When the news broke a couple of years back that Enrique Olvera of Pujol renown was going to open up shop in New York City, the restaurant-opening hype cycle kicked into overdrive. And when Cosme opened its doors late last October, the place was already booked for months, before anybody had even tasted a single tortilla.
Before you write this kind of behavior off as the result of manic New Yorkers desperate to get in on the ground floor of the Next New Thing, here’s what you need to understand:
1. Enrique Olvera is to Mexico what Ferran Adrià is to Spain, and René Redzepi is to Demark, and Magnus Nilsson is to Sweden. He is a chef from another country that revolutionized his homeland’s cuisine to the point of international regard. And he was making his U.S. debut a stone’s throw from the Flatiron Building in the most volatile, insane food scene in America—possibly the world.
2. Mexican food in New York City famously blows.
Olvera is more than cognizant of these issues, and his restaurant is built as a rebuke not only to NYC’s lackluster Mexican offerings, but to the broader state of Mexican food across the U.S..
“For some reason,” he explained, “Mexican restaurants in America never went past the stereotypes. Italian restaurants did. French restaurants did. Even Japanese restaurants, in a way, did. You don’t go to a great Japanese restaurant now and feel like you have to take your shoes off. But Mexican’s always—” he stopped short, and then: “All the restaurants remain completely cliché [in their portrayal of Mexican culture]. And we wanted to completely avoid that.”
Given his pedigree, Olvera had the weight of some fairly insane expectations on his shoulders, which is to say nothing of his own. He delivered. Cosme might be pricy and a pain in the ass to get into, but once you’re in the door, you’ll find the kind of Mexican food that, as Pete Wells put in his three-star review, “tastes new without being forced or mannered. It isn’t the kind of Mexican cooking that can be learned on vacation. It has to be lived.” It is a spiritually Mexican restaurant serving up food that is at face value less Mexican in style than it is something like Nuevo Nueva York.
Now that Olvera’s won the regard of critics—plus a finalist nomination for the 2015 James Beard Best New Restaurant award—he’s focused on the future. “I want to keep the place open,” he laughed. Given the way the place is Instagrammed ad infinitum, he should be fine. Given the way Alice Waters kvelled about how much she loved her meal in a text sent to Enrique from the previous night, he should be fine. And given the way Olvera’s success has seemed like a natural, necessary evolution of Mexican food in the U.S. and the world at-large—as much as it is the ascent of one of the world’s great chefs of his time— he should be much, much more than fine.
From his iconic husk meringue, to revelatory scallop tacos from a NYC chef, here are Enrique Olvera’s 10 Dishes that made his career.
My Grandmother’s Puchero
The first thing I remember eating was my grandmother’s puchero—a soup made with vegetables and cheap cuts of meat. It’s from Tabasco, where my grandmother’s from. It has a lot of cabbage, a lot of cilantro, and corn. We used to go to her place on Wednesdays to have lunch, and I ate it throughout all of my childhood. I just loved going to my grandparents’ home. I had a really beautiful relationship with my grandfather, but he didn’t cook like my grandmother did. I actually have a picture of him hanging in my restaurant. That’s one of the first dishes that really stopped me in my tracks. (Photo: Mayaland)
Quesadillas (“And not the shit kind”)
Just a simple quesadilla—a corn tortilla, with queso, a little branch of epazote, and some salsa on the side. It’s special for me because it’s the thing I eat most; I always go to them for comfort. It needs to be a really good tortilla, good queso, because if not? It’s shit. You make the tortilla out of masa; and the queso has to be really fresh. Nothing commercial, not the plastic stuff. The queso Oaxaca actually peels off—it’s just…amazing. I love the quesadilla’s simplicity, but at the same time it has everything. It has crunch. It has heft from the corn. It also shows off Mexican culture as a dish: That meeting between the Aztec and the Spanish. The first time I had a perfect quesadilla was in Oaxaca, when my parents took us there for a holiday. I think I was 14. I remember eating in the big market in Oaxaca, Mercado Centrale [de Abastos]. It was nothing in particular, the place. But after that, [the dish] became an obsession. (Photo: Mexican Heaven Food)
Sole at Le Bernardin
When I was 18 years-old and in cooking school at CIA in Hyde Park—I think it was 1996—my father came for business to New York. He told me: “You can book a reservation, whatever restaurant you want. You can have a nice dinner.” I remember I tried Lespinasse, but it was impossible to get a table. Le Bernardin was my second option. I ordered sole with foie gras and truffles, and it was wrapped in cabbage. The level of execution was crazy. What Eric Ripert made me feel with that dish, I wanted to make other people feel. It was so perfect. It felt so elegant. You know when you eat something that’s really good you say, ‘I can die, now?’ That’s the first time I have ever sensed that. And that’s when I got into fine dining. I wasn’t interested in it then. I just liked cooking. I didn’t know if I was going to flip burgers or do quesadillas. I didn’t know what I was going do. But that dish gave me intent. (Photo: Yelp/Anthony N.)
