The Best of Mexico: Mexican Culinary Art at Its Finest
For my family firmly rooted in Midwestern cuisine, boiled corn on the cob slathered with melted butter and a few shakes of salt was a seasonal staple. We couldn’t imagine that the fungus growing on corn was equally edible—and, in fact, quite delicious.
Considered by many American farmers to be a disease, the dark pillow-like growth found on some ears of corn is known in Mexico by the Aztec name huitlacoche (wheat-la-CO-chay). For Chicago-based trend setting Chef Carlos Gaytan of Mexique restaurant, this is considered a gastronomic delicacy.
In October, I followed Michelin star Chef Gaytan as he returned to his native country to join the elite company of five internationally acclaimed Mexican chefs for a stunning four-night gastronomic extravaganza. The Best of Mexico event was held at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, a sustainably designed foodie-focused luxury resort in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The first night’s gathering—a collection of media, resort guests and prominent locals—was held at the signature AAA Four Diamond restaurant Frida, named after legendary painter Frida Kahlo and crowned as one of Mexico’s 50 Best Restaurants.
A 10-course gastronomic experience launched guests on a sophisticated journey of textures, flavor fusions and delicacies that represented the rich, colorful heritage of the country.
Chef Gaytan proudly presented his huitlacoche tamale, seared scallops and creamy poblano chili sauce with fennel. The dish was matched with a glass of pulque—a foamy, milk-colored alcoholic beverage made by fermenting the sap of native agave plants, complete with pistachio pearls and coriander seeds.
Guests continued to partake in dishes from each guest chef which included a local totooaba fish—similar in taste to an American white fish—with mussels and yellow mole; tongue with a dust of mesquite; black seafood ceviche with mulla, which is a Lebanese semolina cracker bread; followed by shredded beef oxtail with smoked Oaxaca, a local artisanal cheese with chili dust. A dessert named “A Symphony of Maguey” was presented with three different agave creams drizzled over sweets. Each dish was meticulously paired with regional or imported fine wine, local craft dark beer, or a mescal—a traditional Mexican agave spirit.
The cuisine festivities continued on Saturday afternoon with the opportunity to mingle with Chef Gaytan and other featured guest chefs while enjoying a Yucatan regional-inspired buffet featuring cuisine from local and student chefs. Memorable dishes included a slow-roasted pulled-pork taco locally called cochinita pibil, topped with pickled red onion and habanero chili. The succulent-tasting pork, an indigenous variety of a hairless pig native to the Yucatan Peninsula, was sourced locally. Once considered extinct, the breed is now raised and harvested specifically for the local chefs. Sweets included a traditional dessert called marquesita, a hand-rolled waffle cone with cajeta quemada, or Mexican goat-milk caramel that had a consistency of soft-serve ice cream, topped with semihard shredded cheese.
The following evening’s chefs’ menu dinner was held at Cocina de Autor, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant, featuring cutting-edge cuisine by award-winning celebrity chefs Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Olonso from Mexico City. The last night featured French cuisine at Pilaf, by Chef Michel Mustiere, highlighted with foie gras, escargot, black truffles, duck confit and soufflés.
Mentoring to Students
“In order to cook good food, you need to be a good person,” said Mikel Alonso, executive chef of Biko restaurant in Mexico City and guest chef. Speaking to a group of local culinary students, Alonso and the other Best of Mexico chefs offered personal insights to eager listeners. Carlos Gaytan and Alonso were joined by Zahie Téllez, Francisco ‘Paco’ Ruano and Alejandro Heredia. Chef Gaytan, who is from a small town outside of Acapulco, spoke about his personal passion and dedication to be a good role model for all students studying gastronomic sciences. Gaytan’s first job in the business was as a dishwasher in a Chicago hotel. His commitment earned him a promotion to the cook line, where his creativity was noticed, elevating him up the ranks. It is a full-circle moment for Gaytan to be addressing culinary students at a five-star resort in his home country.
If You Go…
Since its 2008 opening, all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Maya has become an international destination for fine dining for adventurous foodies, featuring eight renowned restaurants. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are a priority, as evidenced by the hotel’s greenhouse for growing year-round herbs and salad greens.
Less than four hours by plane from Chicago, the resort is set on 206 acres in a zen-like tropical jungle with white sand beaches and the largest spa sanctuary in Mexico, encompassing more than 90,000 square feet. The resort also possesses its own water treatment facility to recycle water along with many other environmentally conscious initiatives.