By Jumko Ogata-Aguilar
Mexico City’s Pujol is considered by international critics as one of Mexico’s most prestigious restaurants. But Enrique Olvera has built his prestige upon the appropriation of traditional Mesoamerican ingredients, making his dishes palatable to mainly white and international audiences.
Mexico City’s Pujol is considered by international critics as one of Mexico’s most prestigious restaurants. Created by chef Enrique Olvera in 2000, its website describes its founder in the following fashion: “His cooking is always changing; it draws ideas from everywhere, always reinterpreting and evolving, but with roots in Mexican ingredients and techniques of all times.” Since 2013, William Reed Business Media has published an annual list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants “to provide diners around the globe with local insight and culinary recommendations.” Pujol peaked on the list at number 3 in 2019, and even though it ranked number 5 in 2020 it is still regarded as The Best Restaurant in Mexico by Reed’s World Top 50 list.
Pujol currently has two menus to choose from: the first is a six-course tasting menu, either maize or seafood-based, while the second is a taco omakase (chef’s choice) arranged in a nine-course meal. The average cost of a meal at Pujol starts at 2,500 Mexican pesos, about $155 Canadian. In 2020, it was granted the Flor de Caña Sustainable Award by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, which certified that the restaurant uses ingredients that can be traced back to farmers who avoid the use of agrochemicals. The group also organizes workshops to help these producers use less environmentally invasive production methods. The prize also notes that Olvera created an educational kitchen garden at Pujol so customers can learn about sourcing, traceability, and food waste and learn how to apply these ideas within their own homes. The prize also mentions how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant was part of a fundraising campaign for migrant workers in the U.S. and ensured its staff received full payment of their salaries during the lockdown. Finally, it highlights Chef Olvera’s support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, whose main priority is to end world poverty and hunger.
In May 2021, a young chef named Ximena published her experience of working briefly at the restaurant. She worked 16-hour shifts, six days a week, for a salary of 14,000 Mexican pesos, for a restaurant whose income is around 10 million pesos per month.
These awards portray the Pujol as a sustainable space where Mexican culinary traditions are honored and reinvented, with chef Enrique Olvera at the helm. However, in May 2021, a young chef named Ximena published her experience of working briefly at the restaurant. She worked 16-hour shifts, six days a week, for a salary of 14,000 Mexican pesos (about $868 CAD), for a restaurant whose income is around 10 million pesos ($620,500 CAD) per month. Ximena’s testimony catalyzed other workers at Pujol to anonymously share their stories via a Twitter account named “TerrorRestaurantesMX” (Restaurant terrors in Mexico). There, they have been documenting abuse in the restaurant industry throughout Mexico, focusing mainly on gourmet eateries in Mexico City. They posted a thread by former workers denouncing abuse in the workspace, ranging from shifts that were well over the established eight hours to sexual harassment and racist violence towards employees. By the beginning of June, chef Jesús Durón, along with other former chefs who had worked at Pujol, posted a message admitting they’d had to neglect friends and family due to their work but claimed they were never abused. Instead, they praised the fantastic working conditions at the restaurant (including competitive pay, vacations, and rest days that the workers are entitled to, among others).
On June 4th, in a post that has since been deleted, the restaurant officially published its stance on the allegations, repeating its commitment to providing optimal working conditions regulated under Mexican legislation and posting the results of a psycho-social risk factor at work-study that it hired a private firm to do, which found the restaurant posed a low risk to its employees’ well-being.
At this time, news of a class-action lawsuit against chef Olvera and chef Daniela Soto-Ines (granted the title of World’s Best Female Chef) in their U.S. restaurant, Cosme, resurfaced. It sparked a conversation in Mexico about labor exploitation that began with, but was not limited to, the restaurant industry.
An important part of this conversation must involve a discussion of the degree to which Pujol’s recent success is based on its menu, which is based on traditional Mexican cuisine, and how this choice seems to follow a recent trend of food gentrification. Mikki Kendall speaks to this social phenomenon, explaining how inexpensive ingredients are “discovered” by gourmet chefs and suddenly become fashionable delicacies that quickly rise in price and therefore become inaccessible to the communities that traditionally eat them. In Kendall’s words: “The gentrification of food is a global problem, with global consequences. As each gentrified food moves out of the financial range of those at the lowest income level, the question of what will be left for the poor to eat becomes more pressing.” Kendall highlights the fact that the chefs that appropriate and “re-package” these ingredients don’t belong to the cultures they’re taking from, disrespect their culinary traditions, and profit from ingredients and dishes at the expense of the communities that created them.
This is a simple but meaningful example of the ways gentrification operates within the gourmet context; dishes that are normally consumed in meaningful cultural contexts are stripped of their symbolism and offered in an exoticized fashion to whoever can afford it.
Pujol’s original concept was to offer “contemporary cuisine with jumps towards the orient and many references to new American cuisine, with very little about Mexico,” however, its first two years saw little success and all of chef Olvera’s partners, except for his father, abandoned the project. By 2006, he decided to “reinterpret” traditional dishes, and in 2013 realized that “[Pujol] took themselves too seriously, and they had to rethink their idea of cooking Mexican food … we decided to leave the discourse behind and search for the aesthetics of the dish, we looked toward the ingredient, we worked at it less, we respect it more.” Now, one of its most famous dishes is the “Mole Madre.” Mole is one of Mexico’s most diverse and traditional recipes and varies greatly not only between regions but in family recipes. Olvera’s take on mole is to use leftover sauce to create a new batch, day by day creating an aged flavor served with a more recent batch to be eaten with tortillas, and no silverware. In contrast, most people who eat mole wouldn’t dream of just eating it with a single tortilla; they eat it with chicken, or tortillas filled with cheese or egg, amongst many other options.
This is a simple but meaningful example of the ways gentrification operates within the gourmet context; dishes that are normally consumed in meaningful cultural contexts are stripped of their symbolism and offered in an exoticized fashion to whoever can afford it. In addition, his use of insects as ingredients is simply an imitation of what Indigenous communities have done for thousands of years — and have been historically vilified by racism. However, practices once deemed “gross” by elites are now appreciated when they’re re-packaged and made “gourmet” by a white chef. Enrique Olvera has built his prestige upon the appropriation of traditional Mesoamerican ingredients and making them and his dishes palatable to a mainly white and international audience. He is credited as being in the vanguard of sustainable food practices (such as the prize mentioned earlier, as well as his collaboration with the United Nations) for repeating what Indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica have done for thousands of years, while also allegedly abusing the descendants of these cultures that work in his restaurants in Mexico and the U.S.
In this bleak situation, what can we do to confront these exploitative dynamics if we want to enjoy Mexican cuisine? If you visit Mexico, instead of trying to snag a reservation at restaurants like Pujol, try out local markets and the variety of fresh ingredients and food they offer. Buy ingredients and dishes at local small businesses. Instead of recurring to “official” tourist guides, talk to local vendors, taxi drivers, and people you encounter in the day to day and ask about the places where they eat and what they recommend. Making an effort to learn about the history of different Mexican dishes is great, but actively deciding to redistribute your own funds toward Indigenous and Black Mexicans is an important step when recognizing how gentrification operates, particularly when it comes to food.
The issue of food justice is tied inextricably to race and class, so paying a fair price is fundamental to the recognition and questioning of inequality, so that no person will lose access to the ingredients that they and their communities have enjoyed for generations.