“I doubt anyone can forget the flavors in Mexican gastronomy once they’ve discovered it,” writes Enrique Olvera in his just-released “Mexico From the Inside Out” (280 pages, $59.95).
With its anecdotal storytelling, clearly detailed recipes and vivid images (from photographer Araceli Paz), it’s not likely that readers of this coffee table-worthy tome will have difficulty remembering Olvera’s compelling vision of Mexico. The flavors seem to leap off the page.
With seven restaurants — including his highly lauded 15-year-old Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York City, which opened to great acclaim late last year — the American-educated Olvera is widely considered one of the world’s most forward-thinking chefs.
In a recent phone conversation, he discussed the beauty of broccoli, his disdain for sugar and his steadfast belief in the benefits of practice.
Q: You’ve divided the book in half, with complicated recipes representative of your cooking at Pujol supplemented by far more approachable, everyday dishes. Why this particular format?
A: Sometimes chef-driven books are hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t enjoy reading them, or you don’t get inspired by them.
That’s my part A. My part B has recipes that are easier to replicate. You can take it into the kitchen and not leave it on the bookshelf.
Q: I fear that I will never get my versions of your dishes to look anywhere near as good as your museum-quality versions. Is that a fair statement?
A: You probably will. It will just take practice and attention. Our food is simple, and labor-intensive. It depends upon making things with care. Everything well-made is beautiful, but not vice-versa. The focus is not on making things that look nice. We want to make nice things. If you pay attention, it will look great.
Q: This is your first English-language cookbook. What are you hoping that readers in a faraway place like Minnesota will take away from the book?
A: We always approach cooking in a very personal manner, and translate that into our cookbooks. We try to reflect the context of the restaurant, because when you go to the restaurant, you don’t get the whole picture. The book does that, it gives you context on Mexico City, on my food references and, of course, where we find our inspiration.
With fine dining, it’s difficult to reach everyone, but in the streets you see everyone eating tacos. Street food in Mexico has strength and power, and it’s available to everyone. The market is very inspiring, and it’s very democratic. We’re proud of having a menu that can be democratic, and not just for the rich and the elite.
Q: The mole verde recipe is gorgeous, and it’s interesting to see that you’re making it using vegetables that aren’t native to Mexico. Why is that?
A: Mexican cuisine is very complex. It has influences from all over the world, with ingredients and techniques from everywhere. If you put corn, tomatoes and beans into a dish, it will end up tasting Mexican. But asparagus? It might taste Mexican because technique and preparation will take it there.
And natives have a great impact, too. What we understand as Mexican food has to be viewed within a time frame. Look at the crops being produced in Mexico right now. Broccoli is the second-largest. I remember my mother saying, “It’s good for you.”
We’ve put a focus on vegetable-driven dishes. I like that we can make fine dining a healthy and nutritious experience. We want our customers to say that their meal was delicious, and that they want to come back because it was also healthy. During so many fine dining experiences, you’re thinking that you’re going to have to go running tomorrow. We want people to feel good. We want them to come back every week, and not have to think about their diet.
Q: You’re not a big fan of sweet desserts, are you?
A: I’m against sugar in general. It should be consumed in small portions. Mexico doesn’t have a big dessert culture. A big candy culture, yes. Really sweet candy. But I’m always trying to take sugar out of the equation.
Besides, the fruits in Mexico are amazing, and our desserts are fruit-driven. The flavors aren’t heavy and rich. After a five- or six-course meal, that makes sense. You want something light.
Q: When you’re talking about your restaurants, you use an inclusive “we” rather than “I.” Why?
A: We operate as a team effort, all the time. I don’t like to think of myself at the center. I like staying backstage. I don’t mind taking a back seat and allowing the team to shine.
Q: I’ll definitely be trying your recipe for tortillas. What’s your secret to a great tortilla?
A: The most important thing is to get really high-quality corn. It should be produced with care and have a beautiful flavor. Everything else is a matter of practice.
In a way, it’s like breadmaking. You need to learn how the corn feels, and then make adjustments. The recipe sets you up to a point, but then the only way of achieving perfection is by adapting to your own particular circumstances, and by practicing. That’s true for all cooking.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib