Mexican cuisine remains one of the most interesting cuisines in the world, and is finally starting to get the attention that it deserves. This past July, I had the honor of introducing my close friend Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol at the MAD 2012 conference in Copenhagen. Below is the video of our presentation, as well as the transcript.
Good afternoon everyone, I would like to first thank Rene, Ali and all the staff at noma and MAD for the hospitality and opportunity to share our work in one of the most exciting food events in the world.
I would also like to introduce you to Alex Dzib, alex has been part of our family for a few years now and he will be assisting me in the cooking demo.
And last, but defenetly no least is Mr. Adam Goldberg, a foodwriter from NY that has visited Pujol at least twenty times in the past year. So because I can be as objective about my cuisine as my mother can be objective about me and because he has beaten the record of most visits in a year, I wanted instead to let Adam talk about his experience at Pujol and I will talk about our thought processes a bit later.
So before we finish our very short 23 minutes here is Mr. Adam Goldberg.
It’s an honor to be sharing this stage with Enrique, talking about Pujol and Mexico, which I believe is one of the most exciting places in the world to eat right now.
There are four things that make Pujol particularly special for me, and I’d like to share them with you: Balance, Love, Appetite, and Tradition.
Eating out is, fundamentally, a exchange of trust. A diner offers his time, money, and appetite in exchange for a good experience. But why is the experience limited to just the meal? How do you feel after the meal? The next morning? Understanding that appetite changes throughout a meal is crucial to the overall experience.
Every restaurant experience is one of diminishing returns: food tastes better when you are hungry. Pujol is one of the first restaurants I’ve visited outside of Japan where this is taken into account.
If you look at Pujol’s tasting menu, you will rarely see more than one course sauteed in butter or deep-fried in oil. And when it’s there, it’s at the beginning of the menu to satiate when diners are hungriest. There is never a reason to leave a restaurant feeling worse than when you first arrived.
Eating in Mexico is an act of love. In the countryside, the production of mole involves mothers joining together in labor and laughter to create a special meal for their families. At Pujol, the love is more subtle.
It’s in the non-dictatorial approach to seasoning: the colorful selection of salsas at the table that hone a dish to a diner’s particular tastes. It’s in the subtle childhood references — the playful fruit and rice drinks, or aguas frescas, at the beginning of the meal whose remembered flavors put diners at ease.
Arriving in Mexico City for the first time is a magical experience. Mexico City is the largest kitchen in the world. There is food cooking everywhere. The sizzle of meat on the comal and the smoke of corn roasting over wood- burning grills can be heard well into the night. Pujol takes many of the sensual elements of Mexican street food and transposes them for the dining room.
In fact the first thing you smell at the table is the cloud of smoke trailing toasted corn husks inside a hollowed-out gourd. Sometimes as diners, all we remember is how a dish tastes. But how does it feel to the touch? Is it smooth? Cold? Elastic?
Half of the menu at Pujol is eaten with your hands.
To fully engage your appetite, you must involve all of your senses.
Perhaps what makes Pujol so special, is that it is not trying to be the best restaurant in the world. Pujol is not trying to be different, though it is. Instead of looking outward, Pujol looks inward, using thousands of years of Mexican tradition as a springboard for new flavor.
It is incredibly complex to try to define one’s work. There are too many considerations and factors that define it. I work in a context that features a millennia-old gastronomic legacy from which I cannot—nor would I want— to remove myself. Mexico is perhaps one of the greatest and most diverse food cultures in the world, so we like to use that to our advantage. We use memory as a creative tool, not as a tie to the past.
Our work contains an inevitable proximity to tradition, it is something of a new reading—a new reading of something quite old. Which in itself is nothing new, since new cuisines always emerge from tradition: previous ideas, accumulated knowledge, associations.
But those previous ideas are explored from an open mind, we are not trying to interpret them, much less replicate them or improve them. We take them as a starting point, as a point of reference. And that reference helps us create a cuisine that even though it might not seem mexican it is.
Mexico has a collection of regional cuisines that are very diverse, but at the core there are ingredients and flavors that we all associate to mexico. Corn, beans, tomatoes and chiles are a fundamental part of our cooking and they are always present in our dishes but we have also incorporated other ingredients that work well with those flavors, even though they are not mexican. Our history is one of meztisajes or mixtures between people, cultures and therefore cuisines. Ingredients that seem very mexican aren’t. Ingredients like lime, onions and cilantro are part of our daily diet and no mexican can cook without them. So why should we limit our creativity by not incorporating new ingredients?
