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Enrique Olvera and His Culinary Heirs Have Changed How and What We Eat

By Ligaya Mishan

Tony FloydFrom left: SOFÍA CORTINA, Hotel Carlota, Mexico City; GONZALO GOÛT, Ticuchi, Mexico City; EDUARDO GARCÍA, Máximo Bistrot, Mexico City; ERIK GUERRERO, Nuestra Pesca, Veracruz, Mexico; JESÚS DURÓN, Casa TEO, Mexico City; FRANCISCO IBAÑEZ, Nawá, San Luis Potosí, Mexico; ALEJANDRO VILLAGÓMEZ, Nemi, La Paz, Mexico; ABISAI SÁNCHEZ, Manta, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; ENRIQUE OLVERA, Pujol, Mexico City; ALEX BREMONT, Pujol, Mexico City; FRANCISCO MOLINA, Evoka, Apizaco, Mexico; ERÉNDIRA DÍAZ, Pujol, Mexico City; MARCO ANTONIO ACEVES, Lule by Marc, San Pedro Garza García, Mexico; RUT SALAS, Marne, Mexico City; and JOAQUÍN CARDOSO, Loup Bar, Mexico City. Photographed at Yolcan farm in Xochimilco, Mexico, on Jan. 30, 2020.

THESE ARE TRIBAL markings, the way one veteran of the kitchen knows another before a word is said. The penny’s width of a fingertip forever lost. The scars from the oyster knife through the hand, the skin crisped by the oven rack, the counter where someone let a hot pan sit too long.

Those who choose cooking as a profession make up a great, sprawling community that transcends borders. But within it are smaller sects, more tightly bonded, often centred around a visionary chef who draws acolytes from around the world with the promise of transforming the way people eat. This has become an international phenomenon in recent decades, as the restaurants of certain chefs — from Ferran Adrià and his molecular sorcery at the now-shuttered El Bulli on Spain’s Costa Brava to René Redzepi and his excavation of forgotten Nordic foodways at Noma in Copenhagen to Manoella Buffara and her marriage of haute cuisine and social and environmental activism at Manu in Curitiba, Brazil — have become not just desirable places to work but rites of passage, imprimaturs for all who pass through them. But of all these groups of alumni, perhaps none has achieved as much influence as the chefs who have risen through the kitchens of the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera. Their allegiance — to Olvera and his mission of showing the greatness of Mexican cuisine — goes deeper: a tattoo on the heart.

All restaurants are built on trust; diners must have faith in the kitchen and in the person who leads it. In an industry that prizes hands-on experience over schooling, to have trained under a great chef can be the highest of credentials — a testament to one’s endurance, technical skill and ideological commitment. Still, not every chef is willing to be a teacher. Those who command the staunchest loyalty are the ones who never forget the labour that goes into every dish — who believe, like Olvera, that their job is to create chefs, not cooks, and to establish a different kind of lineage.

IF EVERY TRIBE has an origin story, this one begins two decades ago, on Calle Francisco Petrarca in Mexico City, when Olvera was 24, barely out of culinary school, a chef by self-declaration only. To open a restaurant with such a featherweight résumé was an act of wild ambition, even hubris. Typically, “you go to cooking school, then go stage” — apprentice — “for a few years, then open your own place,” Olvera said. “That’s the opposite of what I did.”

It would be easy to cast Olvera as a kind of prophet, defying convention and insisting from the start on the power of Mexican cooking. But like a hero in myth, he had to stumble. The mood in the kitchen was dour at first, the dining room solemn and underlit. Olvera still relied heavily on the European techniques he’d been taught in the late ’90s at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., which were considered the standard for haute cuisine. Rather than break new ground, he was “more concerned about simply surviving.” It took years before his restaurant, Pujol, was enshrined in the pantheon of the city’s finest — and for Olvera to realise that this wasn’t enough. After an epiphany in 2004, he turned away from those European teachings, back to his Mexican heritage, and found a new way to speak through food.

“Enrique Olvera is not only a mentor to many Mexican chefs — he is the mentor of Mexico,” said Eduardo García, known as Lalo, who at age 42 runs Máximo Bistrot in Mexico City with his wife, Gabriela López, who also worked under Olvera. (His kitchens have brokered many marriages.) The child of migrant workers who became one himself, picking oranges in Florida, blueberries in Michigan and mushrooms in Pennsylvania, García went to work for Olvera after he was deported from the United States in 2007. “It blew my mind,” he said, to see Mexican ingredients transformed into dishes like mole madre, two stark concentric circles of mole — one newly made and one aged for up to a thousand days — at once avant-garde and comforting, forward-thinking yet respectful of the past.

Everyone in the kitchen was young. “We wanted to do things right — because of Enrique but also because of us,” said Jorge Vallejo, who came to Pujol in 2006, when he was 25, and is today the chef of Quintonil in Mexico City, which has been ranked alongside Pujol on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list since 2015. (His partner at the restaurant is his wife and fellow Pujol alum, Alejandra Flores.) To Daniela Soto-Innes, who started at Pujol in 2013, at age 19, and is now a partner with Olvera in his North American restaurants, including Cosme in New York and Elio in Las Vegas, the sense of commitment goes beyond Olvera to Mexico itself. “Especially because of everything that’s going on with the government in the U.S.,” she said, “for us to be representing Mexico outside of Mexico — we’re all together, united.”

As Olvera changed course in the kitchen, he started to take a chance on cooks with less experience, trusting in their work ethic. Sofía Cortina, the pastry chef at the restaurant at Hotel Carlota in Mexico City (where she works alongside her fellow Pujol alum Joaquín Cardoso), said that when she started working with Olvera in 2011, at age 18, “I didn’t even know how to put my jacket on properly.” The typical kitchen, Olvera said, is “almost like a monarchy, where there’s this king that everybody needs to listen to,” but at Pujol, he wanted the learning to be horizontal rather than vertical, with cooks learning from one another as much as from the chefs above them. Olvera doesn’t see himself as a mentor, although the chefs who’ve worked for him continue to seek his advice. “I tell them to find their own path,” he said, because his career arc was so atypical. In that sense, they are his teachers, too.

For them in turn, the bond remains, with Olvera and with one another, as a vanguard changing the way Mexican cuisine is seen not just by the world but by Mexicans themselves, and as a scrappy family, flaunting their burns and scars, sharing memories of forcing mole through a chinois — a task that invariably took several people and ruined whatever you were wearing — or simply sitting in Olvera’s office talking for hours about how to make tortillas. “We were suffering together, when Enrique was mad sometimes; we were scared together,” Cortina said with a laugh. But mostly the chef remains patient: He listens and tries to give people “the security of knowing that there’s not just one way of doing things,” Olvera said, noting that he’s most proud of the fact that the chefs who have left his kitchens “still have a strong personal voice,” separate from his own. They have spoken for him. Now they speak for themselves.