Mexico City is many things. It is one of the largest cities in the world. It is sprawling, shaky from earthquakes, smoggy, grimy, crowded, intimidating, full of energy, vibrant, friendly, delicious and one of my favorite cities in the world. It, for the past three years, has also been the home of Mesamérica, the culinary gathering bringing chefs and others from within and without the country to explore the past, present and future of food in Mexico as well as other elements that go hand in hand with the culinary universe.
Mesamérica is three days of food, education, culture and revelry as only can be had in Mexico. With the likes of Mexican super-chef Enrique Olvera and other star Mexican chefs like Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Daniel Ovadia, Jorge Vallejo, Josefina Santacruz, Edgar Nuñez, Jair Tellez, Benito Molina and others behind it, it carries the heft of Mexico’s best fine dining chefs, but doesn’t stop there, as it offers full acknowledgement to the country’s culture of no less delicious, but more humble street foods and home cooking. In short, the program is an exploration and celebration of all things Mexcan when it comes to food. Of significance, though, is that the celebration and exploration is not just confined to Mexicans nor Mexico as the likes of Rene Redzepi, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, David Thompson, Danny Bowien, Mario Sandoval, Ricard Camarena, Alvaro Garrido, Mikel Alonso, Oriol Balaguer, Alexandra Hurtado, Rodrigo Oliveira, Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo, Pierre Herme, Jordi Butron, Renzo Garibaldi, Marc Alvarez, Alvaro Garrido and others took to the stage to offer outside perspectives on subjects pertinent to the culinary discussion in contemporary Mexico.
The first morning began with explorations of the social fabric of food, eating and culture in Mexico. Juan Villoro, one of Mexico’s most revered writers, started the Congress by talking about the meaning of food in Mexico and how some of it has evolved through time and circumstance. To Villoro, for example, the advent of street food has as much to do with the rise of a traffic heavy, chaotic commuter culture. To him, tacos de ojo or visually appealing street food is the product of changes in social mores as the people who are constantly on the go stop for a bite when they can and they look for what is appealing. He also addressed the phenomenon of Moctezuma’s Revenge or travelers’ diarrhea, from the point of view of national pride, an interesting take, albeit probably not a profitable one.
The infrastructure of Mexico City is old and in many cases broken down, requiring revitalization. Such is the case at Mexico City’s legendary Mercado del Merced, a huge wholesale and retail food market that is one of the world’s most atmospheric and wonderful. Designer Ariel Rojo and Economist Hector Robles talked about re-designing and rebuilding the market. They acknowledged the importance of food, tradition and history to the make-up of the character of Mexico City with an exploration of the interconnectedness of everything that comprises a market like the Merced. While the revitalization is important, so is the tradition and the flow that currently exists. The two presented a challenge to the audience to help rebuild the market as a gastronomically oriented public corridor to revitalize the local economy much like The High Line Park has done for the Chelsea area of New York City.
The next presentation, by Daniel Ovadia of the restaurant Paxia and others, was the first to directly address the preparation of food. Much like David Muñoz did at this year’s Madrid Fusión, Ovadia and his staff created a frenetic, but exhilarating, abbreviated menu from Paxia on stage for 10 lucky diners selected from the audience. Ovadia’s food is based on Mexican tradition with plenty of his own interpretation thrown in. Ovadia uses a wide variety of techniques to create his gorgeous and delicious dishes. He has focused on re-interpreting traditional Mexican cooking for some time, but his recent focus has been on taking Mexico’s street food and bringing it to the level of haute cuisine. His cooking is decidedly more complex than most street renditions, but less complex than what he had been doing in the past. His presentation proved entertaining and appetizing. I had had the pleasure of dining at Paxia the night before with many of the same dishes presented to us that were served on stage. I plan to provide more detail in a later post.
We missed the next discussion to do an interview and discovered a taco set-up backstage featuring hand made tortillas, beef and cheese tacos and tacos al pastor, all from El Farolito, one of Mexico City’s most famous taco stands. Of course, all of the fixings were available for these astoundingly delicious bites.
Renzo Garibaldi did not start out his career as a butcher. The Peruvian started out in La Mar Cevicheria in his home town of Lima, but he left that to pursue training as a butcher, first with Ryan Farr in San Francisco at 4505 Meats, then to France with the Chapolard Brothers and back to the US with Joshua Applestone at Fleischer’s. He has since worked tirelessly to re-introduce artisanal meat butchery to Peru.
On stage, he took down a pig from head to tail, explaining the cuts and distributed about 1500 delicious hot dogs.
At Mesamérica there is enough of a break to go have a good lunch. like in Spain, the typical hours for lunch and dinner are later with lunch usually only getting going around 3PM or so. We managed to get over to Azul Condesa for a lunch of traditional Mexican dishes with Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, only managing to make it back in time for the next presentation by foregoing dessert.
Mezcales have become a personal favorite and they were the subject of the first post-lunch presentation. Marco Ochoa Cortes probably has had as much to do with the rise in popularity of Mezcal in recent years as anyone. He has also been instrumental in helping to preserve and promote the diversity of Mezcal. For Ochoa Cortes the degree of alcohol in Mezcal is important and should be more than 45% lest the liquor’s flavors not be fully tasted. He said that if one doesn’t like alcohol, one shouldn’t drink Mezcal, but at the same time, the liquor should not be watered down. He also made a strong argument for the regional variety of Mezcals, stating that Mezcals should ideally be tasted within the regions of their origins. Unlike Tequila, which can only be made from the blue agave, Mezcal can be made from any number of varieties of the plant.
