City. At that time, most ambitious restaurants in the capital were French or Italian. “Even Montezuma had fish from Veracruz carried to him in relays,” she said. “We only had frozen fillets from the Mediterranean.”

Chefs were taught to prefer mediocre European ingredients, like frozen fish and dried morels, over excellent local ones.

“Even in Mexico, only European cuisines had been able to reach high stature,” said Daniela Soto-Innes, a chef at Cosme and Atla in New York. "Mexican chefs did not have enough pride in their own food to go out and learn about it.”

Much of the shift is due to her mentor, Enrique Olvera, who opened the ambitious restaurant Pujol in Mexico City in 2000, went to New York to open Cosme and Atla, and has become an international avatar of the possibilities of Mexican cuisine. Like Redzepi in Denmark and David Chang in the United States, Olvera is a chef who pushed his country’s fine-dining transition from stuffy, Eurocentric and strict to creative, local and informal.

There are plenty of complex, elaborate dishes in Mexico, like chilies in nogada or mole poblano, but Olvera decided long ago not to translate them into high-end restaurant food.

“If you are going to cook those things, you’d better get it right,” he said. “It’s like a cover of a really good song: When you’re listening to it, you’re really craving the original.”

Setting out to learn everything from real Oaxacan moles to traditional Aztec chocolate would have been impossible, he said — and for most customers, meaningless.

“‘Authentic’ has become a very unimportant and irrelevant conversation for me,” he said.

Instead, Olvera took the training he had absorbed the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and began spinning his own threads of flavor, memory and technique. His most famous dish, cobia al pastor, recombines a traditional taco filling of fatty pork grilled with pineapple into a plump local fish fillet that is marinated in chili paste, then sautéed in butter, served with a purée of caramelized pineapple and a crisp, palate-prickling dice of raw onion, cilantro and serrano chilies.

Outside Mexico, Olvera’s influence is greatest in the United States, where many young chefs, particularly Mexican-Americans, have made pilgrimages to his kitchen and are building on his style.

At Taco María in Costa Mesa, California, chef Roberto Salgado produces a daily meditation on the classic dish aguachile (“spicy water”) — tangy liquid used to dress super-fresh raw fish just before eating it, preferably on the boat or the beach. A recent bowl held a fat Hokkaido scallop, cucumber and avocado bathed in jalapeño, lime and orange juices, but even when the ingredients change, the effect is the same.

“You are looking for an extremely aggressive but uplifting liquid of spice and acid and sweetness,” he said. “That’s the essence of the dish.”

Val Cantu, the chef at Californios in San Francisco, serves a tightly assembled menu of more than a dozen tiny, complex dishes based on Mexican ingredients. His homage to beans includes corona bean mousse, cranberry bean purée and black bean broth, topped with a dot of caviar and gold leaf.

“I like the contrast of the humble and the luxurious,” he said.

Not everyone does. Both restaurants have sometimes had to placate confused or outraged customers.

“We’ve had people get up and leave halfway through the meal,” Cantu said ruefully. “They say that this isn’t Mexican food."

But is it? “I try to think of it the way the artist Bruce Nauman did,” Cantu said. “He said, ‘If I’m an artist, and I am in my studio, the work I produce there is art.’

“If I am Mexican, and I am making food, that is Mexican food.”

Chefs like Redzepi, however, cannot make such a tidy claim.

Noma Tulum has proved controversial: The meal’s $600 price, along with the optics of a European chef helicoptering in to show the world’s wealthy gastro-tourists what Mexican food can be, has bruised some feelings.

Redzepi says he is alert to the issues, does not pretend to be cooking Mexican food, and has made efforts to benefit the local community at every stage, including free meals for Mexican culinary students. But he is also firm that the price simply reflects the cost of the operation: construction, refrigeration, research, ingredients and the mass relocation of employees and their families (including Noma’s on-staff personal trainer and several school-age children) for over three months.

His interest in Mexico is not new or whimsical: The Noma Tulum menu extends from a core list of ingredients developed over dozens of visits to the Yucatán, and honed by research trips around the country and work with Mexican chefs. Still, ingredients that are fundamental for Mexican cooks are unfamiliar to him, especially chilies.

“In Denmark, we are all about dairy, acidity, fat and umami; we don’t even have black pepper,” Redzepi said. (At Noma, all the ingredients are native to the Nordic region.) “To discover this whole area of taste that is new to me — not just fresh chilies but dried and smoked, roasted and pickled — as a chef, it’s extraordinary.”

Claudia Prieto Piastro, a food anthropologist who is Mexican and lives in London, said: “I don’t object to others working with our food. I do object to feeling like we’re supposed to be grateful that someone is shining a light on it.”

It should also be recognized that in parts of the country with less agriculture and fewer tourists, like Durango and Puebla, the culinary picture is not as rosy. Most chefs, however, are happy to have him here.

“Anything that helps put Mexican cuisine on the world map is good for all of us,” said Roberto Solís, the chef and owner of Nectar in Mérida, the largest city in the region, who specializes in the cooking of the Yucatán.

And, he said, even chefs in Mexico have a long way to go in learning about the food of their own nation. From north to south, Mexico covers the same distance that exists between Ireland and Greece, and Mexican cuisine is not easy to draw a line around.

“Chefs come here to have real cochinita pibil,” he said, referring to the region’s Mayan-style pit-cooked pig. “And then they tell me that they like the one in Mexico City better.”


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