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An Interview with Chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol, Mexico City

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Enrique Olvera is the superstar Mexican chef and owner of Pujol restaurant in Mexico City who has brought international attention and acclaim to Mexican cuisine and Mexico. Olvera’s Pujol was named as the #2 restaurant in Latin America on Restaurant Magazine's 50 Best Latin American Restaurants. Meanwhile, on the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, he had garnered the 17th spot in 2013, which will most likely change in the upcoming list to be announced in April 2014.

Many young chefs in Mexico look up to Olvera, who trained at the culinary institute (NYC) in the US and worked here before heading back to create a culinary storm in Mexico. Some alumni from his kitchen like Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil and Karime Lopez of Central, Lima who I am acquainted with are some young chefs making a mark on Latin American cuisine. He is undoubtedly well-liked amongst his peers and has helped many young cooks in establishing themselves in the business. Olvera has used his goodwill and personal friendships with other international stars to bring them onstage at his Mesamerica food conference.

A few years ago at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen Olvera spoke on stage about his dessert created from rotten bananas. It certainly didn't sound appetizing, but that was until I actually tasted it at Pujol. I have had the pleasure of getting to know him better not only after tasting his food but also meeting him at other international events in Peru, Copenhagen, Spain and of course at Mesamerica in Mexico.

I visited Mexico City for the first time with much trepidation, having heard about the safety issues for visitors, but all my fears were allayed within a few hours of my arrival. Mexico City feels like any other cosmopolitan city like Madrid, Lisbon, or Lima. In fact I cannot wait to be back, especially to revisit manyrestaurants I had the good fortune to dine at and to continue my conversations with the young talented cooks that I met while dining out in the city. I had an opportunity to see and taste modern Mexican cuisine in its nouvelle form as Olvera has guided it into a modern iteration while preserving tradition, authenticity, and re-introducing forgotten ingredients. As a full disclosure, the ant larvae, ant powder, fungus etc. have yet to grow on me. Hormigas chicatana are featured on the Pujol menu for your tasting pleasure should you be so inclined. A new much anticipated fine dining venture by Olvera is scheduled to open in the Flatiron District of NYC later this year.

The annual Mesamerica , a now very important international food conference, owes its origin and success to the tireless efforts of Olvera. During one of my conversations with him (while trying to evade the smoke from his inseparable cigarette ,constantly lit) I asked him about the future of Mesamerica , the economy of his country and other subjects:

Do you think the media and their news about Mexico have created some of the reservations that people have about traveling to Mexico?

It is true that some border towns and the northern part of our country have some problems but away from those areas it is still a great place to visit and to enjoy our cuisine. The truth is that Mexicans are one of the warmest and hospitable people on earth so that has never changed and we have to wait that the couple of years of violence that we have had dies down completely and we can move ahead. The social problems of the country like poverty can be countered by providing opportunities for new business ventures leading to a more practical solution to this issue.

What made you get involved in the social aspect?

How can I have a great restaurant if I don't have great products and to have access to those we have to make sure the small farmer can survive, have enough to eat and to plant these crops. We cannot do this isolated from all these issues. In order for Pujol to be successful we need to have a successful community. All said it is not our main goal to become social leaders, we are just chefs and cooks who want to operate a really good restaurant focused on our food.

During most conferences like Mesamerica there is a whole gamut of topics touched upon like anthropology, botany, endangered crops, sustainable agriculture etc. So how do you define a chef right now?

He is the one in the kitchen cooking; his primary job is to ensure that everyone who comes to your restaurant must be happy. If you understand the science, the biology and other issues you are going to have happier customers. If that doesn't translate into happy customers it’s all worthless to be informed and involved in these fields. Why would you want to know what temperature is ideal to cook chicken if you don't end up serving a better chicken dish to your guests so they say ‘wow, this is incredible'.

Would it be correct to say that the only job of a chef is to cook?

Exactly, that is the only purpose of a chef and that it's eventually about giving to others. That is what cooking translates in to be able to share with others and make them happy and share affection.

You are working on nutrition issues for children in your community. What is the role of a chef regarding nutritional issues?

If you want your customers to come back you have to ensure that your meals are healthy and balanced. No one is going to want to come back if a meal puts them on a diet for two weeks to recover from the after effects of a meal. If you don't take of these issues, the customer will not come back and over time you will lose clientele and close eventually unless your business partner is a multi- millionaire and generating enough revenue to survive is not important, which is not so in my case.

Good food cannot be bad food! According to me, fine dining is not expensive dining, or a lot of dining it's a meal that has been thought about in every context and every aspect has been carefully considered.

You are a superstar chef and in our culture chefs have been glamorized and the kitchen has become the stage for reality and cooking shows, any thoughts you want to share with culinary hopefuls regarding this?

I would caution them not to go in the business for the wrong reasons and always stay true to their convictions and continue to learn. Mesamerica contributes to this issue by giving culinary students information and examples of hard work and dedication necessary to work in the kitchen. Obviously there are big stars on the stage and I think our industry is a part of the entertainment industry. If you entertain people at your house food is a big part of that so cooking is showmanship as well.

I must clarify that this celebrity is a consequence of cooking; you have to be a good cook first. If you are a showman you might be good for TV but you will not be able to have a good restaurant without great food and cooking.

With all these food related events happening all year round, are they taking chefs away from their kitchens?

There are many ways of sharing your talent, one of them is through food and another one is through all these conferences. I understand that people expect chefs to be in the kitchen but with chefs traveling to these conferences it gives a chance for people like culinary students who cannot afford to travel to say San Sebastian or Copenhagen to meet them. We are happy to provide to our culinary students this opportunity and watch demonstrations by these chefs.

What is the future of Mesamerica?

Mesamerica is not going to last forever because I think things will change in three years or five years from now, who knows. I do know that one thing that it is a very powerful tool of change. For that it is worthwhile for chefs to travel out of their kitchens to participate in such conferences.

We touched on subjects like junk food and preserving traditions, and I also had the opportunity to taste his cooking again during the Gelinaz event in Lima, Peru where Olvera wowed diners along with some of the other most celebrated culinary superstars like Gaston Acurio, Alex Atala, and Rene Redzepi. Pujol is the one restaurant all visitors to Mexico city invariably include on their itinerary and with good reasons. Reservations are not easy to come by so advance planning is necessary to avoid disappointment.

The next Mesamerica is scheduled from May 20th to May 22nd, 2014 at the Blackberry Auditorio in Mexico City. This year Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo, and Danny Bowien are some of the names announced so far, though the lineup is not yet complete.

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