Mexican food heats up fine-dining scene

Chef Rosio Sanchez has opened an eatery serving freshly ground, hand-pressed corn tortillas in Copenhagen.
Chef Rosio Sanchez has opened an eatery serving freshly ground, hand-pressed corn tortillas in Copenhagen. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MEXICO CITY • Rosio Sanchez, a Mexican-American chef who lives in Copenhagen, makes the best tortillas in Scandinavia.

That, she admits, is not necessarily saying much - like laying claim to the best pizza in Indonesia.

"It was so much worse," she said, describing the state of Mexican food when she arrived in 2010 to work as a pastry chef at celebrated restaurant Noma.

"Imagine the worst Tex-Mex food in America and imagine that being passed on like a game of telephone, by people who have no idea what real Mexican food is."

That is beginning to change, and not only in Copenhagen, where Sanchez has opened an eatery serving freshly ground, hand-pressed corn tortillas.

It goes far beyond tacos and tortillas, though. Mexican cuisine has made the leap to the global stage of fine dining.

In places such as Barcelona, London and Melbourne, as well as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, food lovers are seeing the cuisine of Mexico in a bright new light.

Last week, Houston chef Hugo Ortega, who began his working life as a shoeshine boy in Mexico City, received the James Beard Foundation's award for best chef in his region: a first for a Mexico-born chef.

"Everywhere, I see a new respect for Mexican culture," said Martha Ortiz, a celebrity chef in Mexico who is opening a warmly elegant restaurant, Ella Canta, in London's Park Lane Hotel in summer.

Ten years ago, when a taco in London might easily have contained canned baked beans, the idea of a Mexican restaurant in a posh hotel would have been mystifying.

"Our traditional food has always had a high value at home and there is a lot of respect for the women who produce it," Ortiz said.

"But for people internationally to be excited about it and willing to pay for it? That is new."

These developments are part of a movement, inside and outside Mexico, to finally vanquish the rice-and- beans stereotype and celebrate its vast and sophisticated cuisine.

Just as New Nordic cuisine brought global attention to Scandinavian rye bread, smoked fish and Arctic berries, the newly coined "Modern Mexican" shines a spotlight on ingredients such as cacao, agave and cactus; pre-Hispanic varieties of tomatoes, squash and pumpkins; and the country's all-important corn and chillies.

Outside Mexico, at places such as Cosme and Empellon in New York, Hoja Santa in Barcelona, Broken Spanish in Los Angeles, and Cala and Californios in San Francisco, chefs are carefully combining Mexican flavours with modern ideas and local references.

How did Mexican food, often viewed by those beyond the country's borders as cheap, dull and heavy, move to being seen as artful, fresh and fascinating?

"It began with more Mexican people being able to travel, with the Internet, with a younger generation who started to care about food being fresh and healthy," said Gabriela Camara, chef and owner of several influential restaurants in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco.

"Even in Mexico, only European cuisines had been able to reach high stature," said Daniela Soto-Innes, a chef at Cosme and Atla in New York.

"Mexican chefs did not have enough pride in their own food to go out and learn about it."

Much of the shift is due to her mentor, Enrique Olvera, who opened the ambitious restaurant Pujol in Mexico City in 2000, went to New York to open Cosme and Atla, and has become an international avatar of the possibilities of Mexican cuisine.

Still, there are limits to what can be replicated abroad. Indeed, there are plenty of complex, elaborate dishes in Mexico, but he decided long ago not to translate them into high-end restaurant food.

"If you are going to cook those things, you'd better get it right," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline 'Mexican food heats up fine-dining scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe