2015 International Chef of the Year: Enrique Olvera

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This Mexican chef is elevating his country’s cuisine to new heights

Olvera opened Mexico City's Pujol in 2000 and New York's Cosme in 2014.

Before opening Cosme, you did a lot of research. What did you learn before opening this restaurant that informed the final vision?
When I dined out, I realized that New York is on the forefront of dining. A lot of the time, people say that there’s nothing happening, nothing exciting, no fine dining restaurants in New York, and I realized that this is because people are getting sick of fine dining. New Yorkers, I think especially, are in the forefront of that. They want a restaurant that they can come in a sweatshirt and have a dining experience. So we knew that we needed to do something quality because New Yorkers embrace that and they’re willing to pay for it, but they also want to relax. They want to go out and have fun, they don’t want to go out and be all stuffy. We learned a lot about the produce, too. We went to the markets and looked at the ingredients, and I tried to understand the flavor profile of successful restaurants and adapt it to a Mexican palate.

What were some surprises that you uncovered along the way, and after it opened?
To me, the most amazing thing was the hospitality of chefs. There’s a bad reputation that New Yorkers hate foreign chefs, but with me it was exactly the opposite. I’ve found nothing but hospitality from chefs and from customers, and that was a surprise.

Food-wise, I think there’s also a street scene that we have yet to explore. I head to the Bronx every time I’m in New York to try to understand what’s going on there, and I’m sure there’s a new cuisine being created right now.

Will that inform what you’re doing at Cosme?
I’m always looking for inspiration, and there’s so many people from so many cultures here, that there’s a cuisine emerging, New York cuisine, and we have a lot of fun mixing cultures together.

So you see the restaurant evolving over time?
Yeah, we’re always evolving. We’re always correcting our own work. That’s the beautiful thing about cooking, right? You’re always able to correct your work. If you’re an architect it’s hard to correct your buildings, but if you’re cooking there are always things that you’re learning; you realize as any person would that you didn’t know things as well as you thought you did a few months ago or a few years ago, and you always keep trying to improve. It’s not about changing the menu just for the hell of changing the menu; you’re actually trying to make better things.

Alice Waters has said that you’re “on a mission to save Mexican culture.” Is that a statement that you agree with?
I would say that I want to have the most beautiful restaurant that I can. In that process, I think there are consequences and we understand them, but that’s not the mission. The mission is to have a restaurant that’s fantastic, and then whatever comes after that is great. And I think that when you cook properly it creates community and a sense of pride, but that’s a consequence, not a goal.

How does it feel what someone says something like that about you? Is it a challenge, intimidating, a compliment?
Well when it comes from Alice Waters, it’s a compliment; anything she says is amazing. Coming from her, I feel humbled and also a responsibility. But I try not to think about that, because I think if you focus on the incorrect goal then you start making poor decisions. Obviously, the fact that people recognize your work and they recognize you is a beautiful thing; it feels great because when it comes from peers it makes it more special.

Are there any aspects of Mexican culture that you’re hoping to introduce to new audiences, or that you would like to save?It’s not the mission, but when you have something special, you want to share it. And I think we have something very special in Mexican cuisine, and we’re going to share it.
I’ve always thought that Mexican food is extremely sophisticated. And we’re happy that people are recognizing that now. A taco isn’t necessarily cheap and ugly; it can be extremely sophisticated, and the fact that people are now talking about corn like you’d talk about coffee: where it comes from, what kind of corn. You don’t talk about “wine,” you talk about white or red. Same with corn; you don’t talk about “corn,” you talk about the many varieties. And I think people are starting to pay attention to that. It’s not the mission, but when you have something special, you want to share it. And I think we have something very special in Mexican cuisine, and we’re going to share it.

