Should you find yourself in Mexico City and decide to ask a handful of people what the best restaurant in town is, the vast majority will tell you Pujol. This is no easy feat, as Mexico City is undoubtedly one of the world’s great culinary destinations, but the accolades speak for themselves: It’s currently ranked at number 16 on S. Pellegrino’s annual ranking of the world’s best restaurants, and is invariably ranked among the top 10 restaurants in all of Latin America on every major list (we named it Mexico’s Best Restaurant). However, our panel of previous years’ honorees (including Massimo Bottura, José Andrés, Grant Achatz, and Albert Adrià) didn’t vote for its chef, Enrique Olvera, to be named our 2015 International Chef of the Year based on plaudits alone. It’s because he’s showcasing the indigenous ingredients of Mexico in unique and innovative ways that can’t be overstated, and — oh, yeah — his New York restaurant, Cosme, has taken the city by storm, earning three stars from the New York Times.
It was at Cosme that I sat down with Olvera on a recent rainy afternoon for an extended conversation about his history, his motivations, his mission, and what the future holds in store. He’s soft-spoken, thoughtful, and humble, and it’s clear that he isn’t out for personal glory; he just wants to cook good food and make people happy, and is incredibly passionate about Mexican cuisine.
Olvera was born in Mexico City in 1976, and after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America he spent time on the line at Chicago’s acclaimed Everest. With his extensive classical training and fine-dining experience, he moved back to his hometown in 2000 to open Pujol. Reimaging the traditional cuisines of Mexico and presenting them in a modern fine-dining setting put his restaurant at the upper echelon of the Mexico City culinary scene almost instantly. If you’re lucky enough to snag a table there, you might be served dishes that include smoked baby corn dusted with chicatana ants, a pool of two-year-old mole encircling a second pool of new mole, sea urchin sopes, fresh and dehydrated nopales with green pea shoots, and barbacoa tacos made with 24-hour slow-roasted sheep.
At Cosme, which opened in 2014, Olvera is making 2,500 fresh tortillas daily with heirloom single-source Mexican corn and serving dishes including beef tongue with lettuces, chicatana ant-coffee oil, and nopal; mushroom and squash barbacoa with chilpachole and hoja santa; crispy octopus with hazelnut mole, pickled potatoes, and watercress; and duck carnitas to share, which takes three full days to prepare and has emerged as the must-order. Needless to say, Cosme is also a certified smash.
Olvera isn’t just turning out his interpretation of Mexican cuisine; he fully embodies it. As Ferran Adrià put it, “There was Mexican food before Enrique Olvera, and Mexican food after Enrique Olvera.” Dine at either of his restaurants and you’ll leave with a completely transformed impression of what Mexican food is, and can be. And behind it all is a chef who’s just doing what comes natural, who isn’t out for fame or fortune. When I addressed him as “chef” before our interview (which you can read in full below), his response spoke volumes: “Don’t call me ‘chef,’” he said. “Just call me Enrique.”
The Daily Meal: First of all, congratulations on being named Chef of the Year!
Enrique Olvera: Thank you! I guess that means we must be doing something right.
Going back to your childhood, what initially sparked your interest in cooking?
I always liked making people happy. That’s why I started cooking. I always liked having friends over and cooking for them. Also, I think Mexican culture is about hospitality. It’s something that we are born with, I guess. Our parents always tell us that whenever you have guests over you should do your best to make them feel welcome. And I think the restaurant business is all about that. It’s not about being cocky or starting a competition; it’s a way of making people happy.
What was the first dish that you ever cooked?
I started baking because my grandparents had a bakeshop, so I remember baking cakes with my mom for birthdays. I always liked helping her in the kitchen, to the point where I think she started worrying that I was going to be a cook, and then I ended up being a cook! I find fascinating still to this day the possibility of working with your mind and your hands. I think that’s a very human thing. I really enjoy the transformation of ingredients; I find it almost magical how you can mix eggs and flour and it becomes a cake, which kind of sounds silly, but it is so special.
What do you think it is about your cooking and style of cuisine that sets it apart from what other chefs and restaurants are doing?
I think cooking has become very personal. When I started cooking school, you had to know a lot of recipes and how to execute them. Now, a good cook is someone who can personalize cuisine and can read recipes and make it their own. I think that’s what’s as special as anybody else’s cuisine. Just the fact that we’ve let go over the past few years, being able to cook freely and not trying to impress anyone has actually made us a stronger restaurant.
Cooking for someone sounds like it’s a very personal experience for you.
It’s a way of letting people know that you love them, right? I mean, when I come home and my wife has made chicken soup or something, it’s not just chicken soup. It’s the fact that they’re taking care of you, and that they’re procuring good ingredients, cooking with care, and then giving it to someone else. I know it sounds kind of poetic, and I’m not like that. To me a restaurant is about hospitality and having fun. That’s what we like to do. At Cosme that’s what we strive for. We’re always making sure that this place is welcoming and warm.
I’ve dined at Pujol and it was unlike any other dining experience I’ve ever had. Can you walk me through what your motivation behind that restaurant was, and is, with its muted décor and very high staff-to-seat ratio?
Pujol is a home, so we approach it as if people are coming over to your house. It’s one menu; if somebody came to my house I’d go to the market in the morning, buy the best possible ingredients I could find, and cook them in the best way I could. And that’s why it’s a tasting menu and not à la carte. The dining room is fairly small, the walls are black because I want to make people look good, and they say you always look good on a black background. Food looks good on a white background, so that’s why the plates are white.
We play music that I like, and the menu is basically — we’re trying to tell a story, so we don’t think of Pujol as dishes, we think of it as menus. Those same dishes here in Cosme, for example, would be completely stupid. A pond of mole in an à la carte scenario makes no sense. But when you’re doing it on a tasting menu it makes sense. We’re trying to do one huge dish there, and that’s how we approach our menu.
We like to focus on ingredients that are local, not necessarily Mexican but local — if broccoli is being planted locally, we’ll use it — and then when I travel in Mexico, I always like to eat in the markets. And here I have a fine-dining restaurant, but I don’t like eating in fine-dining restaurants. I like to eat in markets. So the menu at Pujol is based on market food, so it’s tacos, tostadas, esquites, things you’d eat at the market, and I think that markets aren’t perfect, they sometimes overcook the protein, they don’t have the resources in manpower or quality of ingredients that we do at Pujol, so we combine the excellence of fine dining with the soul and the flavor of the market. Because I think some fine dining restaurants have no flavor. They’re very precise, but they’re boring. And street food is never boring.