Eric Werner can remember the exact moment on a December 2009 trip to Tulum, Mexico, when he and his wife, Mya Henry, first decided to pack up their lives in New York City and make the move to the shores of the Caribbean.
“We found ourselves at the one stoplight in Tulum, wondering what would happen if we didn’t make that right turn toward the airport,” he recalls in his book, Hartwood. “The whole allure of the Mayan Riviera, the sea, the jungle, really appealed to us. Being in this foreign element was the pinnacle of us coming down here.”
That decision turned out to be the best Eric and Mya would ever make. A year later, they would go on to create Hartwood, a restaurant nestled on the southern part of Tulum Beach that’s become one of the world’s most buzzed-about culinary destinations. Hartwood, which Noma’s Rene Redzepi has described as “the place I dream about,” is a bit of a paradox: While it pays great respect to the indigenous ingredients of the Yucatán, it’s hardly serving what anyone would traditionally classify as Mexican cuisine.
Before their life in Mexico, Eric and Mya spent 12 years working, mostly in restaurants, in New York City (on “that rat race-hamster wheel,” as Mya has described it). In their spare time, the two quietly tossed around the idea of beginning a new, adventure-filled life south of the border, where they could swim in the clear blue ocean in the mornings, open for dinner service in the evenings and close up to travel during the summer.
They put their minds to realizing this dream after that seminal trip to Tulum in 2009. “Everyone looked at us like we were crazy,” Eric says. But they eventually saved up enough funds to move to Tulum in May of the following year, with a vague plan to build a restaurant from scratch. They found their land two months later, a 3,000-square-foot sloping, overgrown plot of jungle on the beach road with a fig tree out in the front, and signed the papers in August.
Little did Eric and Mya know just how much work lay ahead of them. The overgrown palm trees and plants were filled with snakes, iguanas and other creatures. Tulum, a protected environment, was off the grid entirely, so if they wanted electricity, they’d have to install gas generators or solar panels. Plumbing was nonexistent; they would have to install a septic system and have potable water trucked in daily.
Instead of a streamlined, modern, cushily-financed restaurant project, the two decided to do things their own way. “We saw an opportunity to do what we felt like hadn’t been done,” Mya says. They built Hartwood as an open-air restaurant—no roof, no walls—so that while guests ate dinner, they could enjoy the star-filled sky (even if that meant closing sometimes during the rainy season). Rather than installing a gaggle of generators, all food would be cooked with wood on a grill or in an outdoor oven. Eric and a few local fishermen would bring in just-caught marlin, robalo and other Caribbean seafood every day.
Doing things differently meant encountering challenges that were tirelessly solved only by trial and error. Even today, nothing—from the ice, which is brought to the restaurant in blocks several times a day, to the fruit juices, which are squeezed fresh every single day by hand-cranked juicers—comes easy. With the restaurant a few miles from town and separated by a narrow road, Eric, Mya and the rest of the staff have learned to call upon taxi drivers to help deliver ice, pick up orders from the butcher, return packing crates to fresh market stands and take staff home at the end of the day. [Learn more about how Hartwood sources ingredients.]
Thankfully, the restaurant’s growing pains weren’t without tremendous payoff: All of that effort has brought lasting rewards. “It [the process creating Hartwood from the ground up] was a challenge we all took on as a group,” Eric says. “It definitely brought us closer with our staff and everybody we were working with.” He is quick to acknowledge just how much the community has been an integral part of Hartwood’s success: “Everybody was willing to tell you about this ingredient, how it works, or the name for this, teaching you words in Maya.”
Hartwood has transformed Tulum, and helped put it on the map as a global destination. But as much as Eric and Mya have given to the region, they’ve also gotten back in kind, learning about how to live from the Mayan people. “In this culture here, everyone lives for the moment,” Mya says. “That is something we want to try to practice more of: to be in the moment, to stay present, to enjoy the things and to take real notice of our surroundings.”
See more about Hartwood in our video below.