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Former Noma Chef Plans Tulum Jungle Restaurant

Jose Luis Hinostroza brings a fine-dining background to the upcoming Natal

Pulpo al Pastor at Arca in Tulum.
Photo: Jose Luis Hinostroza/Instagram

When René Redzepi relocated the team behind his revolutionary Copenhagen restaurant Noma to Tulum, Mexico last year, chef de partie Jose Luis Hinostroza had no plans to remain in the area beyond the pop-up’s end date of May 28. Six months later, Hinostroza is a partner at chic jungle haunt Arca, and he’s gearing up to break ground nearby on Natal, his first solo project.

Natal “will focus on pre-colonial Mesoamerican cuisine, techniques, and ingredients” in an as-yet undisclosed jungle locale, explains Hinostroza, who adds that he plans to weave “native seeds, grains, nuts, flora, and fauna” into his cooking. He will be working with underground cooking pits known in the local Mayan culture as pibs. Meals will center around proteins and vegetables roasted nearly 2 feet below ground for up to 6 hours. It’s quite a departure for a chef accustomed to tweezering garnishes onto plates at Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca, and Chicago’s Alinea — both three-Michelin-star restaurants on S.Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and both Hinostroza’s former workplaces.

Pibs have a long history in Mexico, where they are historically used when preparing ceremonial meals, and this style of cooking stretches as far South as Peru. Traditionally, cooks will dig a hole, add river rocks, heat them with a fire in the pit, and then once the flames subside into embers, add ingredients wrapped in banana leaves as a protective cover, and cover the pit with leaves, sticks, and finally dirt. Once ubiquitous in Mexico, many pibs have been replaced with ovens; Hinostroza is excited to return to the basics.

In general, Hinostroza will urge guests to eat with their hands. “Almost everything at Natal will be intended... to be finished by dipping or smearing the remaining sauce or cooking juices from the plate, an action that is so imbedded in the DNA of Mexican cuisine.”

Hinostroza tapped the Mexico City-based designers responsible for the look of Noma Mexico to bring his restaurant to life. Using the ancient pib as inspiration, Natal will have custom-made pits, possibly outfitted with cast iron cylinders, that will feed about 70 diners at once. While the pits will take center stage, diners will sit within an atypical “dining room” devoid of traditional chairs and tables. “The setting will resemble personal experiences that we’ve had in small indigenous communities,” says Hinostroza. “Logs as tables and chairs, big rocks as well.”

Every 45 minutes, Hinostroza will open a different pit — of which there will be six to eight in total — filled with proteins like banana leaf-wrapped oxtail rubbed in a recado negro (a local ash curry) buried underground with allspice leaves, or whole local pumpkin with dzikilpak (a pumpkin seed sauce) wrapped in pumpkin leaves. While entrees will come from the pibs, Hinostroza will offer kitchen-made appetizers like huitlacoche sope with escamoles (ant larvae) cooked in beef fat, and venison tartare. Dinner will cost approximately $80 per person, making it one of the more expensive restaurants in town.

The beverage menu will match the old world cooking style, with traditional Mexican spirits like tepache (a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented pineapple rind), hidromiel (honey mead), pulque (a mildly alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plants), mezcal, sotol, and pox (a corn-based distillate from Chiapas).

With plans to commence construction in February and hopes of a June 2018 debut, Hinostroza is looking forward to introduce Tulum diners to more soulful Mexican cookery. Says the chef: “We will be showcasing some of the untouched ingredients and techniques in Mexico ... in hopes that the international guest will [be] encouraged to travel deep into the ‘real Mexico.’”

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