Portrait by Ana Lorenzana
Enrique Olvera is one of Mexico City’s most celebrated chefs. The opening of his restaurant Pujol 15 years ago almost singlehandedly reinvented fine dining in Mexico. In 2014, he opened a new restaurant in New York, Cosme, to near-universal acclaim. Tank caught up with him to discuss cooking, tradition and single-origin corn.
Thomas Roueché Were you always interested in opening something in New York?
Enrique OlveraYes, most of my heroes are here. But New York is a city that has a lot of visitors from everywhere, so I think that opening here is equivalent to opening in 10 cities because there’s always people that visit us either for business or for pleasure from all over the world. It’s a very complicated city, too, in terms of operating. But the experience that you can get here really works for me.
TR How has New York challenged you or changed your approach?
EOWell, for the last 15 years at Pujol, we have been doing fine dining. And over the past 10 years, I have realised that there were many things about fine dining that I don’t like, that I thought were not necessary to have a great experience. So Cosme is the opposite of that. We try to get all our basics, to decant all of our ideas and stay with the ones that we thought were really important. It’s a restaurant that has no decoration; the space is very clean. We wanted to concentrate on what’s important: flavour. I also like to do creative things. So Cosme is not that highly creative, but I think we offer flavours that you haven’t tasted before. We don’t like having a super classical kitchen. We like to interpret things and play around with our food. So we have a lot of ingredients from all over the world, and there’s also a very big local production here in New York, so we try to use that to our advantage.
TR To what extent do you see it as a Mexican restaurant first and foremost? How important is “authenticity” to you?
EOI think you can approach it within traditional cuisine, or you can approach it by flavour profile. So Thai food has a certain flavour profile; it shares spices with Mexican cuisine, the acidity not so much. Mexican food is more spicy, maybe more creamy. So we try to think about the flavour profile of Mexican food and we know that by making subtle changes to a recipe you can take it to a Mexican stage. Because we’re Mexican, that to us comes really naturally. So I know when something tastes Mexican. I can make butter that tastes Mexican. I don’t need green tomatoes to make salsa, I’m making a salsa right now with eggplant and it tastes pretty much like asalsa verde so that’s what we’re focusing on. I mean, we’re not thinking about transforming how people see Mexican cuisine. It’s just about doing our job correctly and being passionate about our cooking. We’re not here to make a point or to prove anything. Actually I think we’ve done that already at Pujol, and now we’re focusing on having fun and making food that people want to eat often. To me, that’s one of the problems with fine dining. You do long tasting menus and people might not want to have that on a Friday, just because it’s Friday. And at Cosme we don’t want to have that approach. People come in all the time and they don’t get tired of the food. And the food is simple, not in a bad way but simple in a good way.
TRIt feels like Mexican traditions are very important within your cooking.
EOI’ve always thought that traditional recipes are very smart. They become traditions because, first of all, they make sense and they are wonderful. So in that sense we should be very respectful and also grateful for that tradition. But tradition is ever-changing, so what we like to do is approach that tradition with a calculated distance and try to question what we don’t like about it. For example, when people think about Mexican food they usually think about high spice level, and food that is heavy on the stomach. Those things are related to a more traditional Mexican food because those traditions usually emerged for a town celebration, weddings, so instead we focus on the traditional Mexican cuisine that is in the everyday cuisine. Evidently Mexico is a poor country, and most of our traditional diet was vegetarian. On the coast it’s very simple, likeceviche, a very light preparation. So we try to focus on that. And we obviously have kept the tortilla as the central part of our experience. During colonisation, corn was the sustenance of our civilisation. So we figured that it’s really, really important. Tortillas in Mexico can make a plate that’s not Mexican, Mexican. So we focused a lot on the tortilla programme at Cosme, bringing heirloom corn from Mexico. We approach corn as you approach coffee, like a single origin from a village, from a purveyor, different grains. A lot of people, when they think about wine, they don’t have a problem recognising the difference between a sauvignon blanc and a merlot. But when people talk about corn, they just talk about corn. But there are many variations and really different flavour profiles. We’re happy to use more classical techniques and make tamales and barbacoa but we’ve done them in a way that incorporates many different products. We’re doing tamales with eggplant, barbacoa with mushroom instead of doing it with salt. So, I think it’s important to preserve tradition, but it’s also good to play with it.
TR Since NAFTA there’s been a narrative of how the Mexican diet has changed as a result of imported foods. Do you feel like you have a role to play in changing people’s attitudes to food?
EOYes, definitely. I understand that some chefs have a great impact or have a voice in the world, but I do think that we should focus on cooking. And I think that the problem of the changing diet is a very complex one. To me, it’s mainly a consequence of poverty. It’s not a consequence of people lacking the will to maintain their diets; it’s more the fact that people do not have the access to those products any more. Also the fact that now, cheaper food is industrial. And when you’re poor I think that’s what you can afford. So, to me it’s a matter of wealth distribution, the food chain and education. As a chef, how can you contribute? I don’t think I should become a preacher. But I can set an example by the way I do things at my restaurant – to me that’s the most important thing. Instead of just saying, “I support agriculture,” actually support it, actually buy from these guys. Actually make a huge effort, because it is an effort, and it’s really expensive, too, to buy from these guys. It’s so much easier to buy from big companies. You write an e-mail and they send you whatever you asked for the next day. Whereas with the local producers sometimes you’ve got to understand that it’s too warm and they lost the crop, or it rained, or it’s too cold. There’s always things going on and you have to adjust and adapt and maybe have one more person on your staff who is in charge of that. But I do think that, obviously, this is a very important subject. But you’re a chef, you’re not a politician or something.
TRFrom what I’ve heard, there’s a real community of chefs in Mexico City. Do you feel you’ve joined a community in New York?
EODefinitely. I think that you’re never a free-standing restaurant; you depend on your community to support you. We want to be part of that community. We think that we can contribute in a good way to make a better community and I think we can contribute to the restaurants. And the community here in New York has also been supportive. Not only chefs but also the neighbours and even the press; they’ve been respectful, understanding and welcoming. So I think if we fail it’s because of our own shortcomings, but not because of the attitude of New York.
TRAnd I heard you might be opening a tortillería. Is that still the plan?
EOYes, we’re actually about to secure the lease. We think it’s the complementary business to Cosme. Right now we only have one mill in the kitchen, and a mill is a really large piece of equipment, probably three times my size. So we don’t have enough space for another mill and, knock on wood, if something happens to that mill, we’re screwed. If the mill stops working we don’t have any tortillas. And right now we are going through around 50kg of corn every day at Cosme alone, and we’re doing 200-and-something covers a night in the dining room, so we have to secure that steady supply. We also see it as a business opportunity. Giving tortillas a real dimension. A lot of people think of tortillas as unsophisticated, unimportant – that they are just something you put your meat on top of. But I think we can change the conversation, thinking about corn in a different way.