MEXICO CITY -- Christopher Kostow foraged in the open stalls of the Mercado San Juan, the most gourmet of Mexico City’s crumbling, pungent public markets, as vendors hawked: “This way, this way! What can we offer you?”
Kostow, whose Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley has three Michelin stars, wanted to sample the diversity of the country’s fresh ingredients: gray oysters from Baja California, lychee-like hairy rambutan from southern Chiapas, and bags of red flying ants from Oaxaca.
Like other top chefs from around the world, Kostow comes to study and experiment with the purity of ingredients and flavors in real Mexican cuisine, now a top export commodity that was dismissed for decades as tortillas suffocated in heavy sauces, cheeses and sour cream.
“I don’t know if you come to Mexico to learn what’s new, but rather you come to Mexico to learn what’s old,” said Kostow, referring to the ancient cooking traditions of the many indigenous groups. “There are flavors of great depth, and there are techniques that are pretty challenging.”
Though the movement has been slow, Mexico in the last few years has begrudgingly earned the respect of an Italy or France as a destination for the world’s foodies, be they top chefs such as Kostow, who was crowned America’s best new chef just three years ago, or curious foreigners in sandals writing food blogs and leading mezcal-tasting tours.
Mexico’s diverse terrain, from deserts and coastlines to cloud forests and jungles, has produced a vast range of flora and fauna that since pre-Hispanic times provided the ingredients for dishes that vary by ecosystem. It is the perfect model for the new global trend to cook “paleo” and eat local.
In Mexico, that includes worms, grasshoppers and insect larvae, long considered caviar-like delicacies that are now being introduced to a wider world.
“A lot of people that I know are sort of turning their eyes to Mexico as a new place where a lot of innovation is going to happen,” said Lars Williams, the research director of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. “It’s going to be a very strong player in the culinary world.”
Star chef Alex Stupak, who runs a high-end taco joint in New York, visited a Mexico City street food stall and made a cellphone recording of cooks kneading masa dough to make huaraches, thick oval tortillas topped with cheese and steak resembling the leather sole for which they’re named.
He is experimenting with pasta made from the same dough.
“We are trying to get the right consistency,” Stupak said.
Up-and-comer Rosio Sanchez, a Mexican-American pastry chef at Copenhagen’s Noma — recently named the best restaurant in the world — made her signature Gammel Dansk dessert, substituting the Danish liqueur with tequila and bathing the creamy whey in bitter cactus juice.
The leaders of this movement include Mexican chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol restaurant, a pioneer in the country’s rediscovery of its authentic cuisine. He has been featured in local magazines as a young yet influential cook who has managed to modernize Mexico’s pre-Hispanic food traditions in an elegant way.
His menu includes tostadas with escamoles, ant larvae, and green mole made with different types of ubiquitous Mexican herbs cultivated since Aztec times, known as quelites, that can range in taste from spinach salty to minty.