ENRIQUE OLVERAPhotography by Nadia Baram
Since opening Pujol—presently slotted at No. 36 on San Pellegrino’s prestigious list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants—in 2000, the Mexico City-born, Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Enrique Olvera has been smothered in praise. Olvera stands at the head of the Mexican culinary vanguard, working in the sweet spot where centuries-old tradition meets modern technique. Here, Olvera shares his thoughts on the future of Mexican cuisine.
It’s a good time to be cooking Mexican. For one thing, the possibility of a cooking career in Mexico is something new. Before, you weren’t a cook by choice—it was your destiny. Now young Mexicans are studying food. Ferran Adrià says that the second most common nationality after Spanish represented in El Bulli’s staff was Mexican. Soon, they’ll all be doing Mexican food. The best is yet to come.
In order to evolve, we need to start thinking beyond our own traditions. We need to make Mexican food a little bit lighter, more in tune with modern tastes. It’s already so flavorful. It’s like a bomb in your mouth. At Pujol, we try to keep true to those flavors, but we also try to make food that you can eat all the time, not just on special occasions. For example, moles and stews or chiles en nogada are usually cooked for birthdays or baptisms. Then there’s atole and tamales, traditionally served at breakfast. That was for people who worked in the fields, who needed carbohydrates. We have to connect the food to present circumstances.
At Pujol we do a taco with hoja santa in the tortilla, which isn’t necessarily new—you’ll find it in Oaxaca—but we pair it with ceviche and black beans. We’re using peppers and spices to enhance, not to cover. This approach to cooking is new for Mexicans. There aren’t 100 restaurants doing it, maybe five or six. The next 10 years are going to be really important for Pujol. We’ve matured as a restaurant, and I myself have matured as a chef. As a chef grows up, the food becomes more interesting. But we have to stay true to ourselves. When Ferran opened El Bulli, he influenced a generation of Spanish cooks. You go to Copenhagen, and many people are doing food that looks like René Redzepi’s.
It shows the power of their influence. I don’t think we could do what we do outside Mexico. It would be really expensive. It wouldn’t be feasible. There are chefs who are doing a wonderful job in the U.S., both Mexican and non-Mexican. Rick Bayless has been cooking in Chicago, and while his food is extremely Mexican, he’s had to adapt to the local product. Same with Alex Stupak at Empellon. The last time I was in New York, I had a wonderful meal at Empellon. I also cooked there. I told Alex that I needed zucchini blossom, but he said they weren’t in season. In Mexico, they were in season. They were beautiful. Geography transforms food.
It is my biggest wish is that cooks abroad can make a living back in Mexico. That would make such a big difference—not only for people working in restaurants, but also for people working in agriculture, no? It would make Mexico a gastronomic superpower.