For the second season of Netflix’s culinary documentary series Chef’s Table, David Gelb and his crew fixed their lens on lauded chef/restaurateur Enrique Olvera. Olvera currently runs Pujol in Mexico City, Manta in Los Cabos, Mexico; and Cosme and Atla in New York City. He’s also working on a restaurant in Los Angeles that will be like a Pujol-Cosme hybrid. Pujol has been regularly featured on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and Olvera is credited with serving Mexican cuisine in a fine-dining style that had not previously been achieved.
What was Olvera’s journey through the culinary world like?
Olvera, born in Mexico City to a lower-middle class family, first learned he wanted to cook for a living in high school. The teenager would host dinner parties for classmates, and he gained such a reputation for his food that his friends’ parents started showing up. Cooking wasn’t deemed to be a noble profession in Mexico, so Olvera departed for New York City to attend the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated with honors.
With a degree in hand, the chef returned to Mexico City with hopes of opening his own restaurant. Olvera returned to his roots and cooked dinners for his parents and their friends, who became his investors. He opened Pujol in 2000. Business was slow in the early days, and Olvera points to a lack of joy in the kitchen that held his restaurant back. Once he learned to enjoy his work and allow his kitchen staff to do the same, Pujol began to shine.
What is his “aha” moment?
In 2004, Pujol was being recognized as one of the best restaurants in Mexico City, but Olvera believes he was leaning too heavily on the European techniques he had learned in culinary school and earlier in his career. When another respected local chef criticized his food for not being authentically Mexican, Olvera realized he needed to look to his own heritage — not his training — in order to truly express himself through cuisine.
What do people, including Olvera, say about his work?
“The challenge that chefs face when trying to present Mexican food is that we have these engrained ideas of what Mexican food is and isn’t. It’s thought of as being very cheap — people wouldn’t spend a lot of money on Mexican food, where as they would on French food or Italian food. To open a Mexican restaurant of some sophistication and some modernity was fairly daring.” — Coleman Andrews, editor of The Daily Meal, on Olvera’s restaurants
“Mexico is extremely rich in its poverty, and I see that in food. When you have nothing to eat, you have to eat anything and everything.” — Olvera on the diversity of Mexican cuisine
“The beautiful moments from my childhood, they end up showing up on the menu in some way or form. People come to the restaurant to celebrate, so it makes sense to have a dish that makes me happy.” — Olvera on his cooking philosophy