Mexico’s best restaurant! I was going to cook in Mexico’s best restaurant. In planning this trip, I had emailed many culinary giants, fantasising that one day I would receive a reply. I hoped they would empathise with my aspirations and give a boy a chance to experience life in a first class kitchen. Then, one fateful Sunday morning, I received an email from Pujol welcoming me to their world renowned restaurant for a week. In a matter of seconds I went from a twenty-something year-old sipping on some pretentious single estate coffee, to a big kid jumping up and down on the bed.
From humble beginnings, Enrique Olvera’s Pujol has slowly risen to fame over 15 years, to become one of the most respected restaurants of new Mexican gastronomy. However, if you thought a high-end place like Pujol would distance itself from the food of ‘real’ Mexico you’re wrong. Instead, Pujol’s menu pays tribute to Mexico’s ‘daily bread’ and rich culinary history. During my 6 days with the Pujol team, I would embark on the ‘journey of a chef’ shadowing the steps in a chef’s career and see the food from farm to table (and finally my stomach). Only then would I truly understand Pujol.
My time began with Chef Joaquin and a trip to Tlatelolco, an urban garden built on foundations of the Oaxaca tower (demolished after the 1985 earthquake). The project hopes to inspire and educate one of the city’s poorest and neglected communities to learn about agriculture. The foundation hopes that this will not only lead to healthier eating but also allow for many families to grow their own produce and so become self sufficient. Interestingly, the garden also hosted the last battle field between the Aztecs and the Spanish: the Spanish victory changed Mexican cuisine forever (as covered in my last post). Click to view full size.
Wandering around the plot I tasted many herbs and ingredients I had previously not heard of, such as hierba santa (‘sacred leaf’) and pipicha a herb with a strong lemon-cilantro taste (though the smell reminded me of those ‘lemon fresh’ washing up liquids). Of the many crops, corn was of course included. Many varieties abounded in different colours, shapes and sizes. Anyone familiar with Mexican food will know that corn is king. From tacos to tamales, and elotes to pozole; almost every Mexican dish is either based on or served alongside corn. After harvesting some fresh corn, I took it straight to the Molena where it was ground into fresh paste (known as masa) ready for the restaurant to turn into fresh tortillas.
After the day trip it was time to start life in the kitchen, a moment I was admittedly nervous about due to my lack of Spanish and experience in fine dining. As usual my awkward British self fudged a lot of awkward greetings not knowing whether hand shakes, hugs or even kisses were appropriate. I even asked to borrow a penis (pene) instead of a pen and the accompanying hand gesture didn’t help either! Aside from this incident, I need not have worried. The band of merry chefs treated one another more like family members than work colleagues and welcomed me to join their clan.
Over the coming days, I was in the privileged position to shadow chefs across the kitchen hierarchy. However, everybody starts somewhere and I, like many young chefs, began picking herbs as a commis. With my new friends Jorge and Daniela at my side, I embarked on a long and laborious affair with half a tub of rosemary. Life as a commis really sorts the wheat from the chaff. Only those, mad enough to pick herbs for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week have the want and commitment to become a chef and I have a huge amount of respect for those, like Jorge and Daniela, who do. What an amazing first day at Pujol. Little did I know the best was yet to come…
Stay tuned for part II…
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