“Since the 90s, there has been a resurgence of Mexican cultural proudness,” chef Gabriela Camara tells us over fresh tuna tostadas on the patio of her restaurant Contramar, the Mexico City institution that has become famous for its local seafood. “It’s a resurgence in terms of not losing what is of a place, a sense of identity. I think food brings an awareness of identity.”
Camara is one of many chefs in Mexico City who have, whether intentionally or not, contributed to a larger culinary movement that celebrates local Mexican ingredients and traditional cooking techniques. When she first opened Contramar in 1998, there were no restaurants specializing in seafood, let alone sourcing fish locally. “This was a restaurant that had no comparison”, says Camara. “We opened Contramar because we love eating seafood. Most fish that people eat in big cities is frozen and packed. We realized that in Mexico City you can actually find really fresh fish. We thought of a menu that was very basic but it was about high quality food. I think what was very evocative was that it was only about that.”
While Camara never intended Contramar to be seen as a fine dining restaurant, crediting its success to the fact that “it’s not pretentious, it’s everyday”, her approach with Contramar is representative of the current ethos behind modern Mexican cuisine; to pay homage to Mexico’s bounty and culinary traditions. Prior to the turn of the century, the Mexican fine-dining space was characterized by a devotion to European standards. Since European restaurants in Mexico were typically the only ones to garner international acclaim, Mexican chefs coveted European cooking techniques and preferred imported food products over regional ones.
Thanks to the provocative minds of a few chefs, notably Enrique Olvera, the Mexican chef behind top restaurant in the world Pujol, Mexico has seen a new set of criteria for what makes a restaurant exceptional evolve over the last two decades. “It was when he [Olvera] realized, ‘let’s do something with Mexican ingredients, we have a cuisine that is extraordinary, if we can play around with it in a respectable way, it’s going to be more interesting than trying to do French cuisine.’ I think then, high-end food really got elevated.” Camara says. Mexican chefs began to appreciate the diverse offerings of their land and gradually, the highly-acclaimed restaurants were no longer judged by how closely they could match European standards, but rather by how they approached Mexican flavors and ingredients. As a result of this shift in Mexico City’s culinary space to an affinity for all-things-local, awareness around the complexity of Mexican cuisine has spread around the world. Some of the world’s greatest chefs are now flocking to Mexico to experience the country’s rich ecological diversity and culinary history first-hand, such as Noma’s Rene Redzepi, who opened the pop-up Noma Mexico in Tulum last year.
Perhaps this newfound celebration of local ingredients and cooking traditions has been, as Camara suggests, in response to globalization; an attempt to articulate a clear Mexican identity through Mexican cuisine. But what is certain is that the ‘farm-to-table’ approach is much more than a buzz phrase in Mexico. Some of Mexico City’s most respected chefs demonstrate a wholehearted commitment to sourcing regionally that goes beyond the trend, perhaps because they recognize the potential social, economic and environmental impacts that supporting regional economies can have on their country. “Things that are grown locally are going to be better than things that have travelled, even if its 24 hours on a plane perfectly packed. It’s ridiculous, there’s a footprint. There’s an awareness of the impact on the planet. Shipping things from here and there; it’s an illusion of progress which is not progress.” Camara tells me.
Chef Elena Reygadas, known for creating arguably the most coveted bread in Mexico City at her Panaderia Rosetta, prefers fresh ingredients, not only because she wants to deliver a high-quality product, but also to educate others on the benefits of eating locally. “I have young daughters so I really see how important it is to give this example to the children,” she tells me over green juice and black rice porridge at her all-day restaurant Lardo. We discuss Mexico’s obesity epidemic (the country’s obesity rate reached second-highest in the world last year at 32.4%) and the health benefits of choosing fresh produce over imported junk food. “It’s a big problem. It’s difficult because it’s much more affordable; a big Coca Cola is going to make you full more than a juice.” Reygadas goes on to debunk the myth that “bread is unhealthy”, a believer that food is only made unhealthy when it is processed. “As everything that’s packaged and industrial, it can be anything, bread or milk. I do think if bread is done with good ingredients, it’s a really good thing.” One of Mexico City’s most beloved bakers shows us that this modern Mexican culinary movement prioritizing local ingredients not only benefits the palate, it nurtures the body too.
For one of the most populated cities in the world, Mexico City’s chef community is unexpectedly small, and most surprisingly, very supportive of one another. United in the common goal of preserving the cooking customs of the generations that came before them and Mexico’s ecosystem for the generations to come, perhaps they have realized that their impact is much greater when they work together. Subsequently, many of the city’s top restaurants source their produce from the same local farm cooperative, Yolcan, located in the fertile Xochimilco region of Mexico City. By sourcing from Yolcan, chefs such as Olvera and Reygadas are able to ensure they have the freshest produce while simultaneously supporting local farmers, traditional Chinampa agriculture and the preservation of Mexico’s environment.
With chefs increasingly looking for new Mexican ingredients to experiment with, they have a greater incentive to explore the many regions of Mexico; deepening their understanding of Mexican culture and building relationships with local farmers, producers and communities. “One of my ways of knowing the small producers is travelling. I go a lot to Yucatan. You never end finding something else.” Reygadas tells me after describing a new bread she will make with ramon; a superfood she recently discovered in the Yucatan. As a result of chefs cultivating these connections to rural communities, farmers become empowered as the purveyors of knowledge, and the typical fine-dining hierarchy in which the chef is the expert is dismantled.
