White sand beaches, idyllic weather and azure blue waters are reason enough to visit Cancun and Riviera Maya, but throw in an annual food festival — the Wine and Food Festival Cancun-Riviera Maya will take place next on May 2016 — that can attract the likes of El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià to the shores of Mexico’s Caribbean coast and a bourgeoning restaurant scene, and you’ve got a destination fit for any gourmand. From avant-garde, modernist cuisine to contemporary takes on traditional Mexican fare, Cancun and the Riviera Maya are worth a visit just for the food. Leading the charge is a small cadre of talented toques, whom we profile here.
Jonatán Gómez Luna
Born in Mexico City, Jonatán Gómez Luna has a culinary career that’s taken him on stints at some of the finest restaurants in the world, among them, Noma in Copenhagen and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. Now proprietor and chef at Le Chique restaurant in Cancun, Gómez Luna is at the forefront of avant-garde cuisine in the area. His 17-course tasting menu takes you on a journey through Mexican dishes you may have never heard of — elote tatemado (corn with pork stew), encacahuatado marrow brûlée (brûléed marrow with peanut sauce) — wrapped up with technique and presentation that is as fun as it is forward thinking. His “brownie” is another delicious example; you receive a plate with what looks like an egg with the shell on, sitting on top of butter, chocolate and flour. All of a sudden, the chef quickly whacks the “egg,” breaking the shell (which is made of sugar) to release a sweet yolk-like substance in a deconstructed, make-your-own-brownie dessert.
Xavier Pérez Stone
Having worked in some of Spain and Mexico’s most respected kitchens (Arzak in San Sebastian; Biko in Mexico City), Xavier Pérez Stone now plays two roles in the Riviera Maya. First, the Mexico City native makes up one-third of the chef team at Cocina de Autor in Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort, where he, French-born co-chef Mikel Alonso and Spanish-born Bruno Oteiza do modernist-style Basque-Mexican cuisine (tasty translation: ingredients are milled down into powders; smoky elements utilize liquid nitrogen; and there are unusual plays on presentation and texture, like foie gras wrapped in cotton candy). Not far away in Playa del Carmen, Stone also has his own restaurant, Axiote, where he goes back to his roots and creates Mexican classics. The menu reads like an ode to his grandmother, with dishes that make up the heart and soul of the country’s cuisine — rich, hearty pozoles (hominy stew), authentic mole poblano, pulpo zarandeado (Mexican-style octopus) and cochinita pibil (pork marinated in achiote and baked in the ground).
All it takes is a taste of Daniele Müller’s food to figure out that he’s impeccably trained. He graduated from the prestigious L’Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and then worked in top establishments around Europe before returning to Cancun to take up his position as executive chef at his family’s restaurant, Casa Rolandi. His cuisine is mostly French and Italian, with some Swiss and Mexican thrown in to play a little with the palate. Handmade pastas, particularly his ravioli, are superb. Braised veal cheeks in red wine sauce over polenta are phenomenal. But if you want traditional Mexican, you can have that, too, with options such as cochinita pibil and camarones de los Reyes Mayas (Mayan-style shrimp in achiote, wrapped in banana leaves) leading the epicurean endeavor.
Juan Pablo Loza
Named executive chef at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Rosewood Mayakoba earlier this year, Juan Pablo Loza is responsible for all of the property’s restaurants, including La Ceiba Mayan Garden & Kitchen, Agave Azul, Punta Bonita and Casa del Lago. With more than 15 years of experience working in luxury resorts (including Las Ventanas al Paraíso in Los Cabos), Loza proves more than capable of leading such a demanding task. When it’s time for your meal, partaking in a transcendent Italian experience at Casa del Lago or noshing on sushi at Agaze Azul are tempting options, but Loza’s culinary expression is arguably most evident at Punta Bonita, a restaurant that boasts a colorful Mexican tapas menu and stunning looks onto the sea. A Yucatan-style ceviche of scallop and octopus hits all the right notes, as does a wild Chilean salmon tartare, and tacos stuffed with soft-shell crab and topped with a mango and serrano pepper mayo.
Aquiles Chavez can’t walk down the street in Cancun without throngs of fans stopping him to ask for an autograph or photo. The celebrity chef — his shows El Toque de Aquiles, Aquilisimo, Aquiles in Houston and Motochefs are syndicated throughout Latin America — is a beloved figure around town, so when he opens a restaurant in the middle of Playa del Carmen’s main drag, you expect nothing less than delicious food in a jam-packed dining hall. At La Fishería Playa, Chavez takes Mexican street food — items like tacos, ceviches and grilled fish — and elevates it to upscale heights. To start, everyone gets a shot of warm fish soup, a tomato-based consommé that tastes of the ocean in the most delightful way. The tostadas, beautifully plated on bright turquoise Mexican dinnerware, are crisp bits of tortilla heaven topped with bright pink tuna and tufts of crispy fried leek. Grilled octopus, served with potatoes, is prepared to just the right consistency. Pair either with a spicy habanero margarita for a lip-tingling meal.