Modern MexicanEnrique Olvera of Pujol
"Mexican food belongs in a restaurant, not just at the taco stand around the corner. Of course, our street food is exciting, and it’s a large source of inspiration, but it doesn’t need to stay there."
Fine dining today is all too often synonymous with a sort of formality and sterility. Pristine white tablecloths, dim lighting, and black ties are ubiquitous – near compulsory, in fact. Front of house address you as “sir” or “madam”, and the food is to be experienced, but not necessarily enjoyed. Enrique Olvera’s Pujol is different; the sense of it is immediate. Situated in the Polanco neighbourhood of Mexico City, this internationally acclaimed restaurant is open and airy. There are no theatrics, and no shadowy exclusion from the bustling reality just outside its doors. When you’re in Pujol, you’re in Mexico, and you’re sure of it. Bossa nova plays from above, afternoon light dances along the walls, smoke from the wood burning oven permeates the air. Dressed in a black shirt with the top button undone, our server approaches with a smile. He’s warm and amiable, and lets us in on some of his favourite dishes from the day’s menu. It’s half past one, and the restaurant is buzzing. Patrons are chatting and laughing nearby, mezcal is being imbibed by the litre, everyone’s having a good time.
Lunch begins: Octopus with veracruzana sauce, wild mushroom soup, a pork chop paired with nixtamalised butternut squash, mole that’s been stewing for 1,478 days, a spiral churro. Each course is simple and straightforward, void of pretence and frills, yet throbbing with fiery, complex flavours. Everything feels somehow familiar. We’re enjoying the very best iterations of Mexican street food, once the exclusive preserve of the carts and stands strewn throughout the city. Yet, this time around, in lieu of streets and sidewalks, we’ve been summoned indoors to dine at the home of a local. Our host just happens to be Enrique Olvera. Speaking with the chef, I understand why Pujol whirs with vitality and joy. He’s humble, assiduous, and above all, happy. He tells me he’s just had an operation to remove a small tumour, and then, in the same breath, regales me with a funny story comparing LA traffic to Mexico City’s (conclusion: They both suck). When I ask him how he’s managed to hire and train such hospitable staff, he laughs: “Everyone here’s naturally like that. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but hopefully, it’s just a reflection of who we are as Mexican people.” Looking around the dining room, I see that after nearly 18 years since the restaurant first opened its doors, Pujol remains steadfast as Enrique Olvera’s love letter to his country, his people, and Mexico City.
CEREAL: How would you describe Mexican cuisine?
Enrique Olvera: I think it’s happy and all over the place! It’s layered, too – you can literally see the layers of time, culture, and history on top of each other. It’s crazy, acidic, spicy, and sweet, but if you do it correctly and balance those things, it becomes elegant, subtle, and heartwarming. Mexican food makes you feel at home. It’s food that makes you feel loved. That’s probably not very objective, because I’m Mexican. But that’s what I feel, at least.
CEREAL: Was cooking a large part of your childhood?
EO: Cooking has always been a part of my life. It’s the constant. I always enjoyed helping out in the kitchen, and I loved eavesdropping on the conversations that the adults used to have. They used bad words! There was always that magic of the kitchen.
CEREAL: Pujol has been open since 2000. How has it maintained its relevance?
EO: We’re constantly striving to do better, and the restaurant has reflected that over time. Although our values haven’t changed, the way we perceive food is changing constantly. At the beginning, we were trying to be a contemporary restaurant with Mexican ingredients. But as I became more comfortable with what I was doing, Pujol became a Mexican restaurant with contemporary sentiments. Pujol has a personality that is very clear now, but that has only come about after years of decantation.
CEREAL: What are some of Pujol’s core values?
EO: Hospitality is definitely at the centre of what we do. It’s the reason I became a cook. I love entertaining and cooking for others, and I almost never cook for myself unless I have to. We also appreciate things that are well made, well crafted, and well written. We enjoy things that are beautiful, and we see the beauty of human intervention.
