This Chef Is Revolutionizing the Way We Think About Mexican Food

With a pointed move away from Mexican restaurant tropes and an emphasis on local ingredients, Cosme's Enrique Olvera has captivated New York City.

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When the reigning king of Mexico City's restaurant scene began drawing up plans to open up shop in New York, he found himself looking at a city frozen in time. "We saw the potential in having a Mexican restaurant that can avoid stereotypes," owner and chef Enrique Olvera explains, "because the ones in New York, to me, were similar to the Italian restaurants of the '70s." He describes those as chintzy affairs, all "Chianti bottles and red-and-white checkered tablecloths," and says the city's Mexican restaurants are, on the whole, no better. "They're still playing idiotic mariachi music," he says, "and the decorations look like [they're from] an artisan museum in Mexico." He sits for a moment, baffled, at a table in the airy front room of Cosme, his seventh restaurant, and first in the U.S. "Restaurants are just not like that in Mexico."

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World-renowned Mexican chef Enrique Olvera explains the philosophy behind Cosme, his already-beloved New York City restaurant that opened in the fall of 2014.

When Cosme first opened its doors in October 2014, Olvera seized the chance to reinterpret Mexican fare in a uniquely New York style. "We knew we couldn't cook in the same way that we did when we were home," he says, "because the ingredients were going to be different." So he decided to let a locavore's sensibility lead the way. "When you're talking about ingredients, especially vegetables, most of them don't travel well," he says. "It just makes sense to buy local—and it's also fun because it gives you a sense of place, a sense of where you're cooking." The result is a menu on which sunchokes are as likely to be seen as guacamole, and octopus is almost as common as carnitas.

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Chef Enrique Olvera describes the mood at Cosme, as compared to Pujol, the restaurant that rocketed him into the global food conversation."For some weird reason, people think Mexican is cheap," Olvera laments, "but when you're cheap, it has to be about quality." With Cosme, Olvera has taken on not just a restaurant, but also the task of showing people the breadth of terrain Mexican cuisine can cover—and no, it isn't all cheap. "I am paying the same price for my lobster as the guys at Eleven Madison Park," he explains. "Why do you expect it to cost four dollars if it's on a taco, but it's okay to pay eighteen dollars for the same product if it's in a fine restaurant?" So far, Olvera has been quite successful at redefining diners' expectations—and though he seems generally unmoved by the city's other offerings, he makes sure to credit chefs like Empellón's Alex Stupak and Fonda's Roberto Santibañez for helping to lead the charge away from the traditional batch of misconceptions.

Shadows fall elegantly from 21st Street into the front room of Cosme. Photograph courtesy of Cosme
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Since opening Pujol in Mexico City in 2000, Olvera has rapidly risen the ranks and is widely considered to be one of the world's great chefs—but he still has a hard time processing that level of renown. "I never wanted to become a celebrity chef, and I don't see myself as that either," he says. "I'm normal: I have my restaurants, and I like having good relations with the people who come to my restaurants." He calls this aspect of being a restaurateur "the most beautiful part," and maligns unnecessary inaccessibility. "If you're up there and nobody can touch you, and you're like an intellectual," he explains, "you lose that connection."

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Olvera on the art of plating a dish.

So while much of the food on Cosme's menu feels inventive and cerebral—uni tostadas, duck carnitas, burrata with salsa and weeds—it never tastes overwrought. That could be traced back to his youth, when his mother regularly cooked him simple, heartwarming food. "To me, food is also about that: transmitting love and being able to take care of someone," he says. "The flavors should always be the guide." For this very reason, he often finds himself alienated by the world of so-called fine dining. "A lot of the time when I go to fine dining restaurants, they're technically beautiful, but the flavors are kind of boring, and subtle, and too elegant. There's something about peppers and spice and a ton of lime that just makes my mouth alive. It feels like it's bubbling inside, and I love that."

Lucky for us, Olvera loves what he does.

At Cosme, Olvera and his team aim to whittle cooking down to its purest essence, a pursuit he describes as "a decanting process. You're decanting your own ideas, and I think that's what we've done: We got rid of everything that we thought we needed to be, and just kept what we liked. That makes food more simple." 

Cosme's main dining room, in New York City's Flatiron district. Photograph courtesy of Cosme

That philosophy is apparent throughout the restaurant: the decor is spare, the lighting, low and tasteful, and and not a note of guitarrón can be heard emanating from the speakers. But between simple and easy lies a very big gulf. "It's also more difficult because there's nowhere to hide," he acknowledges. "When you're doing fireworks with the food, it's easy to hide your mistakes; when you're doing something very simple, either it's perfect or it's stupid—because if it's not [perfect], it's just a piece of fish. But if it's the most amazing piece of fish you've ever had, then you're changing the conversation."

To learn more about Enrique Olvera, check out enriqueolvera.com. For more on Cosme, see cosmenyc.com—and swipe over now to learn how to make their famous Corn Husk Meringue! 

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