Tour de Stage Mexico City: Pujol
Mexico City is an incredible cultural, historic, and culinary destination. It’s a cosmopolitan city of nine million people living in 16 vastly different municipalities. And until a decade ago, it was the capital of a country whose cuisine had long been perceived to be composed of enchiladas, burritos, and tacos. But now, as the depth of Mexico’s regional cuisines are gaining global attention, Mexico City is rising as the center of these cuisines presented with a big city twist.
Mexico City offers a dynamic, complex, and delicious culinary ecosystem that has become a food Mecca for cooks and gastronomic geeks. From restaurants that rank at the top of the most important lists to street food stands, and from the biggest markets of the world to neighborhood bars, pulquerias, cervezerias, and mezcalerias.
Enrique Olvera’s Pujol
When Enrique Olvera ’99 arrived on the Mexico City dining scene fresh from the CIA, the environment was ripe for him to build his flagship restaurant Pujol. Along with his contemporaries, he changed the perception of Mexican food both at home and abroad. He highlighted its breadth and depth with a well-constructed experience and dishes that told a story with great attention to detail. After 16 years, Pujol is considered one of the best restaurants in the world and the best in Mexico.
Now Chef Enrique Olvera owns a network of restaurants with multiple locations in Mexico, the critically acclaimed Cosme in New York City, and has plans to open a restaurant in Cuba.
At Pujol, every single technique that we saw, all the sauces we tasted, and most of the products we touched were not only delicious and of the highest quality but they were new to us. During our 13-hour stage we worked with a lot of different ingredients. And even though we separated immediately upon our arrival, both of our experiences in the production kitchen were all about corn. From the making of the Oaxacan tejate to the masas for the various kinds of tortillas, from cleaning and cooking huitlacoche to toasting corn husks, and from cleaning young corn to making tortillas, flautas, tostadas, and bocoles.
Botana is a Mexican-Spanish word for snack. At Pujol, a version of amuse bouche is referred to as “botanas.” Every botana features a different set of traditions. The young corn has been part of the restaurants four botanas since the beginning. Young corn is first seared and cooked in its husk then peeled, keeping the husk attached. For service, corn ears are seared and dipped in a delicious mayonnaise of chipotle, coffee, and chicatanas—a type of edible leaf cutter ant. The young corn is then served on a bed of smoky cornhusks in an ornamental squash. The flavor of the corn, the rich and bright mayonnaise, the smoke, and the delivery of this single bite is the perfect beginning to a meal.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing for both of us at Pujol was the enthusiasm the cooks had for food they were serving. When your grandma looks at you with eyes that sparkle it comes from joy she feels when she feeds you. Cooks look at you with a similar sparkle when someone tries one of their preparations for the first time. That was exactly the look on the cook’s face when we tried the corn botana! It’s those moments, in which the passion for cooking manifests.
During our time in Oaxaca, we tried a variety of drinks and flavors, tejate was one of them. It’s a non-alcoholic ground seed, chocolate, and corn drink. At Pujol, this recipe includes sesame seeds, almonds, cocoa, nuts, and cocoa flower. As soon as we arrived at Pujol, we engaged the molino—the giant piece of equipment used to crush corn, moles, and seeds. We first mixed the tejate base. Then worked on the multiple masas—the corn dough composed of nixtamalized corn and water. Masa is a very important part of every Mexican’s identity. The smell of corn on the comal is always one of the strongest memory triggers for Mexicans living abroad.
Chef Piquito has held the fort at the tortilla station at Pujol for the last three years.
Approximately 35 kilos of masa are ground every day at Pujol to make four different types of tortillas, tostadas, and gorditas. Two of the most senior cooks and chefs are dedicated to mole and tortilla production, the backbone of the restaurant. We had the privilege of working with them both.
Mole Madre is kept alive for years. Served with all types of tortillas. It’s a central flavor at Pujol.
Our day culminated in the final savory dish of the menu: Mole madre and mole nuevo, served with three different tortillas. The mole madre is a mole negro sauce that has been kept alive for more than two years. The tortillas —one plain, one with asiento (brown lard), and one with hoja santa—are a story in themselves. This plate was the culmination of Pujol’s menu, our day, and perhaps the cuisine of Mexico on a single plate.
For more food photos, adventures and stories from the travels, visit Sayat and Laura’s instagram at @LauraAndSayat.