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Mesamérica, Day Three: The Rise of Latin America, Heavyweights, and Mesamérica 2014

René Redzepi. [Photo: <a href="">Bonjwing Lee</a>]
René Redzepi. [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]

[René Redzepi photo: Bonjwing Lee. All other photos: Amy McKeever/]

On the final day of Mesamérica 2013 (see coverage of day one and day two, the line-up was stacked with some pretty serious heavy-hitters, including Alex Atala (D.O.M.), Jordi Roca (El Celler de Can Roca) and René Redzepi (Noma, duh). Every single one of these guys was at once thought-provoking and entertaining, whether screening videos of chickens launched into space or inviting a group of guys wearing lucha libre masks onstage during a cooking demo.

But beyond those headliners, there was also a serious discussion about the rise of Latin American gastronomy. Mexican chefs such as Antonio de Livier, Aquiles Chavez and Diego Hernandez-Baquedano took the lead in the discussion alongside Peru's Virgilio Martinez and a panel of journalists and bloggers from across the region. And, given the number of young people in the audience wearing chef coats, many of the day's talks were full of advice for the rising generation of cooks. Here now, day three:

The Rise of Latin America

Chef Virgilio Martinez (Central, Lima) shared his explorations of Peru's impressive biodiversity, from foraging trips in the Andes to visits to the Amazon buffer area. From the latter, he said, he and his team take products like berries and mushrooms, wild herbs and cacao to bring back to the restaurant. Martinez then demo'd a few dishes, including one using ingredients from the Amazon buffer area. One such ingredient was some pulverized coca leaf, which he noted was pretty hard to bring to Mexico City given how customs usually frowns on the leaf from which cocaine is made. (And, yes, he passed some out to the audience.) Martinez also talked about his kitchen's slogan: "There's more outside." The time when there was nothing but the kitchen is over, he said, and cooks now have to bring the outside in — which they are doing through the work of the Mater Iniciativa.

Virgilio Martinez and his coca leaf. [Photo: Amy McKeever/]

Easily one of the most energetic presentations of the day was that of Guadalajara chef Antonio de Livier, whose ardor for the traditional Mexican meat stew birria was clear. As he prepared a version with pork belly, clams, and shrimp, de Livier worked the audience, demanding applause for things he likes such as: his mentor, his hometown Mexicali, and Enrique Olvera's restaurant Pujol. He also got the audience members yelling out where they were from — all over Latin America, it turns out — but he was surprised at the muted reaction when he asked where the New Yorkers were. De Livier also told the crowd that he believes cooks are the providers of joy, and he invited the many culinary students in the audience to become experts in broth and Mexican cuisine, "the art of Mexico."

A panel of journalists and bloggers from across Latin America — Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Peru — gathered together for a conversation about gastronomy in their own countries and for the region. They discussed the need to take advantage of the focus there is on Latin America at the moment in the food world, in particular countries that have lagged behind in culinary development such as Uruguay and Paraguay. The Peruvian journalist pointed out, though, that it can be difficult to talk about gastronomy in countries where people are starving. He urged chefs to keep that ecosystem under consideration.

Mexican celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez (who also opened La Fisheria in Houston, Texas, last year) talked about his path toward working both in the kitchen and on television. With a speech titled, "Television isn't what they say it is," Chavez said that you can't study to be a chef, you have to earn it. And he argued that all the chefs on TV are people who own restaurants and cook for a living. "TV is just another platform, another facet of being a chef," he said. But, he advised the culinary students, it's not like a TV producer is just waiting for them to show up. You have to study, think about what you're doing and do things passionately, he said.

[Photo: Amy McKeever/]

Wisdom from Atala, Roca, and Redzepi

Enrique Olvera introduced a man who he said didn't really need an introduction: Alex Atala of D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil. And Atala certainly did not disappoint. He started things off noting that while Latin America was once "a laughingstock," it now has the envy of the world. That's not just because of the great products, he said, but because of its smile that now needs to be shared. Atala went on to say that what separates humans and animals is that animals are conditioned, not intelligent. That said, humans do sometimes do things just because they have been trained to do so. So, Atala said, creativity is one of the most important things for chefs now — so long as the chefs understand what they are doing while innovating. He screened a video about his ATA institute and espoused the ideals of whole animal cooking and sustainability.

