It had been 7 years since I had set foot in Mexico. Growing up in San Diego, I had spent a decent amount of time in Baja surfing with my Dad and friends. I went to the Yucatan 7 years ago with Rene to do some dinners and a few lectures and was blown away by the “other” Mexico. So when Roberto sent me the mail to come and be a part of the ten-year anniversary dinner for his restaurant Nectar, I could not refuse.
I met Roberto 9 years ago when he was staging at the Fat Duck. He has, since then, staged at every restaurant I have worked at. Needless to say, we have become really good friends over the years. This is despite the fact that he left me standing alone to face a guy swinging a two-by-four in my face. When I asked our attacker what he was going to do with chunk of wood, I turned around to see if Roberto had my back. Roberto was running as fast as he could…in the other direction. When I got home he simply said, “Matteo, I’m a lover not a fighter.” We were friends for life from that point on.
This trip was epic. I arrived a day earlier than everyone so I had first crack at the local market and ingredients. When I asked Roberto a few weeks earlier what the set up was going to be, he simply said, “ Freestyle Matteo.” Just how I like it. The ingredients in the Yucatan are mind-blowing. Maybe because they don’t exist in our part of the world, the opportunity to use such unique products is akin to being a kid in a candy store. Recado Negro, Epazote, Zepote Negro, Pepito tostada, Naranja Agria. I could go on and on.
Roberto is over the top. He set us up for the first few nights at this outrageous Hacienda. The first night it was just Albert and myself out in the jungle. We were told there was food in the rooms for us, but in actuality, there was a bag of Cheetos, some tonic, two cases of beer, a bottle of mescal, and three cigarettes. At about 21:00, Pamela showed up with some eggs, raw masa and tomatoes. The girls made tortillas and we made tortilla Española. Beers and Cheetos for dessert. Can it get any better?
The next day, everyone else arrived and the festivities began. We went swimming at a cenote (basically a big hole in the earth with the cleanest, clearest water you’ll ever be in). The last cenote I was at was pretty big and when I asked if I could jump from the top, I was told yes, but I would be arrested. We rolled up to this one and I asked if I could jump. The guy said, “No problem. Let me move the rope.” I asked if it is a regular thing for people to jump, and he said, “Only the crazy Americans jump.” I climbed up, looked over the edge 25 meters looks a lot bigger when you are standing looking down as opposed to standing at the bottom looking up. I jumped and left my ass sticking out to far. It felt like someone spanked me with a baseball bat. My tailbone was sore for the entire trip. We also ate the most insane lunch that day in the jungle. Everyone raves about cochinita pork. Cochinita has nothing on lechón. I can honestly say that I ate between 80 and 100 tacos on this trip.
The dish I did for the dinner was local wild deer, cooked in toasted local pumpkin seeds with zepote negro, grilled and pickled chili, sour orange and epazote. I had never worked with any of these ingredients before. It took me back to the time when I was a young cook and someone had taught me a new technique or ingredient-the same giddy little kid feeling of awe. And then there were some, well, let’s call them local sourcing issues. When the deer arrived and half of it looked and tasted like pork. I called to see why they sent pork and was told it was “milk-fed wild deer.” I called bullsh*t right away. I was assured over and over again that it was in fact deer. I told them, “That’s great, but it tastes like pork.” Needless to say the correct deer was finally delivered and life moved on. In fact, it was the ongoing joke between Roberto and me for the rest of the trip. The dinner itself was great. I wish I could give you some elaborate story about the preparation for the event, but in the name of freestyle we really didn’t start to do any misenplace until 5 hours before the dinner. Ingredients trickled in as the misenplace pushed on. Someone took ten of my chillies and I started to freak a bit. Albert touched me on the shoulder and said “Relax Matteo, It’s Mexico.” Albert and I worked next to each other for the service and we had a blast. Service was reeeeeeally spread out. At midnight, the Mariachis started playing and the mezcal started flowing. The next thing I knew, I woke up at a beach house. Elena and Guillermo woke me up and Roberto took us to lunch. But the surprise was to come at dinner at one of Roberto’s friend’s place later that night. We arrived and after scanning the room for guests, we realize that the legend Jeremiah Towers (if you don’t know who he is, find out now) is standing there.
After the trip, I had a chance to think about why trips like this are so productive, especially in terms of being a new restaurant owner. Amongst other things one of the coolest things about a trip like this is that you get to chat with other chef/restauranteurs about their restaurants and the trials and tribulations that come along with owning a restaurant. It is a great time to share experiences and ideas. You get so caught up in the everyday life at your restaurant and you tend to not wander far from that bubble. There were no egos and everyone seemed really relaxed. There was such broad spectrum of chefs from Albert, who has 4 restaurants to Curtis who has been open for only a year to Benito and Jiar who own restaurants in Baja, to Guillermo who has multiple restaurants in Monterey, to Elena who has a restaurant in Mexico City. The advice and information that we exchanged over beers and Mezcal was amazing and I really appreciate those chats we had.
This was a great trip with loads of amazing people. A big congratulations and thank you to Roberto for making this happen. See you in January…