Cooking on the Road: Mexico
By Ryan Pera
I was invited to cook at Mexico Wine and Food, the premier food and wine event for the great country of Mexico, along with esteemed chefs like John Tesar, Aquiles Chavez and Maycoll Calderon. This was partly engineered by our good friends at Hola Houston, an effort by the City to spotlight our role not just as a provider of world class medical care, but also as an international center for the arts (culinarily foremost), and a model metropolis benefiting from the rich bounty of the multiple international cultures that converge here in the Bayou. I was inclined to go, since, as I’ve often stated to my wife, very matter-of-factly and not at all whiney-like, “I’ve never seen the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.” I did accept, and not just because the Caribbean and white sand beaches called my name. It also seemed to be good timing (a Sunday), not a crazy time of year, no prior commitments…all signs pointed to ‘yes.’
Thanks to Cupid hitting a few sous chefs on the Agricole chef team that led to them running off and getting married, I found myself traveling to Cancun without a culinary side-kick. No matter, I thought. It’s all good. I can prepare a dinner for 500 tony Mexican foodies without any help. I still got it.
I felt different as soon as I stepped off the plane. It was less than three hours from our newly renovated IAH--the same duration of which could have landed me in Cleveland, LA, Charlotte--instead, I breathe the warm, tropical air, and let a friendly greeter lead me to a friendly driver, who took me to the friendly porter of a luxury hotel filled with incredible numbers of friendly staff.
We jumped in a rental car for a quick trip to Tulum, where I could scratch my anthropologist’s itch at the well-deservedly famous Mayan ruins. I had barely time to reflect on pre-Columbian Mayan accomplishments in science, architecture and cuisine (my heroes, for the brilliant process of nixtamalization), when it was time to head back.
I headed to the hotel kitchen to debone 200 quail, washed 70 million pounds of quinoa, shaved a billion fennel heads, squeezed upteen gallons of sour orange juice, and roasted a gazillion pounds of American pork ribs for the guests.
I finished my prep in time for a late night tequila shot before crashing onto the best hotel bed. Ever.
In the morning, I was off to the kitchen before breakfast. Today, my workload was lessened by the efforts of a pair of culinary students from a local school, limited only by their experience and my ever-improving, but woefully inadequate, mastery of the Spanish language. I was joined in the kitchen by the hardworking teams from John Tesar of Knife in Dallas and Maycoll Calderon of Huset in Mexico City. The students, hotel staff and I watched as Maycoll took apart a whole fish--a gorgeous, 50-pound grouper. A true master at work. The day flew by. My internal clock was opposed by the pace of these kitchen novices, who might have been slowed by the very restful sound of the waves crashing on the white sand, but who has time for that? My young student, Jose, tells me he has never worked the grill, but is ready to try. Say good-bye to that arm hair, I thought to myself, and agreed. What choice did we have? I had done enough of these events to know that my role was to explain the food as much as it was to prepare it, and I would need Jose’s help on the grill.
As we set up for the event on the beach, I realized this was my first party with a shoe check. Bang, 8 PM, and the grill fires are raging. In came the crowd--tanned, beautifully dressed but shoeless. They quickly formed lines in front of each eatery’s service station. If egos were fed by the longest lines and the quickest 86s, then I am set for life. I learned later that the gossip around the festival was of the great pork ribs in lane 3, which explains how quickly I ran out. The reviews later on social media were blush-inducing: ‘poetry,' ‘momentos exquisitos.'
What is the familiar vibe that I feel while walking through that hotel lobby, or by the pool surrounded by the blissfully tan or ruefully sunburned of all ages, or as the sun set and the party began on the Maya Riviera? I realize that my time in an open kitchen has served me well. I have learned to sense, through the air, by the volume of the voices rising above the festive music, the sound of joy. These people are having a good time. Not unlike the reassuring sound of the pitch and pace of the patient’s heartbeat in my wife’s operating room, the volume of the voices around me and the laughter say it all. I don’t have to look up from my task at hand to know all is well in the dining room…or in this case, out on the beach.
There was another bizarrely familiar aspect about working this event. I had a constant sense of déjà vu. I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until later. My quickly formed team had found its stride. We were grilling and chilling, plating the dishes, reloading the grill. This sincere, earnest, hard-working group of students and the service staff of the hotel reminded me of my home team in Houston. It made me grateful to be surrounded daily by such an amazing group, but I also felt a new awe of Cancun, which seems to draw out or encourage or maybe just not get in the way of the genuine warmth and caring of Mexican hospitality. Que Bueno.
Later, due to our presence at a resort catering to Americans, I did find it necessary to coach the bartenders in how to produce a margarita for a Texan. After a long two nights of cooking, I was happy to partake of their excellent learning skills and settle by the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean to sip that margarita.