Enrique Olvera On How Mexico Doesn't Have A National Cuisine

Enrique Olvera is the chef of Pujol in Mexico City, one of the country's most celebrated contemporary restaurants. At the recent MAD Symposium in Denmark, his presentation (Rotten, Fried Bananas) examined the role of tradition in the contemporary kitchen and the importance of examining ingredients and techniques in new ways.

Here, he discusses the emerging interest in Mexican cuisine around the world and explains why he chose to base his presentation on a bunch of rotten fruit.

Are you seeing a greater appreciation and understanding of regional Mexican cuisine throughout the world?

Yes, I think people are finally realizing that there is no national cuisine of Mexico. Any country that is large enough to have different climates is going to have different kinds of cooking. Unless your country is a really small island, then maybe you have a national cuisine, but in a place as vast as Mexico, it doesn't exist and people are finally beginning to appreciate and understand this.

How is the culinary scene changing in Mexico?

We're getting more professional. It happened in the US a few decades ago where food started to become important and take center stage. People were willing to pay more in restaurants for higher quality food and now this same thing is happening in Mexico. There's also a growing interest from the younger generation — to become chefs who will open high quality restaurants. We have more culinary schools opening up in Mexico now and they are teaching Mexican cuisine, instead of classical European cuisine like they used to do. When I was younger, they only taught you classical French cuisine and this just seems wrong when you want to be a chef working in Mexico.

Why do you think there is a growing interest in Mexican cuisine around the world at the moment?

People are now beginning to discover and appreciate the richness, diversity and complexity of Mexican food. And there are also younger chefs both within and outside of Mexico that are presenting fresh, contemporary versions of Mexican cuisine. You have Alex Stupak in New York City for example. Chefs like these are creating an interest in Mexican cuisine that didn't exist before.

Within Mexico, chefs are also appreciating the complexity and refinement of their own cuisine. We used to think that fine dining in Mexico meant it had to be French or European. We thought our food was fine and we loved it but we never thought that a taco had the same value as the foods of other cultures. I think that it's a really exciting time to be cooking in Mexico right now. There are a lot of opportunities and we are starting to understand that tradition does not have to remain stagnant, it is always changing, always evolving.

Your presentation at the recent MAD Symposium was on the subject of rotten bananas. Why?

The banana dish is the latest addition to the menu and I think it summarizes many of the things we have been working on in the past few years. It embodies the idea of using local products — and things that are traditional but interpreted in a new way.

What parallels do you see between contemporary Nordic and contemporary Mexican cuisine?

Cuisine is global and each one of us, because of the geographic context that we're working in, are using different ingredients that we adapt to our own ideas. There are many parallels not just to Nordic cuisine, but to cuisines from around the world. When I was listening to Massimo Bottura discuss modern Italian cuisine I felt like I was listening to myself speak. Our cuisine is very different, but throughout the world there is a communion of ideas.

The similarity I saw in Massimo's presentation with my own experience is the struggle we sometimes have with trying to reach a wider audience when interpreting a well-known traditional cuisine in a modern way. The similarity I see with Nordic cuisine is the emphasis on using local products and using all of the ingredient, not just the prime parts. In Mexico we also believe that everything is edible, including things like insects and rotten bananas.

In your presentation you discussed the balance you must strike between tradition and modernity. How do you maintain tradition while still cooking in a contemporary way?

What we like to do at Pujol is to understand the ingredient and its traditional use as comprehensively as possible. If you understand how these flavors work and you understand how they were traditionally incorporated into the cuisine, you have the freedom to play around with it while still keeping it grounded.

Cuisine is always changing, something that might seem very traditional today in Mexico City such as tacos pastor, 200 years ago was not a traditional part of our cuisine. You have to use the knowledge of tradition as a tool to create new things, not as a manual that you can never change. Cuisine is fluid and always changing. At Pujol we feel that because we are a modern restaurant, we have to know tradition very well in order to move forward.