Alejandro Escalante, a writer and artist with an interest in the eating habits of Mexicans and others provided a colorful overview of the Mexican taco through the experiences of a few taqueros, who he brought on stage to discuss their experiences. Escalante has written La tacopedia. Enciclopedia del taco (Spanish Edition), an exploration of all things taco, which may be the most misunderstood dish in Mexico, given its multitude of forms and contents as well as the culture that goes with them. In the photo above, Escalante’s slide gives humorous, but accurate instructions on the do’s and don’t’s of eating tacos.
The liquor bent returned with a world tour of contemporary cocktail culture led by Marc Alvarez, the head bartender of 41º in Barcelona. Alvarez started with a broad statement that history allows us to understand the past and predict the future. Specifically relating this to cocktails, he stated that cocktails are recipes come from history and all recipes are subject to interpretation, equating the process to reinterpretations of classic songs by contemporary musical artists. Alvarez highlighted bars and cocktails from eight different spots from around the world. Using Tokyo as an example, he showed the production of a “Bamboo” cocktail (Sherry, Vermouth and Orange Bitters) at Bar High Five in Ginza, but the most intriguing part of the production was the hand carving of a diamond of perfectly clear ice by the very talented bartender. Also in the Ginza section of Tokyo is Tender Bar with Kazuo Ueda, the developed of the “hard shake” technique of mixing cocktails. Alvarez then roamed to NYC and Please Don’t Tell (PDT), whose entrance lies behind a telephone booth in a hot dog joint, to highlight the re-emergence of a “speak-easy” culture in cocktail bars. Additional stops on his tour included Milan, London, Paris, Copenhagen and , of course, Barcelona, where the classic Gin and Tonic has been reinvented over and over again. The world of cocktails has undergone huge changes in recent years with new spirits, techniques and attitudes that a convey a global perspective.
The message of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotol, who made their names at Animal in Los Angeles, was to cook like you like to eat. Their success started when they began emulating and refining the food of the many cultures that they would eat on the streets of LA, including, of course, Mexican. They would learn where to go and what to try by reading the L.A. food writer, Jonathan Gold, who opened their eyes to many possibilities. The timing for an opening up of food from many cultures was good for them as their work coincided (2008) with the advent of Roy Choi’s Kogi Truck, which helped open up the heretofore illegal world of food trucks and street food in Los Angeles.
Shook and Dotolo were followed by the noted Mexican chef, Josefina Santacruz, who made an impassioned plea for the egalitarian nature of tacos. She (and many others) are fascinated by street food, typically made by untrained cooks, often in unsanitary conditions. It is the liveliness of the scene and the vibrancy of the culture that she finds most alluring. She noted, that “between tacos, everyone is alike.”
The day concluded with a discussion between two American chefs, Mario Batali and Danny Bowien, led by the journalist, Gabe Ulla. Taking a more general approach geared to the multitude of culinary students in the audience, the discussion centered on becoming restaurant chefs, fame and the hard path along with influences and the specific natures of their own roads. It was a remarkably frank discussion between seasoned pros.. Bowien, who grew up in Oklahoma, confessed that he “became a chef by accident” as he “fell in love with food,” once he moved to San Francisco. Batali grew up with food playing an important role i in his family. He received a Liberal Arts degree from Rutgers before he went into cooking and advised anyone else interested in becoming a cook to also get a Liberal Arts degree to “become a more valuable person” and a “better business person.” Batali, who said, “the real reason you should cook is.. because you love the generosity of making food and putting it before someone and having him eat it,” cautioned to “not count on the fame story” and just like with basketball, only a very, very few can be the culinary equivalent of “LeBron James.” Should that kind of fame come, Batali further cautioned that they should be careful with it, for as long as it takes to build the brand, it can all be ruined in a mere moment. Both addressed the question of “authenticity.” Bowien talked about “making the kind of food that you love.” Batali added that the important question is, “Is it delicious?” saying that he doesn’t really care if people (i,e, journalists) think his food is authentic or not. Neither is “trying to reproduce anyone else’s dishes.” Perhaps the most important point that they made, though, was to not be afraid of making mistakes.
The evening finished with a special surprise guest appearance. Walking on stage wearing a “Lucha Libre” wrestling mask, Rene Redzepi was unmasked by Enrique Olvera. This was not to be a typical demonstration, though. Rather than present, Redzepi issued a challenge to the students in the audience. Backed by 2 prizes of all-expense paid (including spending money) to attend MAD 4, and undertake one-month stages at noma, Redzepi challenged 6 students selected by their culinary schools to compete to cook the perfect omelet as demonstrated in a video by Jacques Pepin (Redzepi had tweeted that very same video shortly before Mesamerica). The judges would be Redzepi, Olvera, Danny Bowien and Alice Waters – no pressure. The contestants had a time constraint of about seven and a half minutes based on the length of the Metallica song One. The duration of the song allowed the students several takes, which was good. Unfortunately, none completed the task without difficulties (some more than others), but it turned out that none of them had EVER cooked an omelet before. Regardless, the judges selected the two winners and then something even more magical happened. Alice Waters offered the same prize (minus MAD 4) for two stages at Chez Panisse, Danny Bowien took one at Mission Chinese and Enrique Olvera took one for his upcoming NYC restaurant Cosme. The first day ended on a truly extraordinary note!
For all the Docsconz photos from Day One of Mesamérica 2014, please see my Flick’r set. Credit to my assistant, note taker and co-author Andrew Sconzo for his help in putting this report together.