Husk Meringue at Cosme
Of course, this has to be one of them. [Its creation] was actually very simple, like almost everything we do. [Laughs] No, really. Daniella [Soto-Innes, chef de cuisine] was the first one who told me, “We should do a meringue, like the one that we have in La Gran Via,” a very famous pastry shop in Mexico City. All of us that grew up in Mexico City knew that place. Everyone’s mother would go there and buy meringues for special occasions. I thought it was a cool idea, but I didn’t think it was going to work. People wouldn’t know that unless you lived in Mexico City. The meringues were just kids’ food. I went back there a few months ago, and I thought that the meringues sucked [laughs]. The problem is that those bakery shops, La Gran Via, became very industrial and corporate. So they’re probably using shitty cream now. But I remember how those meringues made me feel as a kid.
When we first opened Cosme, I wanted to do flavors I thought New York would recognize easily, and weren’t challenging. I didn’t want to come in doing worms and grasshoppers. The filling is just a puree of yellow corn with mascarpone cheese. And then cream with charred vanilla beans. The meringue gets the husk of the corn, which is burned, grinded into a powder, folded into the meringue, and then baked. Normally, you’d take the meringue, put the cream on the meringue, and add a second meringue on top. But I didn’t want too much meringue. [The solution] came naturally to us. I just took the pastry bag, broke open the meringue, and filled it with the cream. No, really: I just broke it. I didn’t know what to do with it. [Laughs.] And that was it. Did I know it’d become that big? Of course not. You never know what’s going to happen. When you taste it, you say: This is pretty damn good. But every dish I put on the menu I think is pretty damn good. If not, I wouldn’t put it on there. (Photo courtesy Cosme)
Salsa with Chicatanas in Oaxaca
I went to Oaxaca with a journalist and a friend that’s a chef. We were traveling in the mountains and we went to a coffee farm. It was foggy in the middle of the evening, and beautiful. We were just having mezcal and eating tacos. There was a cook there who made a meal for us, and he did the salsa with chicatanas (ants)—a very traditional salsa that you eat with pork and tortillas. It was one of the most beautiful flavors I’ve ever tasted. That dish is why we made the smoked corn and ants. The sauce is usually roasted tomatoes, garlic, onions, chile costeno (which is a Oaxacan chile from that region), and the chicatanas, which goe into the mortar. Really, there’s not a lot of new flavors I feel like I’ve tasted in the last five years. But that was one of those. It was special because it came at such a late age, and from such an unexpected place. I couldn’t get enough of it. (Photo: Gastro Awakening)
Smoked Baby Corn with Coffee Mayonnaise and Ant Powder at Pujol
This is one of the first dishes that I made where I really thought, “That’s mine”— something you would identify with my career. Because before, at Pujol, we were always borrowing from others. I would see, for example, Thomas Keller’s book, notice the soft-shell crab with the salad—but instead of doing that salad, we would serve cucumbers. There was always a reference to other people’s cooking. When I made this, I was under the influence from the ‘here and now’ movement from René [Redzepi]. I had eaten at Noma before, and I really enjoyed the sense of place.
At that point, I was very annoyed with most of the restaurants because they all started to look very similar. When I was in cooking school, it was about repeating things. They tell you: This is how it’s made, and you shouldn’t change it. And then here comes this guy, Ferran Adrià, who says: ‘Do whatever the hell you want.’ And then René Redzepi says: ‘Do your own thing.’ And he did. And it’s not his fault that everybody copied him. You know? But I remember saying, “‘I need to do my own thing.”
