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Enrique Olvera on Mexican Cuisine and Balancing the Modern With the Traditional

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Olvera and his team at Gastronomika 2011
Olvera and his team at Gastronomika 2011
Photo: Adalberto R. Lanz

Enrique Olvera is the chef of Mexico City's Pujol, one of the fifty best restaurants in the world. Just a few weeks ago, he spoke at Gastronomika, in San Sebastian, Spain, representing Mexico and its "evolving and emerging" culinary scene. Below, the chef discusses how dining is changing in Mexico, how he gets criticized for not being "authentic" enough, and how chefs in his country can navigate not having the support of their government.

The theme at Gastronomika was the "emerging" and "evolving" cuisines of Latin America. I'd like to know how you see that designation: is it accurate, or is it that people abroad have only just decided to focus on these countries?
I think that it is accurate. Latin American food has evolved in terms of the restaurant business. We have had a very strong culture ingredient-wise, in how we traditionally made food in our homes, with our markets.

When you talk about most countries in Latin America, though, most of the restaurants in the fine dining realm were French or Spanish. So, there has been a realization on our part that our food is worthy of fine dining establishments. There's nothing new about it – what I mean is that what's new is that we're taking it and playing with it and taking it to higher standards of quality.

When did this start?
There have been many attempts, but it started strongly about ten years ago. Chefs like Monica Patiño, Patricia Quintana, even Marta Ortiz. In my case, we opened seven years ago. It hasn't been too long. One thing we have also realized is the importance of traditional cooking. This is especially true in Mexico, where tradition is huge. You have to be very careful about how you innovate, since you can offend people. There's a need for invention, but there's also strong respect for tradition.

We'll get to the question of tradition when we talk about Pujol. First, where did you start cooking, and who were your influences?
I went to school in New York, since when I was young there weren't that many cooking schools in Mexico. I also worked in Chicago for six months with a visa, and then came back to Mexico to open Pujol.

When I was studying, I was very much into Thomas Keller. I liked how he could elevate simple food. As time goes on, you pick up from more and more people. I like the simplicity and minimalism of Nordic cuisine, the perfectionism and seasonality of Japanese cooking, and the happiness of Mexican cooking. Mexican cuisine is so vibrant — it can provoke a thousand sensations in your palate that so many other cuisines can't achieve. Then there are so many chefs here that are important to me: Ricardo Muñoz, who has helped and guided me. Then there is Alejandro Ruiz, who was at Gastronomika.

What did you want to do at Pujol when you started out?
When I got here, I realized that everything that I learned in school was not worth much.

In what sense?
Well, if I wanted to do Mexican cookery. It responds to different techniques, ideas. But it was good to see Mexican food from the outside, since it gave me the opportunity to be a little more creative. I didn't have that much baggage to carry.

Even though you were born in Mexico, you were looking at it as an outsider? Can you elaborate on that?
Exactly. For example, here we do tamales and we nixtamalize and we use molcajete instead of a blender. And then, sautéeing onions or doing a long broth — we don't do that here. Our mother sauces are not béchamel or velouté, they're green salsa and things like that. I needed to start learning again, basically. I don't pretend to know everything, but we have learned a lot by researching and doing.

You have the reputation of being "the progressive Mexican restaurant." Is that accurate?
At the beginning, we wanted to be as creative as possible. Now we want to do a modern cuisine based in native ingredients and local techniques. We want to be as Mexican as we can.

Do you still use modern techniques?
We used to force using modern technique. We did that two or three years ago, but we realized that the end result was not necessarily better. We use techniques from outside when we feel that that technique is better for the product. We aren't completely orthodox. For example, we sous vide our turkey, because it turns out better that way. If we want to make a coarse salsa, we'll do it in a molcajete. If we want it light, though, in a blender. But now, to give you an idea, when I travel, I'll tell people to take me to eat in the markets. I don't want to go to the places that are trying to innovate. Why are we trying to innovate when what we really like is our food? That's when we started focusing on more traditional techniques.

At the same time, we do want to do a contemporary cuisine, so we apply some of the techniques from outside and do incorporate ingredients that aren't from Mexico, but it has to be very subtle and well thought-out. Also, there has to be an element of surprise, because otherwise, it's just the same old shit.

What motivated this shift to what sounds like a more balanced cooking?
When you're young, you try to do the most creative dish. But as you cook more and more, you just want to do the best dish. I'm not surprised by the new things, because I realize that there's almost nothing new in this world. If I'm doing sous vide or a foam or something else, I'm still copying. If you realize that, it's liberating. You want to do a unique cuisine, but you have to remember that, as I mentioned when talking about my influences, you are drawing from everyone.

Let's talk about two things that people in Mexico seem to criticize you about, one of which you alluded to already. First, how you can serve something like a taco in a fine dining context, and second, that in a culture where so many are passionate about tradition, you aren't authentic. How do you react to that?
To me, serving a taco is no different than serving any other thing in that context. Plating on top of a tortilla is exactly the same as plating the same thing without the tortilla. It's only a vehicle for eating that changes the dining experience. We didn't serve tacos until recently, but we realized that when we started to make them, we served the tortillas on the side. Now, when we put them in the dish, we sort of force you to do that. There's a really good message in doing this: it makes you ask, "Why can't that be fine dining?" There's no logical reason for it. That's my response to that. If you can't see the beauty of a taco, then maybe you need to try go a bit beyond your preconceptions.

And on the matter of authenticity?
You can't talk about authenticity in the past. A tamale, for example, is seen as completely authentic, yet it has lard on it. We didn't have that ingredient Spanish brought manteca over here. It depends on how far back you go. Plus, Mexico has always been a culture that incorporates and changes. An al pastor taco, one of the most traditional, hallowed tacos, has influences from around the world. Yet no one complains about it's lack of authenticity. You have to be respectful, but it's not a matter of being a purist. A cuisine that is inclusive gets stronger, and one that excludes simply stalls.

One of the major things that came up during the festival, both for you and for Alex Atala, who was representing Brazil, was chefs who lack government support. How big of an obstacle is that?
I understand that we are in a poor country and that the government has limited resources. They have to prioritize. It would be really nice for us to have more support when we travel, especially as representatives of Mexico — not as chefs. When we were invited to Gastronomika, it wasn't as individual chefs. It was as a country. In those particular events, there should be more participation. The government, I think, has realized the potential of food travel, but sometimes they don't follow-up.

At the same time, it can't strictly be the government's responsibility to do that. It's our responsibility to do our job correctly and get together. People will then come, and the government will realize. We can't wait for them to realize.

But how does that happen when people don't stop using the phrase, "there are many, many Mexicos"? It seems so atomized and overwhelming.
I think that if all the cooks realize that we can get together, it will be much better. The problem is that cooks in Mexico think that if they're not in a congress, nobody knows them. It's exactly the opposite. If someone speaks well about your restaurant, then people will start to come, no matter where you are. That's all it takes. We also need to start to talk about how Mexican cuisine doesn't really exist — that there is an incredible regional diversity. People need to stop talking about "Mexican cuisine" and instead talk about Oaxaca, Veracruz, Merida, the Central Valley.

· All Enrique Olvera Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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Petrarca 254 Polanco, Miguel Hidalgo, Ciudad de México, DF

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