The award-winning Viceroy Riviera Maya Luxury Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico continues to rack-up endless “best of” accolades, but perhaps their most powerful secret weapon is their talented chef, Jetzabel Rojas Barragán. I managed to catch up with this busy young woman after she had just knocked everyone dead at the 2014 Cancun-Rivera Maya Wine & Food Festival. Interesting — and a little sad in this day and age — to note that she was the only local female chef that participated in the gourmet event.
Jetzabel (which means “Queen") grew up in a big family surrounded by a bevy of women who were all fabulous cooks. One grandmother, who lived in Veracruz, instilled in her a deep respect for seafood, while the other granny, in Nogales, taught her how to use various chilies to produce amazing sauces. Jetzabel realized early on that cooking was her life’s passion, and in 1999 enrolled in the Culinary Institute of Mexico in Puebla to further hone her skills. Upon graduation she headed to the United States where she was exposed to a variety of new cuisines and talented chefs — namely Thomas Keller, who has greatly influenced her cooking style.
Since she started cooking at The Viceroy, Chef Jetzabel’s mission has been to take back her culinary heritage. After having the pleasure of dining on her creative cuisine, I’d say she completed her mission with flying colors.
Janice Nieder: When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
Jetzabel Barragán: I always enjoyed cooking with my family. I was an only child, so I hung around with my aunties a lot. My father grew up in Oaxaca with five sisters. When we went to visit, I would get up with them at 4 a.m. to make masa for tortillas. My parents were both teachers, so we had two months off each summer where we would visit my grandmother on the coast in Veracruz and eat marvelous seafood. My mother wanted me to get a job doing something like being a reporter, but I always knew I wanted to be a chef. She’s very proud of me now and loves my tamales.
JN: Do you travel much?
JB: Not really, because I’m too busy putting in long days here overseeing both restaurants, so now I “travel the web” for my inspiration. We have many international guests here who have eaten all over the world, so I want to make them happy. I have traveled to the United States where I had some wonderful food, particularly in Santa Monica. Although I didn’t get to meet him, one of my biggest influences is Thomas Keller. I like the way he works with his suppliers and growers, and he really loves what he does.
JN: Was that your proudest moment?
JB: It’s probably when, after trying my food, many guests beg me to write a cookbook. Also, I was very excited when Chef Daniel Boulud, who was being honored at this year’s Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival, tasted my salad and said he really liked it, and asked me what was in it.
I told him, “Braised sweet potato salad, foam of goat cheese, ground pumpkin seeds, native melipona honey and kastacan vinaigrette, oil of xcatic and chaya, [and] fresh watercress.”
JN: Is there a culinary trend that you would like to change?
JB: Yes, I think people eat way too much meat. I would like to expose them to more seafood. Some years down the line, I would like to open my own seafood restaurant.
JN: Is there a cuisine you would like to learn more about?
JB: I would like to learn how to cook Indian food.
JN: What three ingredients would you bring to a desert island?
JB: Tomato, garlic and epazote (a pungent Mexican herb).
JN: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be?
JB: I would love to cook for the Pope.
JN: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the kitchen?
JB: I take my iPod and read on the beach, and then grab a bite at one of the seafood beach shacks.
JN: What advice do you have for other women who want to become chefs?
JB: Be very sure that you really want to do this, because it’s very hard work. You have to work twice as hard as the men and give up a lot. You’ll be working holidays and will not be around for birthdays, anniversaries, and other family occasions. But if you’re prepared to work hard it can be very rewarding.
JN: If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be?
JB: I already have a few. My favorite is a big skeleton wielding a big knife and whip, saying “Born to be a chef.”
If you haven't yet experienced Chef Jetzabel's cuisine at the Viceroy, try her recipe for Slow Fire Pan Seared Sea Bass — which just so happens to be one of her most popular seafood dishes.
Total Time: 1 hour
Prep Time: 1 hour
Makes: 2 servings
Season the sea bass fillet with salt and pepper. Marinate with the achiote and set aside.
Bake the plantain with butter, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Mash and mix with red bell pepper on brunoise, add salt and pepper. Blanch the chaya leaf and fill with the plantain purée. Crust the sea bass with amaranth seed and sear.
For the piquillo coulisse, take off the skin of a red bell pepper and seed, blend and strain. Simmer with salt and pepper; check the seasoning.
To serve, put coulisse pepper on the bottom, then the chaya-plantain and finally the sea bass on top.