We caught chef Enrique Olvera one afternoon in May on the eve of the debut of his Chef’s Table Netflix episode, moments before it started downpouring (as it does every day around 5pm this time of year in Mexico City). He grabbed us mid-meal, and we sat in the street in front of his restaurants Pujol and Eno in the tree-lined, upscale Polanco neighborhood during a photo session.
The most famous Mexican chef in the world keeps it simple while running restaurants in both NYC (Cosme) and Mexico (Pujol and more)—whether he’s soaking up small town life in his favorite region of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico’s central highlands or relishing the freshest seafood in Tokyo.
Read on for travel stories, i.e. adventures in customs with ingredients that look illegal.
Leiti Hsu: Enrique, is there a place around here where you’d like your photo taken?
Enrique Olvera: It’s about to rain. Let’s go to the middle of the street.
LH: OK, this park bench works. Congrats on all the Chefs Table stuff!
EO: I know it’s crazy. I think they release it at 2am.
LH: Are you nervous about the reception at all?
EO: We showcase who we are. I’m very comfortable with that. Of course, there were things I wish they fit in. They filmed for three weeks so there was a lot that got cut. What they picked was not my decision.
LH: What did you have for breakfast today?
EO: Huevos a la Mexicana, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and chile with side of black beans and cactus.
LH: Where did you have that?
EO: Here, at Eno. This is our place, you know.
LH: I heard! And it’s e-n-o, for…
EO: Enrique Olvera.
LH: Is Eno your nickname?
EO: No, my nickname when I was a kid was Coco, for coconut.
LH: Really? Why?
EO: I dunno, because Qique sounds like short for Enrique you know...Qique, coco, it works.
LH: Did you look like a coconut?
EO: I don’t think so! You’ll see pictures of me as a kid in the Chef’s Table episode.
LH: This is a crazy moment for you. The episode has gotta be so personal.
EO: Every year that passes by, I always say I don’t think it can get better than this, and then it keeps getting better and better, and I don’t know how to manage. I want to enjoy the moment. I want to make sure I am having fun. I know that this will not last forever. Just trying to relax and have a good time and live this moment, which is very special.
LH: How old are your kids?
EO: 11, 8 and 6.
LH: Are they gonna be chefs?
EO: No, I don’t think so, I don’t think they’re gonna be chefs. That’s their decision. There is always a strong influence from your parents, but I believe that everybody should do what they want. I’m not pushing. If they want to be in the kitchen at home, I’m not asking them or trying to show them—just making sure they can be kids.
LH: Are they good at eating?
EO: Wonderful, not picky at all. They love going to restaurants, but they also like staying at home. I think I have beautiful kids, but I think I’m very subjective.
LH: Did you learn about yourself, doing this documentary? Not everybody gets the lens on themselves.
EO: I think I’m aware of who I am and what I’m like. I was just glad that I had the opportunity to share with other people a part of me that you can’t see when you go to my restaurants. When you go to the restaurants, there’s Enrique Olvera the chef, the restaurateur, but for Netflix, it was what I like doing, the places that I like to visit, my ambition in life and not only as a cook.
LH: How long was the camera following you around?
EO: It was three weeks. It was one week in Mexico City, a few days in Oaxaca, a few days in San Miguel de Allende and then a few days in New York.
LH: What made you choose Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende?
EO: It was a couple of factors. I would have loved to have taken the crew all over Mexico, but those are very special places for me and places that I love.
LH: Looking at a map of Mexico City, it’s amazing how large it is—as big as all of Europe—and all of the potential.
EO: That’s the beauty about Mexico and almost any other country, that there’s not one kind of cuisine, there’s not one place, but there’s many possibilities and styles of cooking. Mexico City, as the capital, it has many influences and many cuisines are converging. Baja is very different from Oaxaca, which is very different from the Yucatan peninsula, which is very different from the center of the country.
LH: So why did you pick those two (Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende) to shoot?
