What does it take to become the best restaurant in a world-class city, or for that matter, the best restaurant of an entire country? For Enrique Olvera, the owner and executive chef of Pujol, widely considered the top restaurant in Mexico City (and all of Mexico), it comes down to taste, authenticity and a contemporary take on the foods of his homeland. If you can get a coveted reservation at his 44-seat eatery, which has a three-month waitlist, his 10-course tasting menu will take you on a journey through the rich food culture of Mexico in a way that is simple yet breathtakingly extraordinary.
A pioneer in contemporary Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is both an inspiration and leader in the culinary world. His restaurant has received tons of international accolades. In September, he was inducted onto the international advisory board of Spain’s Basque Culinary Center alongside Joan Roca, where they join the ranks of world-renowned chefs such as Dan Barber of Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame, Michel Bras of Restaurant Bras and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck.
Olvera granted a very rare interview with Forbes Travel Guide during one of our recent visits to his restaurant in Mexico City.
I understand you went to CIA. Was it always your plan to come back to Mexico?
No, it just happened. When I graduated, I wanted to work in a fine dining restaurant. Before I graduated, I was thinking maybe hotel, maybe a small restaurant, but I had a really great dining experience at [Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star] Le Bernardin in New York City. That dinner really changed the way that I approached cooking. After school, they gave me a six-month working visa and I went to Chicago with that visa, where I worked at a fine-dining restaurant called Everest. At the time, my father worked for an American company that had offices in Latin America with [the] headquarters in Chicago; he had a small apartment because he traveled often to Chicago. So I could stay with him, and on my eight dollars an hour, I could live and not pay rent.
Tell us about the evolution of Pujol.
When I opened Pujol, I was 24. I’m 37 now, so we’ve been open for 13 years. When we started, we just wanted to have a nice restaurant that served good food. We started to get a lot of recognition in 2004. By then, the restaurant was a little more sophisticated. By 2010, we started to be recognized outside of Mexico for the work that we were doing. And the past three years have been big internationally.
Your food is definitely Mexican food. The identity is so strong; the flavors that you use are truly Mexican flavors, but they are presented in a way that is unique and sometimes unexpected. Tell us about the process for coming up with a dish.
I have a good team, and we work together. Usually how we do it is that Eric [Guerrero], who is is the head chef [at] Pujol, and Luis [Arellano], who is in charge of creativity, we work together. Sometimes the ideas come from them and I end up moving them a little bit; and then sometimes the ideas come from me and they move them a little bit, so it’s more like a team effort. Recently, it’s like this — it didn’t used to not be like that, but now with all the work — we just opened a restaurant in Playa del Carmen a few months ago, that’s how it is.
Your seafood restaurant in Playa del Carmen, is it also called Pujol?
No, it’s a seafood restaurant called Maíz de Mar. It’s like ceviche and whole fish. It’s very simple. It’s a beach restaurant. I wanted to keep it nice and simple. I don’t feel like eating Pujol’s food when I’m in Playa del Carmen — it’s too fancy. And even with Pujol, we like for it to be fancy, but it’s not too stuffy.
Have you thought about opening another Pujol in Mexico City?
Not now. Maybe. I don’t envision myself with 20 restaurants either. We want to make sure that whatever we’re opening is something that is truly special [and] that we like the place that we’re opening. We’ve had a lot of offers. We get two or three offers every week to open restaurants, and we just say no because we want to make sure that whatever we’re doing is really special. However, we are planning on opening a Pujol in New York City. We have a location, but that’s all I’m going to say for now.
What is your vision for Pujol in New York?
My vision is for a place that is just like me: smart, fun and casual.
For people who are not familiar with your food, how would you describe it?
I say it’s a personal interpretation of Mexican food: Some dishes are very traditional, some are more contemporary. The mole might be like a traditional recipe, but we try to do things that are authentic — things that we do ourselves, that nobody else does. It’s not how grandma used to do it. It’s not a deconstruction of what grandma did. It’s not molecular. It’s something that is very organic, very authentic. We try to be honest because we think that flavor is the most important thing in a dish. Presentation is important in the sense that you have pride in what you do, but it’s not the most important thing to us. We like things that are interesting and fun to your palate. I think a restaurant should always be evolving. [It] should never be static.
What is your favorite dish at Pujol right now?
The 170-day mole, to me, is a good synthesis of Mexican food. How different flavors combine to become one flavor. The idea that it’s salty [and] sweet, and it’s bitter, but it’s also acidic. There’s a tropical flavor, but it also has a very earthy flavor. So I think that flavor synthesizes correctly with other flavors in Mexican food. We’re hoping that it’ll last three or four years. Whenever we come down to 10 liters, we add new mole; or whenever we think like the mole is getting tired, we add new mole. We’re always trying to figure it out. It’s kind of like bread, and it’s kind of like wine. Every time we do the recipe, we change something. Sometimes we use macadamia nuts; sometimes we use almonds; sometimes we use cashews, purple bananas [and] plantains. We change the recipe all the time, so it’s also becoming different. It’s not the same recipe all the time. It resembles a black mole from Oaxaca, but black mole from Oaxaca doesn’t get chilhuacle chile, which we do add. Also, some of the ingredients in a traditional mole would be fried and some would be toasted; but we toast everything because we don’t like greasy things. It’s our idea of how a mole should be.
This is your city. For people coming to Mexico City, do you have recommendations for where to eat?
I think you should definitely try to eat in a market. You can do Xochimilco, if you’re close by; I know it’s far south of the city. But I think that’s a beautiful market, and you can go to the chinampas [floating gardens] and have that experience of food close to the city. You should definitely do a seafood restaurant, [such as] Contramar or MeroToro. If you want contemporary Mexican cuisine, you can do Quintonil; you can do Paxia, Pujol or Sud 777. If you’re kind of tired of the Mexican theme, you can hit Rosetta, which is Italian. Los Panchos is my favorite taco place. It’s in a neighborhood called Anzures. And Maximo Bistrot Local is a very good restaurant in Colonia Roma.
So if you’re not eating at Pujol, where do you eat? Do you cook at home? What do you crave?
I cook at home sometimes — simple stuff, nothing fancy. I travel a lot. I crave quesadillas. Quesadillas are my favorite thing. People think it’s simple, but it’s not. To make a good quesadilla, you need good cheese — Oaxacan cheese, quesillo they call it. You need to make your own tortillas; the epazote needs to be fresh; the hot sauce needs to be right.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
We are trying to build a good team, and the team should take part of the restaurants. Miguel [González] has been working with me at Pujol, and he’s a partner now of the restaurant. So I don’t see an empire around me, but an empire with my employees, and a community more than a business. We want to have a strong community of people who love what we do.
Photos Courtesy of Pujol MexicoCity