This article was published in French in Cuisines Revolution magazine in February 2018. This is the original version in English:
Sometime in late 2003, I found myself standing on the roadside in Querétaro, three hours north of Mexico City, clumsily eating a bistec taco with lime juice dribbling down my arm. Back then, I never could have imagined that Mexico would become one of the world’s hottest foodie destinations. Nobody took photographs of their food in those days – Instagram hadn’t yet been invented – but even if they did, I’m not sure I would have snapped that moment of grimy street-stall face-stuffing in the dark of night.
It’s not that the food wasn’t delicious – the spike of cilantro, the kick of chilli and the tang of lime from my first bites of real Mexican street food will be etched on my mind forever – it’s more that you didn’t associate these 25-cent snacks in their cheap paper napkins as something that anyone would ever travel across the world for. How wrong we were.
More than a decade later, I returned to Mexico for the first time and found a country with a thriving food scene, its inhabitants screaming with pride for everything their cuisine has to offer. Street food is still king – in fact, I eat my words as I discover the hashtag #tacos has almost 5 million posts – but there’s a whole world of Mexican gastronomy now that encompasses everything from abundant seafood and wine production in Baja California to craft beer in Monterrey, edible insects in Oaxaca and sophisticated fine dining in the capital.
It’s partly a change in attitude. Where, 20 years ago, Mexicans and South Americans would travel to Europe to learn to cook, they now have the confidence to look for mentors closer to home. Among the country’s top chefs, Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil learned the trade with Pujol owner Enrique Olvera, who in turn has become one of Mexico’s most well-known cooks. While Olvera himself learned French cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he made a decision when he opened Pujol in 2000 that he needed to travel within his own country to get to grips with real Mexican food.
With its focus shifted inward, a new generation of young chefs including Vallejo and Olvera has rediscovered local ingredients and brought them to Mexico’s plates. At Quintonil, named for a local herb, Vallejo puts vegetables centre-stage in a menu full of unpronounceable ingredients grown as locally as his restaurant’s own garden, while Olvera celebrates that most Mexican of dishes, mole, in a plateful of dark, sweet sauce prepared for more than 1,000 days.
It’s not just the local chefs who have noticed the potential of their produce – the world is paying attention too. In cities as far-flung as London and Copenhagen, real Mexican food is picking up pace, with mezcal now a recognised and respected drinks category and tacos gradually replacing burritos in people’s perception of what is truly Mexican.
It wasn’t a coincidence that René Redzepi, chef-owner of the four-time World’s Best Restaurant, Noma, moved his entire team this year to the beach paradise of Tulum for a seven-week pop-up, or that Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants chose Mexico City as the location of its fourth and fifth annual awards ceremonies. Despite years of political turmoil, this is a country that has finally proved itself as a culinary contender that can compete with the likes of London, Paris and Tokyo. After all, what makes the perfect foodie destination? The flavours, the people, the stunning views and the sunshine, of course – and Mexico has it all in spades.
As Redzepi himself puts it, on his return from Tulum: “The spirit, the way of being together, the humanity… Most of Europe is missing a little bit of Mexico.”
And he’s right – maybe we could learn a thing or two from our Latin friends.