Word of advice…when in foreign kitchens it is always wise to listen carefully to names of ingredients before you try them. Day dreaming as usual, I was handed a dark brown pellet by Chef Jesus and told to taste it. I thought Jesus mumbled “chocolate”, so it was a real shock to taste a rich, salty and smoky liquid ooze out from the crunchy shell. It was only then that I realised the Jesus had said “chicantana” a type of red ant enjoyed in Mexico since Aztec times. Jesus laughed as I stood there looking like I had participated in a Bush Tucker Trial. If the UN are to believe, I had better get used to a diet of ants as we’ll soon be tucking into insects in a bid to fight world hunger. (Feel free to suggest some recipes below…stir-fly anyone?)
Having spent the past few days as a commis in the Pujol kitchen, I moved on to the pastry section to help separate ants’ heads from their abdomens. The ants in questions would feature in the first dish of Pujol‘s 12 course taster menu, a take on the Mexican street food known as elotes (corn on the cob). On many street corners you will find stalls selling grilled corn on or off the cob. To this you add chili powder, cheese, lime juice and mayonnaise – a slutty snack if I ever saw one. Pujol, however, serve mini corn, grilled and coated in ant mayonnaise presented in a hollowed out pumpkin with the smoke from burnt corn leaves to add to the occasion. Big ideas in a small bite, the flavours of this dish dance in your mouth awakening the taste buds in preparation for dinner, the perfect amuse-bouche.
Following earlier ‘antics’, it was on to something more traditional in the form of chocolate. Chocolate was first born in Mexico and produced for over three millennia. Pujol proudly source their chocolate from Héctor Galván, a ‘chocolate activist’ and I’ve never tasted chocolate quite like it. Chef Coko, pulled me aside beaming like a Cheshire cat. He wanted me to try his special pudding newly introduced to the menu – a chocolate ganache cake with passion fruit agar, caramelised peanut and gold leaf. Love at first taste, I couldn’t have had a bigger grin on my face if I tried. Coko – if you get a sudden increase in people celebrating their birthdays at Pujol you only have yourself to blame!
Dinner service arrived and it was time to take the big bold step from the prep kitchen to the service kitchen. Watching a fine dining restaurant in full flow certainly is an experience. With a 12 course taster menu and up to 100 sittings, I saw the best part of 12,000 dishes fly out. Amazingly the chefs maintained a calm and focused environment. I had anticipated a Gordon Ramsay-esque experience but instead found a room full of laughs and smiles. Working along my new chums Elias and Daniela was a blast and they did their best to educate me in all things Mexico (including Mezcal drinking at the end of the week which resulted in yours truly being sick over the side of a punt)!
Just when I thought the night was over I had one last surprise – worm eating. Aged 5 years old I hoped I had experienced my first and only taste of worms when I was dared to eat one out of a ‘mud-pie’. Thankfully, my second worm encounter was somewhat more pleasant, a blackberry sorbet with worm salt and Chilhuacle chili. The worms were of the Maguey variety which live inside the cacti used for distilling Mezcal and Tequilas. Over time the worms absorb the flavours and aromas of the cactus and so make the perfect complement to the sorbet, drenched in Mezcal, and set on fire. The perfect palate cleanser and digestive to end another great day in the Pujol kitchen.
A few pics from the pastry section…(and a vid of the Mezcal sorbet in action).
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