Mexico City Chefs Don't Want to Be Fancy French Cooks Anymore

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Mexico City Chefs Don't Want to Be Fancy French Cooks Anymore

As Mexicans, we used to think our food was too humble for high-end restaurants and there was a trend for working with French chefs. Now, people are focusing on local produce and taking influence from classic Mexican cooking.

Mexico City chef Elena Reygadas is an intriguing new face on the Latin American culinary scene. After training at The French Culinary Institute in New York, she held posts at London's Fino and Locanda Locatelli, picking up Spanish and Italian flavours to thread through her own restrained style of Mexican cooking. In 2011 Reygadas returned to Mexico City and opened her first restaurant, Rosetta. A recent guest dinner at Lyle's in London saw her experiment with edible flowers, insects, cuttlefish, and octopus.

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Elena Reygadas at Lyle's, London. Insects, flowers, avocado, and kale.

We're really lucky in Mexico, we have good fruit and vegetables and we don't have to transform them too much. We just need to prepare them properly—at least that's what I try to do.

There's a new generation of chefs who are really trying to make the most out of what Mexico has. Maybe 20 years ago, the trend was to get a French chef from Paris and bring him to Mexico, pay lots of money, and do a French restaurant in Mexico City. As Mexicans, we thought our food was too humble for high-end restaurants so I think it's really nice that there are now places that focus on Mexican produce. It's not necessarily cooked in the classic Mexican way but people are much more open to new techniques.

Growing up, my father would always encourage my brothers and me to try all types of food. If you didn't like it, it wasn't a problem but at least you tried it. On the other side, my mother comes from a really big family of 14 brothers and sisters, so when I was young, there would always be lots of people at our house. She really enjoyed being a host and I always helped her in the kitchen.

The idea of going to cooking school was something I thought was really strange. I studied English literature but I kept cooking and until suddenly I realised, I'm finishing literature and I don't want to be a writer, what am I going to do?

Around then, my brother—who is a filmmaker—had his first film coming out and told me I had to help him with catering. It was quite complicated because it was in the middle of nowhere, in a really small town in Mexico with people who are used to beans and corn. The rest of the team were European and they didn't like the corn and the beans so I had to do two menus—one with pasta and vegetables and one with corn, beans, and chili. It was nice to see how we get used to certain flavours and that your taste develops from what is available.

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It was also the first time I cooked with responsibility and it's when I realised that I really enjoyed cooking. Everything came together. After that, I went to New York and did a course. I just thought, this is what I enjoy the most.

I think my father pushing us to try all cuisines is why I always like to be open. I don't have a problem with having a traditional Mexican ingredient mixed with an Arab one. People sometimes say it's not right but I think it's fun and new flavours come when you're open to them. For me, it's like finding a new jewel when you find a new flavour.

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When I came to London, I wanted to learn more about pasta and Italian food. I like the way Italians look at food in general—it's really simple, pure flavours with the best produce available, and I like the thing about using the hands to make pasta.

I found Locanda and felt really happy there. Eels and crabs arrived alive and there were vegetables I'd never seen before. Everything was done in house, from the bread to the pasta to the ice cream. I always felt that was my real school, more than [The French Culinary Institute in] New York. Thank god I spent much longer here than in cooking school. You just have to work if you want to learn.

When I had my daughter, I went back to Mexico because I thought it was difficult to be in London without my family. I was super sad and cried for the first year, but then I took the best of Mexico and saw that I could work and have people around for my daughter.

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I always thought I would train myself and learn as much as I could in order to have my own restaurant one day. In Britain you have these relaxed places with really good food, and I wanted to do that in Mexico City. Rosetta has atmosphere but is still a really relaxed place with good food so I think that's why people say it's humble! I try to do pure, clear dishes—not too complicated. I love when a few ingredients can really come out. I don't like when you don't even know what you're eating.

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At the beginning, I didn't work with insects because I still had an Italian influence really present. After opening Rosetta, I started to feel more comfortable, got to know more of the providers, and I started to leave the Italian on the side. I love Italian food and I still make pastas because that's the food I love to eat, but today I have a pasta with something like chicken livers. People ask me if it's an Italian restaurant and I say, I don't know, it's just the food I want.

My father loved insects. He always made my brothers and me see insects in a natural way. It's what the earth gives us and it's a real delicacy. You can't find the taste in anything else, you can really taste the earth through the insects. For me, it's not a strange thing, I just think it's something you have to appreciate.

As told to Phoebe Hurst.

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.