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

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

“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

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