All week, we’ll be taking you on a trip south of the border. Today, we talk to Mexico City’s new guard of chefs about reinventing the country’s cuisine.
Vibrant, busy, loud, colorful: Nothing quite compares to the streets of Mexico City. And for food lovers, the buzzing metropolis is a dream come true: In the morning, you can stroll along to the sounds of meat sizzling on planchas and the sweet smell of freshly squeezed orange juice. At night, you’re likely to enjoy one of the best meals of your life, whether it’s inside a five-star restaurant or out of a sidewalk food cart.
It used to be that visitors thought a good meal in Mexico City meant street tacos and tequila. But these days, the city boasts one of the buzziest culinary scenes in the world. It’s being lauded as the next hot dining destination in the press, local chefs are taking home awards in international competitions and visitors from around the world are lining up for reservations at restaurants like Pujol, Quintonil and Contramar.
“One of the main reasons for the change in Mexico City is the new generation of cooks who are both chefs and restaurant owners,” says Elena Reygadas, a chef and owner at Rosetta and Lardo restaurants. Being a high-end restaurant in Mexico City used to mean having a classically trained European chef at the helm, she explains. “But now, Mexican chefs are staying in the city and cooking their own cuisine at their own restaurants. It’s very personal and you have the freedom to get creative.”
Reygadas herself has cooked in London and trained with chefs all over Europe. But her time abroad made her appreciate Mexican cuisine in a new way, and poised her for opening up a restaurant in her hometown of Mexico City.
“I saw new techniques and learned new ways of thinking about food,” she says. “But when I returned [to Mexico] I had a fresh appreciation for the fruits, vegetables and fish we can get year-round in this country.”
Jorge Vallejo, another much-lauded Mexican chef and owner of Quintonil and Fonda Fina restaurants, also credits a rising awareness and appreciation for local ingredients as a turning point for Mexican chefs. “I think what is changing all over Mexico, and all over the world, is the point of view of being more in contact with what you eat,” says Vallejo. “It’s very logical and simple to cook with what is around you and what you are connected to.”
Vallejo’s menu at Quintonil makes use of indigenous Mexican ingredients like nopales (cactus) and hyper-local ones, sourced from the chinampas, agricultural islands just south of the city. “All of the ingredients we use here in the restaurant are reflective of where we are located,” says Vallejo. “I use nopales, chiles, citrus and onions because, to me, that represents what it is to be a cook in Mexico City. I want to tell our diners that these ingredients aren’t just for the poorest people; that these things you can buy for almost nothing can be refreshing and delicious and sophisticated and delicate.”
In the process of redefining the dining scene in Mexico City, these cutting-edge chefs are also re-imagining the American idea of “Mexican food” as something that has nothing to do with tacos or tequila, and instead is a uniquely personal way of cooking.
“I hate to put flags in food,” explains Reygadas. “I make a nopales salad with a chicken liver pate. Is that French? Is it Mexican? It’s neither…It’s just what I want.”
For even more—including our favorite dishes, a guide to eating Mexico City street food and more—check out our Destination: Mexico City guide.