After such seriousness, Atala pivoted to a demo of tacos inspired by his first trip to Mexico, which was to watch the lucha libres wrestle. After quickly making a dish of crawfish and shrimp tacos "wrestling" (with grasshoppers and sweetwater shrimp as the audience, naturally), Atala absolutely brought the house down by calling some friends wearing lucha libre masks to the stage for a little dance party:

[Photo: Amy McKeever/]

Then Atala went back to the serious stuff, explaining that he is living a time of his life that he never even dreamed about, from D.O.M.'s place in the top 10 of the World's 50 Best Restaurants to Time magazine dubbing him one of the world's most influential people. Of the Time nod, he quipped, "I don't know why, but I enjoyed it very much."

Next, Atala addressed the young chefs in the audience and told them the only difference between them was his white hair. "Cooking and believing every day is the key to success," he said, adding that the time of in-fighting between chefs was gone. His advice: "Don't fight for a little. Dream big." Finally, Atala took some time to totally rave about a meal he'd had at Olvera's Mexico City restaurant Pujol and predicted that within a year, the best restaurant in Latin America (per the San Pellegrino list) will be Mexican.

With his Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca now propelled into the top slot of the San Pellegrino World's Best Restaurants list, pastry chef Jordi Roca got a standing ovation upon entrance and exit of the stage. Roca talked about his pillars of cooking, which include education, memory and a sense of humor. He showed a bunch of neat videos and did some dessert demos to illustrate those pillars, explaining the family memories conjured by his Campari bonbon and screening a totally insane short film about El Celler de Can Roca's method of making chicken which involved sending it into orbit, a green monster, and some cute kitchen scenes:

[Photos: Amy McKeever/]

Roca also showed a film about the new culinary opera El Somni that he and his brothers unveiled earlier this month, then made a dish from it. And, holy shit, the dessert he made actually appears to "breathe" — with a ball on top of a cake that heaves up and down seemingly on its own — so that was pretty crazy. Another cool dish was Roca's soccer ball dessert inspired by a Lionel Messi goal. As Roca said, it's important to "leave room for madness, for creativity, a sense of humor" in cooking.

[Photo: Amy McKeever/]

The very last presentation of the evening came from Noma's René Redzepi, the pride of Denmark. And Redzepi pretty much killed it with a speech about how memories are what make food great and how Mexico saved him and his restaurant from burnout. (Anyone who managed to watch Redzepi's presentation at Toronto's Terroir Symposium earlier this month before the video was taken down may already be familiar with this talk, but it is equally good a second time around.)

In the speech, Redzepi talked about the day he looked in the mirror and realized, "I'm not fucking okay." Even though Noma had shot to the top of the World's 50 Best list, he had burned out. Then Redzepi went back through time to talk about the most perfect roasted chicken he ever had as a child with his family and how the memory of that had served as "the seed of [his] culinary journey" when he was in cooking school trying to figure out what he liked about food. Redzepi's "golden years" were those he spent learning everything he could in other restaurants, he said, noting that the night he was finally allowed to filet a turbot he cycled home gleefully calling out to the empty streets that he could filet a fish.

Twenty years later, though, Noma was under immense pressure to remain at the top by using fancy silverware or dressing waiters in suits. Beyond that, Redzepi said he also had become scared of losing this worldwide attention. It was a fear that helped lead to his burnout. "I became a miserable fuck," he said. After enough time like that, "your inner flame will begin to flutter."

During a trip to Mexico, though, Redzepi recalled the early memory of his family's roast chicken and how they didn't need silverware at all to make it the best chicken of his life. At that point, he said, he decided that Noma should spend its money on itself rather than commodities. After all, he said, "The people I work with are the biggest gift Noma has ever given me." Now, Redzepi says, he can't answer what he likes about food because food is everything. "We're putting the world in our bodies," he said. But, he added, he did fall in love with flavor and deliciousness, describing them as a time machine that "fills you with memories." Though food might not be essential to human survival, Redzepi said, "It's what makes life fun to live."

[Photo: Amy McKeever/]

Looking Ahead to Mesamérica 2014

At the end of the festival, the organizers and the whole crew that worked behind the scenes came to the stage to announce the dates for Mesamérica 2014: May 19-21. Next year will also have a theme of street food, which is obviously perfect for a conference on Mexican cuisine.

In other news, Xano Saguer of Espaisucre took the stage to lament that there weren't more pastry chefs in this year's lineup of Mesamérica presenters. But, he announced, next year the festival has said it will devote an entire morning of programming to the pastry chef, with the likes of Spanish pastry chef Oriol Balaguer and Tartine's Chad Robertson among the participants. He also announced that Espaisucre would host the 2014 Best Restaurant Dessert competition in Mexico City timed around Mesamérica. So start getting ready for 2014, everyone.

· All Mesamérica Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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