Ancient Goes Avant-Garde in the Yucatán
Forget everything you knew about Mexican cuisine: a new generation of chefs have quietly transformed the Riviera Maya into a hotbed of delicious innovation.
Call it the nose-to-tail theory of cooking squash: At Arca, an open-air restaurant in the jungles of Tulum, Mexico, chef José Luis Hinostroza roasts squash seeds to create a traditional sauce called pipián, then cures, grills and gratinates the flesh in a butter made from even more seeds. He even fries the squash flowers in an amaranth tempura (seen above). None of the vegetable goes unused—much how restaurants like St. John in London and Animal in Los Angeles cook up every inch of a cow or pig. Hinostroza is one of a new generation of chefs in the Yucatán Peninsula who are adapting regional ingredients and techniques to contemporary cooking styles. Barely 100 feet from Arca, at Hartwood, New York transplants Eric Werner and Mya Henry base their menu around what they can create using produce from communal farms—called milpas—from around the area, the day’s catch from the nearby Boca Paila Peninsula, and a wood-fired grill. One day it might include agave pork belly from Maya heritage-breed pigs, the next a ceviche of quelites (local wild greens).
“We’re recuperating traditions that weren’t being paid much attention to.”
“The market is changing,” says Hinostroza, who hails from Southern California and trained at Alinea in Chicago, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, and Noma in Copenhagen. “Restaurants are focusing more on regional products, rather than trying to adapt to a European scenario. It’s a very healthy change. We’re recuperating traditions that weren’t being paid much attention to.”
The world did start paying attention to Yucatecan cuisine when Noma’s René Redzepi, famous for extracting flavor from the lowliest of local ingredients, opened a headline-making seven-week pop-up restaurant in Tulum in 2017, while his Copenhagen flagship closed and relocated. Redzepi and his team—Hinostroza among them—prepared dishes like piñuelas, a type of bromeliad, blanched and stuffed with grasshopper paste, and a coil of octopus tentacle served over dzikilpak, a pumpkin-seed relative of pipián. “Noma helped give a view of each ingredient that was a world unto itself, making more of an effort to work the whole product, not just the standardized version of it,” Hinostroza.
Of course, chefs have been experimenting in the Yucatán since the Mayas first roasted a pig underground to create the now-famous dish cochinita pibil. The Noma popup simply shone a spotlight on how the region’s cuisine had already been redefining itself. Beneath a ceiba tree at Rosewood Mayakoba, a short drive up the Riviera Maya from Tulum, chef Juan Pablo Loza works with traditional Mayan cooking techniques at the alfresco La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen. Like at Hartwood, everything is cooked over an open fire, such as pork seasoned with the native herb acuyo, and octopus slathered in recado negro, a sauce made of charred chilies. At Aquí Me Quedo, the hotel’s beachside cantina, handmade oval masa tortillas called memelas are topped with pork belly smoked over Zapote wood.
In Cancún, chef Jonatán Gómez Luna takes an avant garde approach to Yucatecan cuisine at Le Chique, inspired by his time at restaurants like El Bulli and Noma. Here, native ingredients like soft-shell crabs, escamoles (ant larvae), and chicatana flying ants are deconstructed and reimagined through adventurous, 10-course tasting menus.
“Evolution is something natural in our kitchen since pre-Hispanic times,” says Pedro Evia, the chef at k’u’uk in Mérida. In his kitchen, molecular techniques (freeze-drying mushrooms, turning mangoes and pineapples into nitro rocks) are as common as traditional methods like smoking and curing. “The trend now is to do more with the same ingredients—not to complicate sauces with new techniques if we cannot achieve the same flavors,” Evia says. “Without tradition, there is no avant garde.”
Arca: Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 7.6; +52 984-112-6823
Hartwood: Carretera Tulum Boca Paila Km 7.6
La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen: Rosewood Mayakoba, Ctra. Federal Cancún-Playa del Carmen Km 298; +52 984-875-8000
Le Chique: Carretera Cancun-Puerto Morelos Km 27.5; +52 998-872-8450
K’u’uk: Avenida Romulo Rozo #488; +52 999-944-3377