The Man Who Changed the Global Image of Mexican Cookery
His name is synonymous with Mexican cuisine around the world, and he is among the local culinary community for having elevated the country’s street-food image to the fine dining spectrum.
But what makes Enrique Olvera unique among Mexico’s top chefs is the fact that he does not focus on molecular gastronomy or fancy over-the-top plating techniques. Instead, Olvera has taken Mexican food back to its roots, utilizing indigenous ingredients to produce the most authentic dishes, with a fine-dining flair.
Born in Mexico City and raised just northwest of the capital, for Olvera, food was always a central part of daily life. During his childhood, he said, it was a sort of celebration or reward, something to look forward to.
Olvera started cooking in high school to impress a girl. He fell in love, not only with with the girl, but with cooking. That girl is now his wife, Allegra.
Inspired by the famed New York-based chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel
Boulud, Olvera moved to the Big Apple and studied at the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where he completed both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree,
graduating with honors.
This is where Olvera perfected his fine-dining techniques and became a self-proclaimed “cooking machine.”
Soon after graduating, Olvera returned to Mexico and opened his first restaurant, Pujol, in 2000. But not everything was smooth sailing in Olvera’s culinary career. Shortly after launching, Pujol wason the verge of shutting down. Olvera’s meticulous fine-dining approach to gastronomy simply did not appeal to the general public.
“I was too obsessed with trying to produce really high-quality food, and I forgot about having fun,” he said in an interview at the time.
So Olvera decided it was time to rethink his approach to cooking.
In 2004, he took off in a new direction centered around his roots and a focus on highlighting traditional techniques and local ingredients. This new approach started to bring in customers, and Olvera realized that instead of pretending to be someone he was not, it was better to focus on improving what he knew best, Mexican cuisine.
Olvera began breaking down the composition of Mexican dishes, step-by-step, to understand what flavors, ingredients and textures made them so great. He understood that to create great dishes, he would need to use too quality produce. And what better way to do that than to source his ingredients locally, from producers who have been in the industry for generations?
For example, Olvera knew that corn is at the heart and soul of Mexican food, but not just any corn. There are, in fact, hundreds of varieties of corn species, but due to the
agricultural industry and the spread of domesticated corn, known as maize, many
indigenous corn species are at the brink of extinction.
So Olvera partnered with local farmers who practice a more traditional way of agriculture known as milpa farming, focusing on a variety of plants coexisting together and helping each other grow to yield better produce and preserve variety.
One of Olvera’s best-known dishes is his mole madre, using a traditional mole sauce containing a multitude of spices, peppers, fruit and nuts. The dish features a central ring of young mole, surrounded by a darker circle of 1000-plus-day-aged mole, served with fresh tortillas.
What is at the heart of the mole — and essentially all of Olvera’s dishes — is his effort to constantly rediscover authenticity, changing his menu and finding new ways to highlight the indigenous core of Mexican cookery.
“I want Mexican food to keep moving,” he said.
“Mexico has beautiful traditions, and I feel very proud of those traditions, but I want to keep on building new traditions for the next generations.”
Olvera’s gamble paid off. Pujol is now ranked 12th on the World’s Best Restaurants list. His innovative tasting menu highlights indigenous Mexican ingredients and proves that both traditional techniques and ingredients have a place on the fine-dining culinary scene.
Following the success of Pujol, Olvera took his food vision to New York, where, in 2014, he founded Cosme, which was immediately named the best new restaurant of the year by the New York Times.
Currently, Olvera’s empire has expanded to 15 internationally renowned restaurants. He has also starred on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and as a guest judge on Final Table. In addition, he has written and released three cookbooks, celebrating Mexican cuisine.
Before Olvera, Mexican cuisine was often seen internationally as little more than cheap street food, but Olvera found a way to break that stereotype. He transformed traditional dishes and tacos into a fine-dining culinary experience.