CEREAL: You’re a strong proponent of sustainability …
EO: Well, when you work with ingredients constantly, you realise the beauty of diversity and the richness of life that surrounds us. The simple thought of losing that makes me really sad. We understand that we have a responsibility, because we go through a lot of product every day, so we know a small decision can have a big impact. We want to be conscious about that. And of course, there is the flavour. Sustainable practices produce better ingredients. Heirloom corn or strawberries that have been well taken care of taste better than things that have been made through a large scale, industrial process. As cooks, we’re interested in flavour. As citizens, we’re interested in maintaining diversity and supporting our farmers and community.
CEREAL: What are a few sustainable practices that Pujol has implemented?
EO: We have a rainwater harvesting system that we use to water all of our plants and the herb garden at the restaurant. We also have some land in Xochimilco, and I work closely with a partner to choose seeds and develop a growing plan. Our cooks go there periodically to have a connection with the products we use. The way we cook is also sustainable because we try not to waste anything. It can be as basic as the way you cut a tomato, for example. In the French technique, you’re told to take off the skin, remove the seeds, and make perfect little squares. When you do that, you lose half the tomato and a lot of the flavour. At Pujol, we roast the whole tomato, and use the entire thing.
CEREAL: Mexican cuisine seems to be experiencing a renaissance around the world. Why do you think that is?
EO: I think when you come to Mexico to eat, you fall in love. People started travelling to Mexico for food instead of just for a holiday, and then the word was out. People think they know what Mexican food is, but when they discover what it really is, it’s magical.
CEREAL: What are some of the misconceptions about Mexican cuisine?
EO: When cuisines travel, they tend to become oversimplified and stereotypical. If you ask somebody about Japanese food, they’ll probably narrow it down to sushi and ramen. That has happened to Mexican cuisine as well. But when people come here, they realise that the quality and flavour of our ingredients are amazing. It might just be a combination of the soil and sun exposure, but I think our cilantro tastes better and is more powerful than anywhere else in the world. People also start to realise that Mexican food belongs in a restaurant, not just at the taco stand around the corner. Of course, our street food is exciting, and it’s a large source of inspiration, but it doesn’t need to stay there. It doesn’t need to stay on the street.
CEREAL: One of the best things about Mexican cuisine is its approachability. How do you maintain that spirit, while still trying to innovate?
EO: We tried to avoid all the things that were traditionally done in fine dining establishments. I hate fine dining restaurants where you can’t have fun, where you’re basically paranoid about every move you make. I don’t find that attractive; I find that boring. It goes against what I believe it means to be Mexican. I love Mexican food because it’s fun, and it doesn’t need to go out of its way to prove that it’s sophisticated because it already is. I want Pujol to be a good Mexican restaurant. In order to do that, we keep a lively, warm ambience while serving bold, powerful Mexican food. We want it to be the kind of place where you can be comfortable, where you don’t want to leave. Pujol is hopefully the perfect mix of peaceful, warm, and a little sexy.
CEREAL: How have you grown as a chef over the years?
EO: As I grow older and understand my craft better, I focus more on the basics. I’m not as concerned about creativity. Ten years ago, Pujol was a lot more concerned about the aesthetics of what we plated and the ideas behind our dishes. Now, we’re more focussed on the quality of our ingredients, and the quality of our execution. In a way, I went backwards.
CEREAL: What gets you up every morning?
EO: When I was growing up, I assumed I’d end up flipping tortillas on a street cart, so I feel very fortunate to have done what I’ve been able to do with my team. I couldn’t have dreamed of all this. I feel very proud of the restaurant, but I know we still have a long way to go. There are many things we can do better, but that’s what keeps me challenged. I’m extremely happy. I don’t take myself too seriously. I still like to cruise around and go out with my friends, have dinner, have a glass of mezcal – or a few glasses. I try to balance having fun and working. I also love travelling. I’m dying to go to Turkey. I have a few friends who’ve gone and eaten there, and told me that the food is amazing, so I’m really looking forward to visiting Istanbul. I haven’t been able to go to Thailand either, so those two places are definitely on my list this year. I just wish I travelled a little less, so I could enjoy it more.
CEREAL: What is one piece of advice you’d offer an aspiring, young chef?
EO: Don’t be in a hurry. When you hurry things in the kitchen, they end up not being good. Take your time. Cook slowly. Enjoy the process.
- Portrait Photo: Maureen M. Evans
- Lifestyle Photos: Rich Stapleton
- Words: Justin H. Min