What are some other aspects of Mexican cuisine that you think are underappreciated?
It’s a big country, same as the U.S., and it has many regional cuisines. I don’t declare myself an expert either. I have a lot to learn, and I always say, “Next year, I’m going to take a year off and travel through Mexico and learn more,” and never have the time to do it, but I’m sure that there’s a lot we can learn from Mexican culture. There’s a lady recently who’s making a salsa with charred vanilla beans in Veracruz, and it’s so amazing! This has happened for hundreds of years, and I didn’t know about it, so I think there’s still a lot of surprises from Mexico, and a lot to explore and taste. I think one of the most beautiful experiences I had in my life was the first time I had chicatana ants. It’s a new flavor. Eating something I’ve never eaten before makes me extremely happy. I think that’s why Mexican food is so cool, because there are always surprises.

I know you’re a big proponent of eating insects.
Because they’re tasty, not because it’s cool! They actually taste good, they’re nice. It should be obvious, but they taste like the soil. They’re a good representation of terroir. That’s why I like them.

What do you say to people who rule eating insects out, and would never try them?
People who don’t have an open mind are missing a great part of life. A culture that’s open minded will evolve, and people who are closed-minded only look at the past as the best place cannot go too far.

What’s the next year hold in store for you?
We’re just trying to have fun. We’re always in the dilemma of doing new projects or not. I feel extremely lucky. Cosme has been the best dream I’ve ever had. This is just amazing, and I’m super grateful and I want to enjoy it, but I don’t want to overindulge in success. I want to keep things as they are. I’m in a beautiful period of my life, and I’m going to enjoy it. Obviously we need to create more opportunities for our staff, but we also want to stay very family-oriented.

Would you like to open more restaurants in New York, or are there other parts of the country you’re looking at?
Definitely New York. We’re not even thinking about anywhere else. I love it here. I think there are great possibilities to do things here. I want to stay in New York; I want to come more often. I want to be a part of the city, it energizes me, I love the scene, I love the energy of the city. I don’t need anything else but Mexico City and New York. And then I can have a life too. As it is I travel a lot. I don’t want to become one of those chefs who live in an airplane.

A lot of chefs are opening in Las Vegas and Miami Beach these days.
We’ve gotten a lot of proposals, but we’re staying in New York.

Would you be interested in opening something smaller and more casual?
Yeah, if we do something else it would definitely go in that direction. I think a lot of restaurants are made to have a very strong and powerful setting and sometimes you want something that’s lighter. I hate empty restaurants. When we open a restaurant we always make sure that people want to go there. And people want to go to casual restaurants. So it would be something like that.

What would it specialize in?
I love tortillas, so definitely tortillas. But maybe not tacos. If you want to open a proper taqueria, it has to be something almost like a sushi bar, where the sushi is delivered by the cook. Tacos get soggy quickly. If you have waiters that need to walk 60 feet, the tortilla’s not going to get there on time. I’ve always wanted to do something around tortillas, only. Because we have tortillas here, and we have tortillas at Pujol. In Pujol, actually, when we started doing tacos a few years ago, we got overexcited and at some point most of the menu was tacos, until a customer came in and said, “Now you have a taqueria? This is not a restaurant, this is a taqueria!” I said, “Okay, I’ll stop.” [laughs]

Is there anything that you personally don’t like to eat or cook?
I don’t like the smell of boiled eggs. It stinks like a fart, so I don’t like that. But if they’re properly cooked I like them, but I think my mother gave me too much of them as a kid. In general, I like everything.

What do you like to cook for yourself, at home?
I love tortillas. It gives me so much peace, making tortillas. I’ll usually take home some masa from Pujol, and make myself a few tortillas, put some avocado in there, a little salsa, and just eat avocado tacos, which are an amazing thing. I like making tortillas with my kids, too, and when they grab my face their hands smell like masa, and that’s my definition of happiness.

What’s your favorite taco filling, if you can only have one?
I’m in love with quesadillas. If you have a tortilla and good quesillo and a little sprig of epazote, it’s a poem. So simple and perfect.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I just want people that know me to have a good time. I don’t think about legacy. I think that’s something that happens naturally. I don’t think you should idolize people you don’t know. To me it’s more important what people who know me think about me than what people who don’t know me think about my legacy.

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