Enrique Olvera of Pujol
If anyone can make ants taste delicious and reinvent the humble taco, it’s Enrique Olvera of Pujol whose unconventional take on Mexican cuisine is fast winning over skeptics. By Jessica Chan
“We were up in the foggy mountains of Oaxaca, right smacked in the middle of a coffee farm, when I had my first taste of these (flying) chicatana ants,” recalls Enrique Olvera, chef-owner of Mexico’s fine dining sensation, Pujol. A burst of umami and dry beef mixed with tropical, fermented flavours while being surrounded by the aroma of coffee beans was how he described the experience. “It was one of the best days of my life,” he adds. This magical moment has since been translated into a dish called Baby
Corn with Chicatana
Ant, Coffee, and
Chile Costeño Mayonnaise. It is his take on the popular street snack, elotes, and also explains why
Pujol continues to win over diners in a country famed for street food. He only presents dishes that are close to his heart; as he puts it, “Everyone should leave Pujol with a smile on their faces.”
As a child growing up in Colonia del Valle, he was always surrounded by food. When not in the kitchen, he’d be at
Mercado San Cosme (a local market) with his grandparents. But it was his wife, Allegra Piacentini who sparked his interest in a culinary career. Olvera enjoyed cooking for her, which led to frequent dinner parties for friends and family members who got wind of his talent. By 24, he had already opened Pujol. Eighteen years on, Olvera’s forward-thinking Mexican fare has enabled Pujol to snag the number 20 spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. What started out as a modern restaurant using few Mexican ingredients has now captured the attention of gastronomes across the globe. Olvera reinvents his favourite childhood foods, such as tacos and his grandmother’s
mole, to create a colourful showcase of the region’s produce. A quick peep into his kitchen reveals tortillas fashioned from corns of all shapes, sizes and colours, as well as traditional ingredients such as pasilla mixe (a Mexican pepper), chapulines
(grasshoppers) and quelites,
herbs commonly found around cornfields.
Mexico is known more for street carts and fondas. How have you modernised the country’s culinary heritage?
Any cuisine can be presented in a fine dining format by focusing on the quality of ingredients, execution and presentation. While a street taco gets most of its flavour from fat, we, instead, make use of naturally robust flavours of traditional ingredients like Oaxacan tomatoes or Mexican terragon (sweet-scented marigold). The cooking method matters as well, which is why we have moved from our previous Tennyson location to the current one in Polanco (since 2017). The former had a French style kitchen, where a combi oven acted as a smoker for our corn. It worked but there wasn’t enough flavour. The new kitchen is fully fitted with a wood-fired grill, brick oven pit and comal. The latter has higher heat transfer and imparts better flavour into our tortillas – the basis of a taco – and the brick oven pit allows us to prepare various meats by barbacoa (a slow-baking process). We love tacos. What’s presented at Pujol is sophisticated yet accessible. It is something we have enjoyed since our childhood. But we are not a taqueria. We needed a way to feature our tacos without diluting Pujol’s culinary style. So, in came Japan’s omakase style dining. Don’t be mistaken, there’s no fusion cooking going on there. It’s just the essence of omakase: how the menu is constructed and how each dish is presented.
You’re constantly on the move doing guest stints around the world, including a three-day taco event at Rosewood Mayakoba. What can guests expect from your pop-ups? The beauty of Mexico is how it has had different cultures intermixed into ours; China, through the spice routes, and Europe and Spain by occupation in the 18th century. We celebrate this unique mixing pot in our daily lives and, of course, food. Consequently, whenever I travel, I like to work the local producers and merge what’s special to them with my cooking.
Rosewood Mayakoba is in the coastal part of Mexico. The area produces heirloom corn as well as seafood. For example, at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, I served a taco made with Japanese eggplant and mountain cress harvested from Mount Fuji. The latter had a spiciness unlike the peppers in Mexico, which is exciting to work with. There is also my rendition of a squid sashimi, served raw with cilantro and tomatoes.
Of the many classics you’re recreated, the humble mole madre, mole nuevo has garnered the most attention. Tell us more about it. Mole is a traditional sauce in Mexico, made from grinding peppers, spices and tomatoes into a paste. Madre refers to mother, and nuevo means new. As of 1 June, we have reheated the mother mole for 1,578 days. Why do we do it? Reheated mole tastes better as the flavours has more time to come together. We make new mole twice a week to top it up, but it continues to give this subtle, earthy flavour. When serving, we juxtaposed it with the tropical flavours of new mole to add some liveliness.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to work with?
The beautiful thing about ingredients is that they are plural. Corn is not just corn. There are many variations of the vegetable, like huitlacoche, a corn attacked by fungi. Black in colour, it has a soft aroma reminiscent of concentrated truffles. We would usually roast it on the corn for hours or sauté the grains with garlic, tomatoes and epazote (a type of quelites). We also make tejuino, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented corn masa. Likewise, for bananas. My grandfather used to eat these black, fermented bananas. As a kid I thought it was strange. Why wouldn’t they just eat the regular yellow ones? I grew to learn its foie-gras like flavour and made a dish out of it with macadamia nuts, plantain vinegar and chamomile.
On the topic of tacos, the new Pujol has an ‘Omakase of Tacos’ menu. Tell us more. Salon Eggplant taco with Hoja Santa (Mexican pepper leaf) and chickpeas