Mexico City chef Elena Reygadas is passionate about bread. In 2010, she opened her Italian restaurant Rosetta with an in-house bakery turning out bread that quickly became highly coveted by diners and fellow chefs alike. In the years since, she has branched out to open a hot new cafe in Colonia Roma, Panadería Rosetta which now provides bread for restaurants across the city. Last year she told attendees at the Mesamérica conference that she sees bread as in a point of crisis right now.
At Mesamérica's satellite festival Mesa Abierta, Eater talked to Reygadas about her career, her cooking philosophy, and why she believes the proliferation of cafes and bakeries in Mexico City is helping to create a sense of neighborhood that had not really existed before in the sprawling metropolis. She also talks about the difficulties of being a chef and a mother, as well as the responsibilities that chefs have to their communities. Here's the interview:
What's your approach to coming up with the menu for tonight? I know Jorge Vallejo was planning on doing a menu that you would find at Quintonil.
It's something I would do at Rosetta, as well. However, it's a six-course menu. I never do menus. I do everything a la carte. Usually I am not very fond of long menus, because I feel confused, and I feel sick, and I feel like [there's] too much information. I think you have to be really careful with those menus. You don't want confusion. The dishes have to be really clear, one from the other. One is vegetarian on the sweet side, one is on the salty side, one is on the cereal side. Really different dishes, so you can understand.
For me, it's very important how you feel after you eat.
I don't know if that happens to everyone, but I always get like, "What did I eat?" And then the day after, I feel like really sick, because it's a mixture of things. So, for me, it's very important how you feel after you eat. As a cook, you have to think about that. It's not really nice if you do a dinner, and then everybody's feeling really heavy. So I think that's important in a menu like this.
So how did you get into cooking?
I always loved to cook, and I always loved to eat, since I was really young. And then I got really into the nutritional side because my father had a stroke, so in my house, suddenly what we ate totally changed. So I always was conscious about what was good for you, what was not good for you. I never thought of cooking as a profession. I never thought to study cooking, to me that was really strange. I studied English literature, actually. I chose literature because I like to read, but I never wanted to be a writer or anything like that. I didn't know what I wanted to be. Then suddenly I started to realize that cooking was the thing I enjoyed the most.
And then I went to the French Culinary Institute. And, after that, I went to London for five years because my husband had a scholarship there. I was really lucky because I had an English friend living in Mexico, and he had a friend that had a restaurant in London. So I started working.
Fino. I was there only for like three months. But it was a good introduction. And after that, I went to Locanda Locatelli, which is a really good Italian restaurant, Michelin starred and all these things. It had just gotten its star, so it was really a good moment to be there. I always believed that was really my school, because [it was] there that I learned butchering and baking and pastry, and [how] to do fresh pastas and everything from scratch.
More than at the French Culinary Institute?
Much more. I am really happy I only went to one year of cooking school. I think when you work is when you really understand what you're doing. School is good in a way, but I think when you work is when you really get it.
So what brought you back after London?
It was really complicated to keep working and take care of my daughter.
I had a daughter, and it was really complicated to keep working and take care of my daughter. You know, London is super expensive, so I had to work part-time. And then I just thought, you know, in Mexico it's much easier. You can do both things because life is not as expensive, and I have my family, and I have friends. And that's why we came back. I think you can share that in Mexico much more easily.
How do you mean?
Like I have a nanny that helps me with my daughters because now I have two. And you can organize easier. London is a hard city. I love London. I really love and miss it in many ways, but in that way, it's much more difficult. So I came back with my daughter, and I just started to do pop-up dinners in a really old house in Colonia Roma like twice a week. I had a 30-person dinner twice a week, then three times a week. And then instead of 30 people it was 50 people. I was really happy.
And then it started to get bigger, and more like a restaurant, but that house was not a restaurant. It couldn't be. So I decided to do a proper restaurant. I always wanted to have a restaurant, but because I had my daughter really young — she was like 4 months old when we came back — that was the way that I got into the restaurant [business]. But then I got pregnant again, and when I opened the restaurant, my second daughter was like five months old. So it was really hard because I was doing everything, and breastfeeding, and ... but, you know, it's how it happened. (laughs)
That sounds incredibly difficult to juggle.
Yeah it was really difficult. I was like super-skinny because I was waking up in the night, and breastfeeding, and then organizing everything. But the inertia was already there, so I didn't want to stop.
Yeah, in the US we've been having this conversation about why there aren't more women leading kitchens, and some people will bring up how difficult it is to raise a family as well as work in a kitchen. But you're doing it.
I'm doing it, and as I told you before, I think it's easier in Mexico than in London. However, it's not easy at all, because in the end, the mother is like the head of the house. At least in Mexico. So it's very difficult. Husbands are not taking that part. I mean, my husband, he is really nice, and he really takes care of our daughters, but he has his own business, and he doesn't care about the nanny or what my daughters are going to eat. You know what I mean? I have to organize that and run to the restaurant. So it is hard, but I think you can do it. You just have to organize a lot.