Cuisines are in a permanent process of construction and they do not respond to geopolitical considerations. The cusine of the north of mexico is much more similar to tex mex than to yucatecan cuisine. But we can’t (nor should we) deny the strong sense of identity that national cuisines generate. They reflect where we come from, who we are, what we believe in and how we interact with our environment as cooks and as a society.
But culinary heritage is not limited to an ingredient list. Cuisines carry with them a much more profound knowledge and understanding of such ingredients. The techniques developed over centuries have become traditional for a reason, and although they apply to a different time context it would be foolish to discard them. Rather we try to incorporate them, principles found in la milpa, an agro-ecosystem used by prehispanic cultures, where modern principles of permaculture where used, for example, can be applied to modern cuisines everywhere, not only in Mexico.
Our dishes carry that DNA, they carry those ingredients, techniques and ideas. The dishes at Pujol tell a complex, distinct history of flavors—you can find rural flavors, flavors from indigenous cooking: earthier, more direct flavors; but you can also experience others whose references are obviously urban and contemporary.
But evidently the context we are working is entirely different and we must adapt without loosing our identity -although that would be impossible to do because our identity is to adapt. We adapt to modern technologies that help us work in a more precise way, but we also adapt to todays customers.
There are chefs that cook for themselves, others to impress you at an intellectual level, others that try to surprise you, I myself like more the approach of cooking for others and touching people’s emotions. We try to make dishes that are full of flavor and full of memories. Dishes that make you remember but take you to a different place.
In order to do that we are always trying to find the link between modern and traditional, trying to identify the right point where there is a reference to the past but you feel like is something that belongs in the present. if you look closely at the next video maybe we can better explain what I mean.
Cooking, product availability and food production has changed radically in the past few hundred years. But if we take away the genetically modified shit, food is still fundamentally the same. Bananas are still bananas, there hasn’t been an explosion of new bananas but rather the “discovery” of “unknow” bananas. What seems like a new banana to someone might be very traditional banana to others. Bananas are an invention at the same time they are the discovery of something that was already there. Despite all
the associations we make with bananas, they allow for yet another intervention. Tradition inspires but does not limit us.
Today we have chosen to share with you one of our latests introduction to our menu. Bananas play an important role in my family since my mothers mom is from the southeast state of Tabasco and in tabasco they add bananas and plantains to almost everything.
Recipes for bananas in cooking range from a simply boiled banana to the Torta de Platano Macho, a sandwich of some sort, to a more complex puchero a stew with carrots, cabage, cilantro, meat and obviously plantainsand the omnipresent fried plantain with rice. But there were two ways bananas were eaten at our house, tostones de platano and platanos con crema.
So how can we make the best banana? is it only by applying the latest trends? is it only by better ingredients and better cooking? or can we get to better bananas by new flavor combinations? by adding new ideas? how mature should a banana be to be in its ideal state?
I have not so pleasant memories of my grandmother force feeding me overripe bananas. So when I went with Hector Galvan to a cacao tasting in DF a few months ago and learned that his family is also from Tabasco I was not surprised to see overripe bananas in his table. But when I tasted them I was very surprised.
I was surprised about how wonderfully complex the flavors became. I obviously didn’t appreciate this as a child, but as bananas ripen and natural fermentation occurs in fruit you start changing sugars for alcohol (which we all like) and the flavors and aromas start to change completely. Same happens not only to bananas but to cacao sundried seeds, as they dry they ferment.
So as we watch the timelapse please feel free to munch on your rotten banana puree and sundried cacao. (Which by the way was a prehispanic snack.)
There is a link, not a tie.
For example, the idea of incorporating elements from the milpa was for practical reasons. It was not a nostalgic impulse to return to the past or an attempt to legitimize our proposal by standing on tradition.
It was merely a discovery—an encounter with a body of ideas, taken from the wisdom that comes with observing nature.
Personal perspective defines the context—with all that the word context can suppose—what might look modern to someone might be outdated to another and what might be outdated to me can be completely new to someone else.