I remember a lot of people coming into Pujol and saying, “I feel like I’m in New York.” And I thought, I’m screwing this up, because I want you to feel like you’re in Mexico. And that’s when we started playing with the aroma of the burnt corn, which is, I think, one of the quintessential aromas of Mexico. And I remembered the fog, and going into the coffee farm, and the ants—that was a moment very special to me, relating to a dish. And the pumpkin that we plate it in? We were at a food symposium and there was a friend of mine that put it in a little shop. And I told him: “Give it to me—Give. That shit. To me.” And the next day I presented that dish on the pumpkin with the ants.
My creative process is very pure. I just have a sense of what I like. After that dish, we really started to strive for food that was more personal. When I was younger, I used to look to the Internet, to see what other people were doing. I realized this is what I need to do: Stop looking outside, and start looking inside. (Photo: Fiamma Piacetini)
Mole de Olla at Pujol
That was the first Mexican dish that we ever made at Pujol, back in 2003. We’d been open for three years, and business was not that good. People liked the food, but they weren’t coming back. It was all over the place. There was no soul, no concept. I was talking to the manager of the restaurant: “Why are people not coming back? I think the food is good. Much better than the place that’s next door, that’s packed.” He told me: “Because nobody wakes up in the morning, and says: I want to eat foie gras with zuppa de negra.” It was very pertinent here, in New York—that was the food being made here at that time. But nobody knew that in Mexico. And Miguel told me: “People want things that they know.”
I remembered mole de olla from my mother. I started serving it and people went crazy over it. We took ribs and cooked them in the mole de olla, which is pasilla peppers, green tomatoes, onion, and garlic basically made into a broth. Ours was not a common version—it was plated, and the sauce was reduced. We had a carrot puree and charred the corn. It was the first time for a lot of us where something that you had at home was being now presented like that, in Mexican food, in a formal context. A lot of chefs have done that before—New American cuisine was very strong at that moment—but in 2003, in Mexico, it wasn’t happening.
At that point in Mexico, we saw our cuisine as something common. When people wanted to celebrate, they usually dined at a European restaurant. This was one of the first times that, for a lot of us, we saw our food—Mexican food—as something that could be really special.
Mole Madre at Pujol
When I was working at Pujol, I always said: You shouldn’t mess with classics. There’s no way of making them better. I’ve never wanted to do mole because I felt I could only screw up. One day, a friend asked me to go cook at his restaurant. It was their first anniversary—one of my former sous chefs had opened his own place. I thought, what the hell am I going to do? The restaurant’s three blocks from Pujol, so I’m not going to do something like that. I wanted to serve something for celebrations, and the dish that you make in Mexico for celebrations is mole. And the only way you can make a better mole is by reheating it. There are actually some moles that get reheated for seven days, and then served. So I figured, why don’t we reheat it for fifteen days?
I thought you shouldn’t serve mole with anything. It already has, like, fifteen ingredients in it. It doesn’t need chicken. It doesn’t need rice. We should just serve it with tortillas. There were less people than we expected, and we had leftover mole. So I told my people: Let’s just keep reheating it. [Laughs] Forever! We make new mole, and keep adding it to the old one. And now it has, like, 200 ingredients in there. We change the recipe every now and then. Sometimes we use bananas, sometimes apples, sometimes almonds or pecans. It became like a starter yeast for bakers. Bakers have starters that have been going for years. We should have a mole that’s 15-years-old. The last time I tasted it was a month ago. It was beautiful. It was perfect. Now, we just serve a scoop of the old mole next to the new one.
The way I cook in Pujol is very different, because I don’t see Pujol as a series of dishes. If I do Pujol here, it would be completely fucked up. If you just have a scoop of mole, nothing more, it’d be like: What the fuck’s wrong with this guy? But in the context of a tasting menu, it makes sense. So it’s very different from Cosme. ‘Masa madre’ is how you say ‘starter bread,’ so: Mole Madre. I’ve gotten a lot of shit over that dish in Mexico. Because people say: He’s fucking gone crazy. He’s just serving mole. Just mole. [Chuckles.] (Photo: Phoebe Thoedora)
Caviar with Hazelnuts at El Bulli
It was amazing. So simple. [Brings it up on his phone.] Real caviar with hazelnut sauce, and then, hazelnut caviar with caviar sauce. You can’t tell the difference looking at it. It screwed up your mind. It’s one of the most beautiful dishes. Ever. I had it in 2010 at one of the last dinners at El Bulli, just before they closed down.