Well, and then you opened the bakery. Was it two years ago?
It was almost two years ago, yes. We had the bakery first at the restaurant, because you know, as you saw at Mesamérica last year, I'm really fond of baking. I always wanted to have a bakery, and at one point, I thought only to have a bakery. And then I thought, "No, no, no. That's not enough. It's better to have a restaurant, and [open] a bakery inside the restaurant." And that's how we started Rosetta. We had our own bakery there for the restaurant. But then people started [asking], "Can we buy this, can we buy that?" When we were doing the bread in the morning, people started to come to the restaurant to ring the bell to see if the bread was ready.
Just regular patrons, or other restaurants?
At the beginning, just neighbors. But then people started asking me, "Can you do the bread for the restaurant?" Like I do some baguettes for Enrique [Olvera] for Eno, and then [Ricardo] Muñoz Zurita, and some other chefs asked me. And I said, "Oh, yes." Then I had to do a bigger bakery. That's when I moved the bakery. It's really close to the restaurant, it's one block away.
You can bring together many people in a bakery, much more than in a restaurant.
And it's been a surprise. It's been really successful. It's always packed. I love that project because you can see how happy people are. You can bring together many people in a bakery, much more than in a restaurant, I believe. So I love that. You can see the policeman, and the neighbors, and then this really chic woman coming in, and hipsters. It's a mix of people.
Is that one of the things that you just really like about the profession, then?
Yes, I love how through cooking we can make a better social network. In Mexico, rich people and poor people and middle class, everyone is apart from each other, and we don't have this culture of neighborhoods. Really we don't. Just in a few points of the city. And I think through a place like a bakery, you can make a neighborhood. Because the same people go almost every day. Just to go for a coffee, or just to go for a croissant, or just to go and pick up granola. And it's nice because you get to know the people of your neighborhood. I think you feel more secure.
There are other bakeries and cafes cropping up now in Mexico City, right?
Yes, it's really funny, because there were none. There was only a really good one in the southern part of the city. And suddenly they started to pop up. Not many, but a few. But it's great because I believe when that happens, you take better care of your place. If you are the only one, you just relax.
So it's incentive?
Yes, very much. It's very good competition.
Do you think it's going to change, then, this neighborhood dynamic? If more of them crop up?
Well, in some places, do you know La Roma? It is really a neighborhood. You can feel that. But for example, where my parents live in an outer part of the city, a suburb, you never feel that. People go with their cars to get the bread, and then go back to their homes and eat at home. They never eat outside their homes.
With Mexico City so sprawling, it seems like a huge undertaking to change that.
Yes, but little by little, you can see that. Like in Polanco [and] in some parts, it's happening. But it's a huge city.
And last year at Mesamérica, you said you wanted to do the bakery because it was hard to find good quality bread, is that right?
Yes. Well, now we have a couple of artisanal bakeries. But, apart from that, the bread you get in Mexico, because our main staple is tortilla and corn, wheat and the other types of bread are just very mechanical, big-scale bread. It's not artisanal at all. It's done very quickly with a dry yeast. So the bread that you usually find aside from the artisanal bakeries is just really cheap, really bad quality. So of course that bread makes you feel bad. You know, all these food allergies about wheat. That's another story. Wheat has been just decaying a lot.
We forgot what good bread is, what good bread tastes like, what good bread smells like.
So we forgot what good bread is, what good bread tastes like, what good bread smells like. People started to eat less bread because there was no good bread anymore. But now that I have the bakery, the good bread, you can see how people really enjoy that bread, and how it's not about people eating less bread. It's because bread was just so bad that people don't care about it anymore.
And, finally, how do you feel about, like the Mesamérica conference? How has it changed?
It's changed a lot. I think it's getting very professional very quickly. Everybody wants to be there. I've also been really surprised how people from outside of Mexico come to Mesamérica. That's something I'm happy about. I think Enrique has done a really good job, and he's like a visionary.
We cannot only have restaurants and feel comfortable about that, but we have to think about our position as chefs or as cooks. All these conferences bring the cooks together, no? Because everybody comes to the city, everybody starts listening. And then also the students that come and listen, they understand that cooking is not just having a restaurant and having fun. It's a much more serious job. Now you have to not think only about cooking, you have to think about many things else.
Like the food politics?
The food politics, and also the nutritional values, and also the people you hire and who you buy and what wines you get. And how you run the restaurant, and how you take care of the money. I think it's good for the students, and for the people that already have a restaurant or are in the food business. It just gives you time to think and to reflect. We are so immersed in our things. I love that about Mesamérica.