EO: Because I lived in Querétaro as a child and that’s pretty close to San Miguel de Allende. I have a restaurant there (in San Miguel de Allende, called Moxi). To me, that’s how a small town in Mexico should be. It’s beautiful. It’s kept its charm. It has a very strong Mexican personality. Oaxaca is my favorite place in Mexico. That’s where I would love to live and my favorite place for eating.
LH: What’s your travel guilty pleasure?
EO: I don’t know. I like pleasure without guilt.
LH: I mean, something out of the norm that you don’t normally do or eat in daily life, but you do on trips—like, I eat gummy bears on road trips.
EO: I guess peanuts with lemon and salsa Valentina.
LH: Do you take it with you or do you buy it?
EO: No, usually on the plane in Mexico they give it to you or you can buy cacahuates (seasoned peanuts) in the airport.
LH:What’s your next travel destination?
EO: Montreal is the next one, then after that I go to New York for a week, I’ll come back to Mexico City for a week, then back to New York for a week.
LH: Top three travel destinations for food or otherwise where you haven’t yet been?
EO: I would love to go to Istanbul, Thailand...and definitely India.
LH: Favorite food destination that isn’t Mexico City or New York?
EO: I have a love and obsession with Tokyo. I think all chefs do.
LH: Which one of your kids is the best eater?
EO: They all eat very differently. [My girl] is not that adventurous, but she loves eating—she’s very polite in restaurants. Aldo, the younger one, is very adventurous, because he’s very outspoken. Bruno, the older one—he’s very mellow. I’ve taken him on a couple of trips. I took him to San Francisco last year, and we ate at Coi, and he was loving it. He still tells me, “I want to go back to Coi, because I loved the bread.”
LH: The other two kids—what are their favorite foods?
EO: They all love tacos and they love sushi. They also like Chinese food. I guess there is a similarity between the spice levels and the tones of Chinese cuisine and Mexican cuisine.
LH: What is your packing personality?
EO: Keep it simple. I usually wear a black t-shirt and pants and white sneakers. I don’t complicate myself.
LH: What’s the most fun thing that you’ve smuggled while traveling?
EO: I used to smuggle food, but now with so many businesses (and those who rely on us for their livelihoods) I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I don’t want to end up in jail or have my visa taken away for some stupid reason. When we opened Cosme, it’s a funny story, because we were trying to nixtamalize the tortillas and we couldn’t get any live limestone—
LH: Live limestone?
(Note: also called lime water, which results from burning limestone and mixing the ash with water, creating an alkaline solution, in which corn is soaked when making masa)
Baby Corn, Ant Sauce.
EO: It’s what you use to nixtamalize the corn. Anyways, it looks like cocaine. But I was taking a huge package. It’s not illegal, but the way it looks, you know. I had it in my carry-on, because I didn’t want to check any luggage. I went right through security in the Mexican airport, which to me was surprising. How come they see a bag of that and they didn’t even ask, “What do you have in there?” So I board my flight and get into the States and go through customs, and they say, “You need to get checked.” It was kind of weird because I only had this small carry-on and usually they just let you go by. So, I go with the customs guy, and he says, “Do you have more than $10,000 to declare?” I say, “No, I don’t.” He says, “It’s ok, you can go.” If they would have opened my bag, it would have looked like—there was nothing bad, but I would have had to explain myself.
LH: If in one day, you could go around the world eating in different countries for each meal, where would you go?
EO: One breakfast at a market in Oaxaca—a corn tortilla quesadilla with quesillo cheese and squash blossoms. Another breakfast at Tartine in San Francisco—I’d have a morning bun. Lunch at Etxebarri. Lunch in a pizzeria in Napoli, I forget the name, but a classic one that is really saucy—so saucy you have to eat it with a spoon. Lunch at La Mar in Peru, because I just love raw fish. Peru is one of the best places to eat raw seafood because the cold water sea produces such excellent langoustines, beautiful shellfish. One dinner in Blanca (inside Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn). Dinner at Sawada in Tokyo. For late night, after dinner drinks, MN Royhere in Mexico City is the classic place. It’s a crazy place. When they say it’s over, it’s not over—don’t leave, don’t be fooled. The party keeps going.
All photos by Teddy Sczudlo for Journy (www.esphotonyc.com)