Mexico City-based restaurateur Enrique Olvera has a roster of fourteen restaurants worldwide—like Cosme and Atla in New York, Manta in Los Cabos, and the tortilleria Molino el Pujol in Mexico City. But one restaurant will forever standout among the rest: Pujol—an exquisite multi-course dining escape from the bustle of the city, and from the traditional Mexican fare.
Those that keep up with the World’s 50 Best list know that each year it places high on the chart, and this year it’s the thirteenth best restaurant in the world. And those that keep up with food programs on Netflix have hung on his every word in Chef’s Table and The Final Table. By now, those that are perplexed with the gastronomy world understand its fascination with Olvera. So, undeniably, year after year, foodies from all over the globe arrive at Pujol’s steps to experience molecular gastronomy like never before.
Whitewaller spoke with Olvera about where it all began, the details behind Pujol’s design and dishes, and how he’s taken Mexican haute cuisine to new heights.
WHITEWALLER: Where did your interest in food begin?
ENRIQUE OLVERA: I can identify an interest, a curiosity about cooking, from the time I was a child. It was more like a hobby in my grandparents’ businesses—bakeries—or like a way to spend time with my mother and father on weekends. I kept it up when I was a teenager, cooking for friends, again, and connecting cooking to fun and conviviality.
WW: In Mexico City, you own and are the chef at Pujol. Tell us a bit about the establishment, and how you took street food to haute cuisine.
EA: Pujol is now two decades old; we opened in the year 2000. We’ve always been in the Polanco neighborhood and when it comes to our proposal, while most of the time it’s been Mexican food, there have been major changes. More than any deliberate action, or, strictly speaking, any design to bring street food to the haute cuisine context, what I really think I’ve done—more intuitively than strategically—has been to explore tastes, recipes and ingredients that relate to my past, my story and my culture…and with the context that I work from.
I’m totally interested in Mexico City’s street-food treasures. But I’m also into different regional cuisines as well as rural and indigenous cooking. For several years my work took inspiration from the pre-Colombian agricultural technique known as the milpa. Mexico is land of extraordinary natural and cultural diversity. So I’m still exploring and discovering ingredients, flavors or cooking techniques that move me to try new things.
I don’t think my task is limited to taking street-food to fine dining, but rather, seeks with rigor to explore possibilities that the context where I work, and the experience gained, provide. That experience also comes from what I’ve learned in other countries.
WW: Next year, the restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary. What message does it have for the city you call home?
EA: A message of thanks. Mexico City has been the launchpad for not just Pujol, but many other projects, I think, have contributed to the community. And the commitment is still in place. Keep working to keep growing. Not in terms of expansion, but instead, in terms of improvement, evolution and integrated change. Keep doing our part.
WW: Tell us a bit about your famous mole madre—a dish we still dream about!
EA: Mole is a fascinating dish, pure synergy. The total is more than the sum of its parts. In the case of the mole madre, the idea was inspired, naturally, in bread “mother-yeasts” and the everyday process surrounding them, that adds different characteristics to subsequent production over time. We add certain amounts of new mole to the original mole—the first “mother mole”—when we reheat the one we made before. Young mole, like wine, brings power, vitality and freshness, and gets added to a terser, soberer and maybe better integrated part that gives rise to fewer shocks and surprises.
WW: Tell us a bit about the design of your restaurant—a seamless Japanese-like inside-outside atmosphere with varying indoor seating sections, a gorgeous outdoor patio bar, and art pieces like paintings by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.
EA: I’ve always been interested in architecture and design. In fact, architecture was a “Plan B” when I wavered about studying cooking. The original Pujol, on Calle Petrarca, it was a very tight space, limited, a space we got used to. We spent years there, always trying to get used to it. But there were some hopeless limitations. Our chance to move to Calle Tennyson—and to a house, not just the ground floor of a small building like the one on Petrarca, thus a much more spacious and versatile forum—meant amazing possibilities.
The Tennyson building started out with a richer architecture. But at that, we made adjustments to further open the space toward the interior; areas are clearly separate, but divided by what happens there and not by walls, doors or windows. We sought to create a warm, comfortable, visually pleasing ambience. A likely space for enjoyment. Less rigid or formal than the previous place, and it offered more leeway when it came to elements like furnishings, lighting and sound.
WW: In addition to Pujol, you maintain a roster of fourteen other establishments, including Manta in Los Cabos, and Cosme and Atla in New York. Tell us about what type of technique or ambience is a common thread throughout your restaurants. How does someone know they’re in an Enrique Olvera-helmed restaurant?
EA: There’s a common denominator and it’s the connection to my country, Mexico. There’s a crossroads there. It might sound pretentious, but I’m speaking frankly, with conviction. There is a passion, a real desire to please and do things in the best possible way, from surroundings to ingredients, service and, of course, flavor. In every case, differences are marked by the specific context where they take place. But a single spirit animates them all.
WW: There have been rumors you’re opening a new restaurant—rumored to be your last—in Los Angeles. Tell us a bit about that.
EA: I don’t know if it’ll be the last. Sometimes that’s how you feel. But then curiosity, a desire for change, gets renewed. That said, yes, the place is in L.A. California is a state with a first-rate farming culture, extraordinary ingredients from land and sea, you’ve got the wines…you know. The culinary offering is innovative and dynamic. It’s a really stimulating challenge to work in such a context.
WW: You once said your plating inspiration was architect Luis Barragán. Tell us a bit about the art of presentation.
EA: Barragán was a master of color-use and lighting. I’m after plates that aren’t excessive, that focus on the essential, on flavor, texture, no ornamentation. I think I’d go so far as to say that to a certain degree, Barragán’s work is sober. Precise. I try to do that, too. To hit the bullseye.
WW: You’ve said in the past a lot of modern chefs think food is an art form, but you don’t, and rather think it’s more about communicating. What are you looking to communicate with your food?
EA: Let me clarify that I deeply respect anyone who sees parallels between cooking and artistic creation. They’re there, undeniably, alongside what cooking has in common with science. That said, I’m more about understanding it as a communicative phenomenon. I’m going to fall back on an old chestnut—that cooking is a way to transmit affection. It operates more from an environment of the sensible. You can interpret a lot, based on that; you can represent and develop complex narratives. But the point of the encounter is the realm of the senses; the communication comes from there.
For better or for worse. These days—due to the role chefs have in media-related terms—there’s also an undeniable commitment to the community. We communicate through the simple fact that we cook. But there’s more we can transmit, to constructively channel certain consumer habits. I’m not saying our role should be to dictate behaviors, but somehow, something like that is happening. We have to take that on with a great sense of responsibility.