Enrique Olvera has built an empire, not the kind of empire that colonises and oppresses but one founded on the ideology of connecting people, of cooking for people, nurturing them, cooking as an act of love. It’s an empire that has brought about a renaissance in Mexican culture and one which the world has embraced.
The chef and restaurateur presented his unique approach to cooking and the business of food at Identitá Golose, spreading his ideology of the positive messages contained within the world of gastronomy. "Mexican and Italian cuisine have a lot in common," he said.
“In terms of ideology, I think both cuisines started in homes. So, in Italy most of the cooking is done at home and not at fine dining restaurants and Mexico is the same.
“Mexican food is really about giving love and it’s heart-warming. In Italy it’s done by the ‘nonnas’, in Mexico it’s the ‘abuelas’. Taking care of people through food is something both the Italians and the Mexicans share."
There is more to it than just cooking to nurture loved ones. There are many historical threads that bind the old world and the new and within food, there is a living history.
“When it comes to ingredients,” said Olvera to a packed crowd at the food congress, “there are ingredients that connect us. For example, if you go to Veracruz which is a state on the Gulf of Mexico, if you say ‘a la Veracruzana’ which means ‘from the state of Veracruz, it’s always with tomatoes and olive oil and in Italy, that’s really the staple of the diet.”
Italy has its very strong culinary identity and that identity is tied inseparably and more specifically to Mexico.
“I don’t usually like to talk about where tomatoes come from, because it’s kind of useless but the original varieties of tomatoes where from Mexico,"explained Olvera, "then they travelled to Europe and they were domesticated in Italy. In general, there are strong connections between Italy and Mexico, more in the vibe of the food than in technique or specific ingredients, but even take polenta and tamale for example. So maybe we’re looking for connections that aren’t there but in general the vibe is the same. Eating together and conversation and food being central to daily life is something we have in common.”
Like the Italians, the Mexicans are full of contrasts and contradictions said Olvera. Mexico, however contains more extreme and widespread contrasts than you would find in Italy, they are inherent in what it means to be Mexican.
“In Mexico there are many different realities and they are in opposition to each other. It’s a very rich country in terms of natural resources and culture and yet it’s a really poor country when it comes to society and distribution of wealth. It’s a cuisine that can be simple like a clam with a squeeze of lime and cilantro and as complex as a mole cooking in a convent in Puebla that’s been cooking forever. It’s the simplicity of a tortilla and the complexity of a tortilla. Something that seems so simple to some people has layers of complexity. Those contradictions happen all the time.
“But not only contradictions contained in the world around us, they happen within ourselves. Mexicans are really hard working, but also like to party a lot.”
Despite these inherent contradictions, what Olvera has achieved is remarkable. He was one of the first to take Mexican cuisine and reinvent it, to modernize it, while respecting its traditions, and brought it to the rest of the world. This at a time when Mexico is going through a very tough period in its history. Every time you read a story about Mexico in the news, it’s related to violence, drugs, fear… Yet somehow, Mexican food is crossing barriers and borders, the world is rediscovering Mexican food in all its glory.
“There is bad news in Mexico,” said Olvera. “It’s a very bad moment, there has been a lot of violence there in the last two decades, but food has, almost impossibly, been able to extract itself from that reality and been a reason for people to travel to Mexico despite the violence.
“It has also helped us re-evaluate our identity as Mexicans. That renaissance in food, in cinema, contemporary art, in architecture and more, it comes from many of us who are very proud of who we are, of being Mexican. It has a very clear identity and I think the world has embraced it. Gastronomy is where I feel comfortable but it is happening in many other fields also.
While playing an ambassadorial role, food does more for Mexico and Mexicans. It has the power to change lives, to break the cycle of violence.
“Gastronomy is a good way to reverse the cycle of violence. If you’re cooking correctly and you’re buying from local farmers, being socially responsible and looking after your staff in the right way, you’re bringing tourism, they bring wealth into the local communities. So if you promote good gastronomy in Mexico, it becomes an act of resistance.
“Nobody in Mexico or anywhere else has violence as their first option. It’s usually your last option. So gastronomy is a way of changing our reality.”
Being a migrant chef in America is central to Olvera’s experience, it allowed him to see his home with a new and fresh perspective.
“I moved to New York when I was 18. I never felt any racism or anything like that,” he said. “I was in a cooking school with people from all over the world. I had friends from everywhere – Venezuela, Israel, the US. Also I think we Mexicans have cooking in our DNA, we feel very comfortable in the kitchen so when I worked in the US for the first time there were a lot of Mexicans in the kitchens and I felt at home.
“Then I moved back to Mexico, not only with a different view of Mexico, but of myself and being more conscious of what being Mexican meant to me. So five years ago we started Cosme and I returned to New York. I felt I had achieved a lot in Mexico and I wanted to start again in New York. I wanted to do something fresh and not rely on my good name which in Mexico was established.
“The political climate in the US at the moment, being a migrant there, made us cherish our culture even more. Being a migrant in New York somehow brought us closer to Mexico.”