Chef Enrique Olvera, one of the world’s most renowned chefs and Mexico’s main innovator of contemporary Mexican cuisine, made a quick stop in San Antonio this week, and sat down for an impromptu interview over breakfast at Hotel Emma‘s Supper.
The crisp morning air on Thursday motivated him to go for a run, something Olvera tries to do every time he travels to a new city in order to get to know it better, he said. Donning a simple black t-shirt and jeans, it was clear Olvera’s fame hasn’t gone to his head.
“Please don’t call me chef, just call me Enrique,” he said, adding that chefs these days are portrayed like rock stars and take themselves too seriously. Our conversation switched between English and Spanish.
“Being a chef is a part of who I am, it’s not who I am.”
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Olvera’s flagship restaurant, Pujol in Mexico City, is among the top best Latin American restaurants in the world and ranked number 16 on the San Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2015.
Olvera’s deep foray into Mexican cuisine really began back in 2000, when at only 24 years old he opened Pujol in Polanco, one of Mexico City’s most famous and exclusive neighborhoods. There, his reputation soared thanks to his reinterpretation of popular national dishes with a contemporary twist. One of Olvera’s standout dishes is the “mole madre,” a mole sauce that is cooked for more than 600 days with a dab of new mole in the middle.
Currently Olvera and his head chef are experimenting with age-old ingredients and techniques to create entirely new and original dishes. He also has several other restaurants in Mexico, such as Moxi in San Miguel de Allende and Manta in Cabo San Lucas.
Olvera has served as a global ambassador of Mexican cuisine. He helped place Mexico City on the global culinary map and bring Mexican food further into the American spotlight with the opening of Cosme in New York City in 2014, his first restaurant venture abroad. The restaurant made quite the impression on food critics. The New York Times gave it three stars and called it the city’s top new restaurant in 2015.
“I think the culinary market has greatly evolved, not just in the United States, but also at a global level. More people travel, have more information, and are more in tune with the cuisines of different countries,” Olvera said.
When it comes to authentic cuisine, he believes the issue is more complex now than it ever was. Instead of typical, themed restaurants, new spaces for restaurants have been created where nationality is no longer a theme. Olvera stressed that he doesn’t define himself by where he was born, but rather by what he likes.
“For example, I define myself as extremely Mexican, but I don’t reflect the stereotypes,” he said. “I think that the stereotypes in Mexican food are being broken, just like they were broken with Italian cuisine. We don’t just go to restaurants with red and white checkered tablecloths that serve bottles of Chianti anymore.”
He firmly believes that there isn’t just “one Mexico,” and mentioned several complexities of the cuisine, which is very different in the north, center, and south of the country.
Corn, an essential staple in the Mexican food diet, is an expression of the soil and has the capacity to transmit the nuances of its respective region, he said.
“There are more than 60 different types of corn in Mexico alone, and it has become harder and harder to find them because the market doesn’t fully appreciate the differences between the different corn types,” Olvera added. “The way to save it is to consume it, the more demand there is, the more it generates production.”
Olvera’s newest book, “Mexico from the Inside Out,” is his first English language cookbook and contains 65 recipes taken from signature dishes served at his restaurants as well as more accessible recipe options for people at home. He had a book signing at Central Market on Wednesday evening. The book includes insightful tidbits about life inside the kitchen and his vision and philosophy around food.
Olvera didn’t plan on becoming so successful or being a visionary ambassador of a cuisine – it just sort of happened. Just like Massimo Bottura and his infamous restaurant Osteria Francescana in Italy, which broke the boundaries of traditional Italian cooking, Olvera has had his fair share of critics who initially believed he was destroying the food culture with reinvention.
“You can’t keep food how it is, just sitting there like a museum, cooking is also a way of expression and has evolved over time,” he said.
When asked about future plans or other culinary endeavors, Olvera said he is treading lightly when it comes to expansion. He likes being in his restaurants and wants to be able to visit and oversee each place for a couple of weeks.
“It’s not all about growing, growth can also be having better restaurants,” he said.
Olvera and his team recently announced that they will be officially opening a second restaurant in New York at the end of this year, a causal Mexican restaurant in NoHo called Atla. They are still in the process of finalizing the concept, but the restaurant will be run under the same leadership from Cosme and will seat around 65 people.
In addition, Olvera will also be featured on the second season of Netflix’s acclaimed documentary series “Chef’s Table,” which will begin streaming on May 27.
His visit to San Antonio has been an enlightening one. On Wednesday night, Olvera had the opportunity to try some barbecue at The Pearl’s own Granary ‘Cue and Brew, and called the experience delectable. He reflected at our table, while drinking green tea with almond milk coupled with eggs and toast, that San Antonio’s culinary scene is growing and that he sees a city with many influences.
“I think it’s a city that has a very strong effervescence; the change from 10 years ago to today is radical, it must be a very good moment to cook in San Antonio,” he said. “There are so many opportunities to do amazing and different things. The city should be proud of its personality.
“I haven’t been here long enough to really judge, but I sense this energy from young people trying to do new things, and that energy — sooner or later — is going to be reflected in the restaurants of this city,” he said. “Restaurants reflect what people want in a place. They are not isolated, restaurants are a reflection of culture.”
A common mantra between chefs is that “food is memory.” Tracing back to his upbringing, Enrique — as he likes to be called — remembers a simple childhood in a middle class family, where his mother would typically cook comfort food like pancakes, quesadillas, or huevos revueltos on Sundays.
He also fondly remembers an enlightening trip he made to Oaxaca as a kid, a neighbor bringing dry meat every week to make machacado con huevo in the mornings, and trying snails with his grandfather at a Spanish restaurant in Tabasco. Quite the experience for a young kid.
“Y ahora, pues, sigo construyendo mi memoria … aunque evidentemente siempre regresas a tu infancia, también existe esta conexión con lo que comiste de niño y creo que define mucho tu personalidad y tus gustos,” Olvera said in Spanish.
Olvera’s last words translate to: “And now, well, I’m still in the process of constructing my memory, although, evidently you always come back to your childhood. There also exists that innate connection with what you ate as a kid and I think it greatly ends up defining your personality and your tastes.”
Top image: Chef Enrique Olvera talks of his success and challenges in the culinary world. Photo by Bria Woods.