You could say that Enrique Olvera is the equivalent in Mexico to Gastón Acurio in Peru: he has managed to redirect the attention of eyes and guests inwards, to their own land. There are many doubts about whether if fame is positive or negative for chefs. However, I think that we should not only take into account how fame affects or not the food that is served, but how this new attention influences the society it represents. In my opinion, the fact that Mexican cuisine, "la de veras", has the ability to make the Mexican feel proud of what's on their plate, is in itself a great success. But let´s ask Enrique better:
Nora - Tell us a bit about your career
Enrique Olvera - I believe that when someone is a cook, is a cook. You go straight to the kitchen. For example, in my house I loved being with my parents in the kitchen and my grandfathers were bakers, so I always had our gastronomy very present. Then in high school I decided to study cooking, and the truth is that at that time it was not very common, so it was like a shock to my family. As there not too many schools in Mexico I decided to go to the US, to the Culinary Institute of New York, where I studied for 4 years. After doing an internship in Chicago for a few months, I decided to return to Mexico because a friend of my dad offered me to open a small restaurant in La Condesa. This ultimately never happened, but I started to look for venues on my own, and so I found another acquaintance who wanted to put a restaurant and had everything arranged, and that's how we arrived at Pujol.
N - What does Pujol's name mean?
E - It does not mean anything really, it was foolish. They used to call me Pujol, that's why, but now I regret it because everyone imagines is a Spanish restaurant.
N - The cuisine has become a form of patriotism. It's the same in countries like Peru or Colombia, where chefs focus in their own Country to develop their philosophy of haute cuisine instead of importing it from outside. What do you think of this culinary nationalism?
E - I think it's something natural that has happened because of the economic and cultural globalization, so people have a need to have their own identity. I also think the cuisine is a reflection of the land and its products. Leaving aside nationalism and all the ecological theme, as a cook the first thing you ask yourself is "what is the best product I can get?" The one that grows here. It's actually an answer to the chef´s desire of having the best product available and of preserving the prior knowledge. We try to grab this great legacy we have and continue on building it.
N - How does the menu work? Does it change seasonally?
E - Here in Mexico as we have longer seasons, the only things that change really are for example fresh insects such as Escamoles (ant eggs). Otherwise, we just change dishes when we don´t like them anymore, there is no fixed rule as of "I have to change the menu."
N - Tell us a little bit more of the use of insects in your kitchen
E - They've been consumed since the Ancient times. Insects have been part of the Mexican diet since the earliest civilizations, but it is also a choice of flavor. It is not that we want to use all possible bugs, and generally we use them ground as flavoring rather than as a trick or effect to cause surprise. At Pujol we foremost try to create an honest kitchen, away from the concept of the show.
N - What do you consider your ambitions in cuisine? What would you like your legacy to be?
E - I would like my legacy to be Pujol becoming the best restaurant. I think there are still many things we can do to improve and a long way to go. That would be my legacy, a business that works as an example of a restaurant, not just the food you put on the table, but how happy are your employees, how much trash you generate ... etc
N - We have seen that you have two other projects besides Pujol: Eno and Maíz de Mar. What are you looking for with each one of them?
E - I am seeking mostly to be able to appeal to different audiences or to the same public at different stages. On the other hand, also mix my family life with my professional life, for example Playa del Carmen (where Maíz del Mar is) is good to go with my children. Besides at the coast there are not very good Mexican restaurants. We believe that the Mexican restaurant on the coast must have a different concept from one in the city, and that´s how Maíz del Mar appeared.
N - What do you think of the concept of celebrity chefs?
E - It's just what I was talking about the other day with my wife. When I studied cooking I never imagined that this figure could exist and now with all the cooking shows that there are it has been developed as a form of entertainment. It´s okay, but I think it will last for a short time. It has helped gastronomy become one of the engines of the economy, and has changed from being an obligation to become a pleasure.
N - In which direction do you think food is going?
E - I think there will always be room for this type of restaurant, because there is public for two or three in one country as much. I think the rest of restaurants are increasingly pointing to something more honest and very focused on the product.
N - Where would you eat if you could eat anywhere in the world?
E - I'd go to Noma, I really like what René is doing, it is very special and unique. I still believe that Paris, Tokyo and Barcelona are the best places to eat.
N - Which chefs do you admire?
E - I have a great appreciation for Ricardo Muñoz here in Mexico, he is one of the greatest historians of the kitchen and one of the reasons that I got to cook.
N - How do you see yourself in 10 years?
E - Tired, lol. The truth is that I try not to ask that to myself, given that we are offered a million jobs and opportunities every day I have to reject because there is not enough time. Pujol standards of excellence will continue albeit always with a twist, in the way of eternal change and continuous grinding, polishing and buffing.
Just like famous people's mothers, the tortilla's mum merits are not recognized enough. In fact, it is completely unknown outside of Mexico and sometimes even outside the tortillerías. Like Van Gogh in his days, the nixtamal dough is unnoticed, and, what is more, eclipsed by its descendants. It's unknown who invented it in a culinary enlightenment, nor why it didn't transcend to the South of the continent, but what is certain is that in Mexico is part of the trilogy of success: corn-> nixtamal-> tortilla.
Nowadays the nixtamal dough is prepared with machines or industrial mills, although in more rural areas they still use the metate (flat stone for grinding). In this tortillería in Mexico City, they bring the nixtamal from the Zamora Mill, just a few blocks away, and then it goes through the machine, miraculous circle maker, which shapes the tortillas and toasts them lightly.
RECIPE -Nixtamal Dough-
- 1 kilo dry corn
- 3 tablespoons quicklime
- 3 litres water
1. Dissolve the quicklime in the water in a saucepan.
2. Clean the corn.
3. Boil the corn in the saucepan with the quicklime and let it cook until the water turns yellow and the grain skin peels easily.
4. Remove from the heat and let it rest overnight.
5. In the morning, rinse the corn two or three times and discard the yellow water (called nejayote).
6. Peel the grains until the corn is completely clean.
7. Mash the grains in the metate with a bit of water until obtaining a soft, compact and homogeneous dough.
"It wasn't going to be long before the Sun, the Moon and the stars would appear above the Creators and Shapers. From Paxil de Cayalá, named like that they came the yellow and white corn cobs. These are the names of the animals which brought the food: Yac (the cat of the mountain), Utiú (the coyote), Quel (Chocoyo) and Hoh (the raven). (...) And that is how they found the food and that was how it entered in the body of the created man, the shaped man; this was their blood, from this was made the man's blood. That is how the corn entered in the man through work of the parents."
The corn is America and America is made of corn. According to the Popol Vuh, holy Mayan book, although from an unknown author like the most epic poems, the man became man when the corn invaded his body and, grain by grain, came to be human. This myth couldn't be any more illustrative of what the corn represents, not only in the nourishment, but in the whole American culture. It is the beginning, way and finish line. The god Quetzalcóatl is also considered like the discoverer of the Central American edible gold: according to the legend, the man's benefactor turned into a black ant in order to get to the corn. After overcoming countless obstacles, he managed to transport the grain to the man and put it in their mouths "so as they eat it, they will become strong". One way or another, the corn constitutes the absolute origin of humanity around these neighborhoods.
"Corn, society, culture and history are entangled. Our past and present have their foundation in the corn. Our life is based on the corn. We are the people of the corn."
Guillermo Bonfil Batalla