The first time I went to El Bulli in 2004, I didn’t enjoy it that much. I was too in my head, over-analyzing everything. I was not enjoying it. In 2010, when I went back, I remember saying to myself: I’m just going to enjoy this. Eating that dish was also one of the first times that it worked. Usually, modern food is very conceptual and nice, but you always prefer the quesadillas. You know: ‘If I died tomorrow, I don’t want modernist food, I want the quesadilla.’ And that time, it was…it was fucked-up-good. It was high presentation and concept working for flavor. They were not opposites. You can actually make that happen, if you focus on the flavor. Street food has a lot of soul and flavor, and that is missing sometimes in fine dining. We want the best of both worlds. (Photo: A Life Worth Eating)
Chu-Otoro (“Adidas Sushi”) at Sushi Sawada
One of my favorite places on earth is Sushi Sawada in Tokyo. Sawada, the chef, makes the most amazing sushi. The one I like the most he called Adidas Sushi. It has three strips of fat in the tuna, and he uses half of the otoro, and half of the chu-toro. It’s also a matter of, how can you make something like that new? Even though it’s very simple, it’s one of those things where you say: This is stupid. But it’s amazing. Why didn’t I think of it?
How he cuts the fish is different. Everybody else takes the fat out of it, no? To do the otoro. And they keep the lean tuna to do the chu-toro. He makes it so that in one piece of sushi, you have a little bit of otoro, and a little bit of chu-toro. Japanese people keep true to their scene—they don’t give a shit about what’s going on in the world. They’re focused on making the best sushi. I think, sometimes, in Mexico, we were not that focused. We were looking outside, and seeing how we can incorporate others. And here they took this street food and made it into a sublime way of life.
And I was thinking, for me, we should do the same with tacos. Or a quesadilla. Something that can seem stupid as rice and a piece of fish takes you years and years of working to make the best piece of sushi. That perfect quesadilla? It needs to be the right kind of corn. It needs to be mixed perfectly. I went back to Mexico and told one of my chefs, who had just come in from Oaxaca and quit his job in a really good restaurant: “I need you to do the perfect tortilla.” He looked at me like: “The fuck’s wrong with you?” [Laughs] “You didn’t bring me from Oaxaca to make tortillas!”
Sawada was in a good mood that day, joking around. He obviously doesn’t call it “Adidas” for everybody, but I just thought it was nice of him to open up to us. Right now I’m just trying to have fun, to make really good food that is tasty, that is mine. I’ve never liked copying. I was really bad at it in school. I always felt like doing somebody else’s food was cheating. We’re trying to be super-honest now. (Photo: Facebook/Sawada)
Scallop Tacos at Empellón Taqueria
I think Alex [Stupak] paved the road for us in many ways. And not just Alex—Rick Bayless, too. They make Mexican food at a very high level. If those guys weren’t there, and we came in? We wouldn’t be understood as we are. I am grateful to them. Even though I might like their food, or not, I feel that I should be respectful of other people’s work. They’re trying to do their best, and do it right.
Here at Cosme, you have a lot of non-Mexican ingredients, but the food tastes really Mexican. For Alex, it must be really difficult—he was not born in Mexico; he was not raised with that. The first time I ate one of his tacos, I had a scallop one with celery or something. You know that taco, where he put the Jean Georges plate on a tortilla? When I got into the restaurant I saw that on the menu, and the first thing on my mind was: ‘This asshole…how disrespectful is this to my culture?’ And then I ate it, and it was superb and different. It opened my mind, like: ‘Yeah, he’s right. Why can’t you make different tacos with a different flavor profile?’ I left the restaurant very inspired. He opened a door that maybe I would have never have opened for myself. (Photo: Facebook/Empellon)