There are some obvious benefits to running a restaurant in a Caribbean paradise: the tropical climate, the laid-back vibes, and an abundance of seafood straight from the sea. According to Eric Werner, there are also some less obvious ones—like not having to deal with the FDA. "In Mexico, I can go catch a fish, bring it across the street, cook it right in my kitchen, and serve it in my restaurant," Werner says. "I could never do that in New York. Here it has to go through so many inspections." It's one of the many things the native New Yorker appreciates about his adopted homeland.
At his restaurant, Hartwood, in Tulum, Mexico, Werner helps run three fishing boats with a co-op of seven fishermen who bring him everything they catch (in total the restaurant goes through about 50 pounds of seafood a day). And every once in awhile, he'll just hop in the Caribbean with a spear gun and nab a grouper himself.
Werner and four people from his team recently came by the MUNCHIES test kitchen to teach us how to break down a fish, and while they were here, they were kind enough to cook us up a seafood feast made up of recipes from Werner's cookbook, Hartwood: Bright, Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatán. But unfortunately, our kitchen is more than 1,500 miles away from Tulum's rich Caribbean waters, so Werner left his speargun back in Mexico. Instead, he opted for the phone.
It took him a dozen phone calls, but Werner managed to source some fresh AF seafood, including a red snapper, a roughly 15-pound striped bass, a massive bonito tuna steak, and a couple dozen tiger prawns so big you'd be forgiven for mistaking them for baby lobsters. The Hartwood team was gracious enough to use the first day of their month off to make a pit stop in our kitchen and treat us with the hospitality the restaurant has become known for.
When you think of Mexican food, you probably think of carnitas tacos with a kaleidoscopic array of salsas, chiles rellenos stuffed with cheese and drenched with tomato salsa, or chicken drowned in a rich mole sauce. But despite its location in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Hartwood doesn't serve Mexican food.
"For an outsider to come in and recreate a mole—how are they going to do that?" Werner says. "Unless you know that flavor profile as a child, you're not going to be able to make it as well as they do."
Hartwood is famous for its rustic, jungle atmosphere, fresh seafood, and its wood-fired food more than it's known for any specific cuisine, thanks to the chef's desire to create his own style of cooking rather than recreating the traditional food from a culture that is not his own.
"We touch on Yucatecan foundation of cooking. So when we get something, we look at how it was first used in Yucatecan cuisine and then we're basing some of our recipes off of that," Werner says. ""When I first came down there, I wanted to understand the culture, I wanted to understand all these ingredients, I want to go to all the markets. It's about having respect for a culture and community that existed a lot longer than ours."
Before Werner even arrived to the MUNCHIES kitchen, the team had gone shopping and was giddy with excitement about all the ingredients they couldn't find back in Mexico, like, for example, ground cherries. They also brought the standards they needed to recreate slightly different takes of dishes from Hartwood's menu.
Hartwood head chef Jamie Klotz made quick work of curing the tuna with salt, sugar, and chamomile, preparing it for a ceviche with ruby red leche de tigre—a super vegetal broth of beets, carrots, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and serrano peppers.
"We always hang chamomile in our kitchen, and it's nice to use it to give it just a bit more aromatic," Klotz said. "We use it whenever we get tuna. We usually get like one or two, and that's it within in a few months, so it's a special treat when we do get it."
Meanwhile, Werner starts cutting filets off the side of the striped bass, just as he's done countless times before. But when he first moved down to Tulum as a New Yorker used to working in kitchens where seafood took a backseat to terrestrial animals, his seafood knowledge was limited. And even when he arrived in Tulum—where, at the time, many local restaurants were using imported fish and ingredients from Sam's Club—the concept of breaking down a whole fish wasn't quite as foreign to him as Yucatecan cooking methods, but it wasn't that far off either.
"I think that going down there was an eye-opening experience to how many species of fish are in the Caribbean," Werner said. "The first two years of education was learning about all the different types of fish, all the different characteristics of each fish, when the fish are running, and when you get them and how to fish for them—everything from spear fishing to single line."
Werner finishes breaking down the bass and hands it of to Klotz to slice for a ceviche with ginger and mezcal that's a perfect balance of smoky and citrusy, sweet and spicy.
Meanwhile the rest of the team slices avocados and grapefruits, and puts the finishing touches on the ceviches. They cut the tiger prawns in half and "get the thanksgiving dinner out of them," as Werner euphemistically refers to the, um, less palatable part of the raw shrimp.
With the ceviches just about ready to go, Werner throws the halved tiger prawns on our grill, and I ask how he likes working in our kitchen filled with the electricity and gas lacking at his wood-burning jungle kitchen lacks. "I feel like I'm going to blow this place up, to be honest," he says.
But the prawns come off the grill and and are placed on a bed of hoja santa and vegetables dressed in a spicy, smoky mezcal chipotle sauce. The Hartwood team manages to keep our kitchen in tact and explosion free, and serves us a luxurious lunch we couldn't possibly deserve.
And yes, they even give us bowls of freshly fried tortilla chips and passionfruit-mezcal cocktails. And for the rest of the day, it's not hard to pretend we're on vacation in the Caribbean.