Not only do Mexican chefs acknowledge the environmental and health benefits of sourcing locally, they increasingly recognize the potential of the culinary industry to break the class divide in a country marked by corruption and economic disparity. Chef Eduardo Garcia is perhaps Mexico’s most well-known example of this. “Not only did I start as a dishwasher, I never received a formal education.” The Mexican-born, American-raised chef tells us when we ask him about his climb from poverty to culinary stardom. Despite financial constraints and being deported back to Mexico twice from the United States, Garcia has built an empire of successful restaurants in Mexico City including praised hotspot Maximo Bistrot. “I realize that most people, especially in this country, who want a business like Maximo may not have the resources to start one. From my experience, I’ve proven that it can be done.”
For contemporary Mexican chefs, “going local” means more than just sourcing from native producers, it means supporting Mexicans from all walks of life, at every step in the supply chain, including who is hired in the kitchen. Non-profit organizations such as Gastromotiva are partnering with Garcia along with other big-name chefs such as Olvera and Reygadas, to provide culinary training to the socially excluded and the opportunity to work in some of the city’s most competitive kitchens. By challenging their country’s economic inequality and the archetypical career path of the chef, Mexico City’s current culinary industry is seemingly demonstrating the power of gastronomy to cultivate change.
While contemporary Mexican cuisine may appear overly patriotic, Mexican chefs and diners are not opposed to the flavors of other cultures. “I think Mexicans are much more open to having great versions of other foods and are less scared of experimenting. I think people are more into being taken into the journey of whomever is cooking in a more liberal way,” Camara tells me. Mexican cuisine has, after all, historically been influenced by the ingredients and techniques brought over by immigrants. Tacos al pastor, or ‘Shepard’s-style’, were created when the Lebanese married their shawarma, spit-grilled meat to tortillas, and in Mexican markets today, you can still find giant red-waxed wheels of Edam cheese, an indicator of the country’s historic trade with Holland. In a recent interview on Ugly Delicious, Olvera says, “There’s few things that you can call Mexican, because there’s so many influences. I think being Mexican is also being open, to other ideas”. Any culinary movement that honors Mexican heritage inevitably remains amenable to international inspiration since it is this synthesis of cultures that ultimately defines Mexican cuisine.
Many culinary fusions, such as Italian-Mexican, have become particularly popular in Mexico City perhaps because the two cultures maintain similar approaches to gastronomy. In describing her Italian-Mexican restaurant Rosetta, owner Reygadas, who has Italian roots herself, tells me that she loves Italian food because of its “philosophy of having the best ingredients, pure flavors.” Relatedly, Camara says in regards to her Mexican-Italian upbringing, “both my cultures are very much around enjoying food. Not only about enjoying flavors and tastes and textures, but also about conviviality around food.” Similar to Italian and Mexican cooking sensibilities that honor simplicity, fresh ingredients and the communal dining experience, Japanese cuisine has successfully amalgamated with Mexican, contributing to an entire JapaMex movement in Mexico City. With the large influx of Japanese immigrants to the country, Mexico City’s Little Tokyo has become popular amongst locals craving comforting ramen on a rainy day or the omokase experience for an upscale night out. Meanwhile, Mexican chefs are eager to integrate Japanese techniques into their kitchens. “I’ve always been obsessed with how Japanese treat rice and fish,” says Olvera in his Ugly Delicious interview. Admiring the ways in which the Japanese, similar to Mexicans, honor customary cooking techniques and prioritize local ingredients, Mexican chefs are increasingly applying Japanese methods and flavors to conventional Mexican dishes.
While contemporary Mexican cuisine is marked by experimentation, the traditional restaurants and street stands still thrive. Pre-Hispanic staples such as tacos remain a diet preference amongst Mexicans and a catalyst for bringing people together. Robert Hoogeveen, the founder of Tasty Bites Tours takes us to five of the 60 taco spots he has sampled in Mexico City and explains that the taco serves as a means of livelihood for all members of the family; the husband sells them on the way to work, the child on the way to school, and the wife directly from her shop. This simple yet diverse street food remains highly valued amongst locals and tourists alike, with many stands selling out by noon. Similarly, Fondas; small, family-run restaurants serving the best home-cooked recipes are still the locals’ breakfast spot of choice.
In one city, you can have a fifty-cent taco for breakfast, sushi for lunch, a modern mole for dinner and Italian pastry for dessert. The current state of Mexico City’s food scene may be hard to define as it presents a diverse canvas of flavors and experiences yet in its diversity, it is quintessentially Mexican, as it symbolizes the cultural identity of a country marked by contrasts. The one defining feature of contemporary Mexican cuisine that remains consistent throughout Mexico City’s restaurant industry however, is a respect for local ingredients and traditions. Through this culinary resurgence of Mexican pride, modern Mexican chefs are showing the world that food has the potential to act as a vehicle for positive change. As Camara says, “I think Mexico City is going to be one of the most exciting cities to eat in, it already is.”
Article and photography by Anna Haines