Mole is not perhaps the first dish you’d imagine being served in a restaurant that many imagine to be Italian – a label given to it by critics since its opening. At that time, Elena Reygadas - 2014 Latin America's Best Female Chef - was back in Mexico after having spent time in London, where Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli had guided her toward using, and respecting, the very best seasonal ingredients.
Her culinary evolution since has been the natural flourishing of someone returning home to explore and find culinary inspiration, using ingredients from all corners of their country. Reygadas takes the condiments and ingredients she finds and makes them her own. For diners this means a steady stream of new creations, and for her staff, new experiences.
Experiencing Mexico Afresh
Elena recently developed a passion for the aromatic baya from Veracruz, and soon experimented with these pink peppercorns, blending them in a daring fusion with white chocolate, pine nuts, almonds and pulque to make a pink mole, served with suckling pig and the aromatic hoja santa herb. This is perhaps one of Rosetta’s most out-there dishes. The word mole has pre-Hispanic origins, and can be traced back to the Náhuatl word molli or mulli – mixture – to describe the salsas that are prepared using ground chillies, condiments and spices, and that range from the vegetable to velvety, complete with hints of cacao. In Mexico, mole is generally a dark sauce with a depth of complex flavours to match its cultural significance.
Traditional Mexican cooking is not Elena’s thing, though its influence does subtly work its way into her dishes, particularly in her choice of ingredients which defined her palate from a young age. For example, she likes to incorporate pulque (an ancient drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant) into various salsas and breads. The range of products in Mexico is far wider than you might think, and Elena is constantly on the lookout for ways to broaden our expectations: “We always talk about maize, but there are other amazing cereals like sorghum wheat or ramón, a tree found in the Yucatán,which produces nuts that are used to make flour for bread and tortillas. What I like is finding these different products, making the most of the country’s diversity and trying to get my customers as excited as I am when I come across these ingredients.” This may explains why the menu has two pages: on one side you have the most tried-and-trusted dishes, perhaps with some seasonal variation, on the other there are suggestions that reflect the chef’s more free- wheeling side, the result of her insatiable curiosity.
Sometimes her creations are off-the-cuff, such as rosemary ice-cream with fresh herbs and honey, while others are more carefully thought out. But harmony ultimately prevails; whimsy has no place in Elena’s kitchen. She has a knack for marrying flavours in her dishes very naturally, and is fond of using herbs without fear of using them beyond a particular plant or recipe’s usual confines: take her pesto, for example, which is made with chaya leaf (a Mexican plant containing more minerals than spinach). For me, her cuisine and deserts are the most interesting in Mexico
Elena may look delicate, but this appearance masks a firm character required to manage the 90 employees who make Rosetta possible. Her cuisine eloquently reflects her personality. Unique, direct, fresh, without unnecessary ornament and elegant in the extreme. She likes to create deceptively simple-looking dishes that are in fact packed with flavours, where the product and its qualities can shine. An example of this is the white asparagus prepared with pancetta, tarragon and a little butter emulsion, or oysters with horseradish, sea spinach and borage.
Her recipes often turn things around, and elements of a main course may be found in a dessert, and vice-versa. This is the case with the foam of ricotta with lime that she then served as perfect raviolis filled with that same cheese and citrus shavings; puddings are distinctly herbal, entrées more fruity and sweet. She likes to push the envelope. Her questing nature will lead to sudden exclamations about ideas for a new dish: “híjole, this macadamia nut would work great with fish!”
Reygadas does not set out to concede, she sees her task differently: she wants to create. Italian cuisine is purist and sticks to its own ingredients; in Elena’s kitchen, such boundaries do not exist. Her dishes reveal an affinity for Arabian food with couscous and baby chicken, or the perfectly prepared gizzards served with yoghurt and za’atar, both of which take us to an England that likes meat and has a large population of Middle Eastern origin. Her dishes also nod toward Asian cuisine, such as in tempura-style catkins, shiso leaves bursting with freshness and dashi for the Ensenada abalone.
Born of her search for perfection and control over her raw materials, Reygadas now has a line of fresh bread, pickles and cold meats. This led to the opening of her own bakery, Panadería Rosetta, followed by her most recent project, Lardo, Mexico City’s new foodie hotspot. Essentially a bar-brasserie, with an open kitchen and a much more casual vibe than the flagship restaurant, this new venue offers a menu of dishes prepared using cured meats with a hint of smokiness, and memorable delights ranging from the pesto-filled shrimp , proving that informal restaurants can be full of exciting flavours.