IT HAPPENS on a Thursday morning in Oaxaca, and everyone at the table can see it. René Redzepi takes a bite of a breakfast dish that has been placed in front of him, and something passes across his face like a wave of light.
Over the years there have been pilgrims who have travelled to Mexico to experience mind alteration with buttons of peyote, but for Redzepi, a man who is often referred to as the greatest chef in the world, transcendence comes in the form of enfrijoladas.
Admittedly, it doesn’t look like the food of the gods. Enfrijoladas consist of little more than soft handmade corn tortillas that have been blanketed with a sauce made out of pulverized black beans. It’s classic peasant food. But what ferries Redzepi through the portals of illumination is a leaf.
The trailblazing Oaxacan chef Alejandro Ruiz, who is beaming at the head of the table at his Casa Oaxaca Café with his wife and son, has spiked this black-bean sauce with a hidden depth charge of flavour: patches of foliage from a local avocado tree. With one bite, layers begin to reveal themselves.
“You think you know what it’s going to taste like,” Redzepi says. “This to me is the best mouthful I’ve had in Mexico. I can’t believe the flavor of this leaf. Wow. I’m getting chills.”
“I never take pictures of food, but I have to,” mutters Danny Bowien, an American chef who has come along for the ride. “I have to, man.”
Redzepi has traveled to Oaxaca on something of a crusade. People who know about the chef’s cooking at Noma in Copenhagen might be surprised to learn that the man who is cast as the charismatic godfather of the New Nordic movement that has transformed the global restaurant landscape has a gastronomic infatuation that’s as far from the forests and fjords of Scandinavia as you can get. Redzepi is truly, madly, deeply in love with Mexico.
I learned about this one cold afternoon when I met the 36-year-old Dane at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan.
I figured we’d spend an hour or so murmuring in solemn Ingmar Bergmanish tones about the chilly wonders of the wind-blasted Scandinavian shore. Much to my surprise, Redzepi carried himself with a bright, self- effacing, surfer-like casualness.
He seemed practically Californian. After a few minutes, he stopped talking about the New Nordic thing altogether.
Instead, he drifted into a trance state about the flavours of Mexico and the great, game-changing chefs he had befriended all over the country.
He got a faraway look in his eyes. He assured me that Mexico was the “next place” in the evolution of global gastronomy — a “sleeping giant” about to wake up with a roar.
He liked to say that for decades — centuries, really — the indigenous spirit of Mexican cooking had been muffled, like the ruins of a Mayan temple buried beneath a Catholic church put up by Spanish conquerors.
After the innovations of Ferran Adrià’s experimental cuisine in Spain and the New Nordic movement in Scandinavia, gastronomes have been amping up their interest in Mexico and Central and South America.
In the United States, chefs like Roy Choi, April Bloomfield, Alex Stupak, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wesley Avila and Bowien are finding ways to reinterpret the taco, and around the world there’s a burgeoning sense that the culinary spotlight might be shifting to Mexico. Cloudberries and lumpfish roe? What Redzepi was really craving was a taco.
And so, for nearly a week, he planned to eat, talk and swoon his way through Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tulum and Mérida. The most influential chef on the planet was about to embark on the ultimate taco quest.
These days Noma occupies the top spot on the most attention-getting international ranking of elite kitchens: the annual list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
It first landed there in 2010, propelled by Redzepi’s aptitude for wresting deliciousness and color from the austerity of the surrounding landscape.
Noma’s cookbooks overflow with a bounty of nourishments that many of us didn’t even know we could eat: musk ox and milk skin, sea buckthorn and beach mustard.
Somehow Redzepi brings out the stark beauty in his foraged, fermented, smoked and salvaged ingredients, and, perhaps even more impressively, he makes you want to pick them up with your fingers and place them on your tongue.
On the surface, the cuisine of Mexico might seem like the New Nordic movement’s chilli-peppered antithesis. You don’t find a lot of jalapeños in Denmark.
What you do find there is the same thing you can scarf down in college towns around the United States: fat, bland burritos, watery salsa made with half-white tomatoes and cheap, cheese-gooey nachos that are about as far from the true flavour of Mexican food as Speedy Gonzales is from Emiliano Zapata.
For most of his life, that’s what Redzepi assumed Mexican food was. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says.
“Back then, my idea of Mexican food was what we have in Europe, which is like a bastardised version of Tex-Mex. Everything’s terrible. It’s grease, it’s fat, it’s big portions.”
But in the summer of 2006, Solís, a cook who had interned in the kitchen at Noma, invited his former boss to the Yucatán Peninsula for a few days of cooking at Nectar, his pioneering restaurant in the sleepily mesmerising city of Mérida. Redzepi soon found himself on a draining daisy chain of flights from Copenhagen to Mexico.
“It was one of those stupid trips,” he remembers. “I was just so tired and bummed out.”
He arrived in Mérida in a sour, foggy mood, and much to his annoyance, Solís immediately escorted him to Los Taquitos de PM, an open-air taco stand on a desolate thoroughfare.
This is what Redzepi found: “Coca-Cola. Plastic chairs everywhere. Mexican music out of a loudspeaker.”
Not exactly the French Laundry. Solís ordered three plates of tacos al pastor. In the dish, chunks of pork, stained scarlet after first being bathed in a chilli sauce with achiote and other spices, are shaved off a spinning vertical skewer and placed on a bed of corn tortillas with strips of pineapple on top.
It is said that Lebanese immigrants helped create the dish when they brought shawarma to Mexico. But all you need to know is that when the gods find themselves hunting for drunk food after a bender on Mount Olympus, these tacos are what they want. They’re that satisfying.
Redzepi had never seen such tacos before. He winced. Pineapple? he thought. Like on a bad pizza? Then he took a bite and his worldview trembled and reeled.
“That first mouthful,” he says. “Soft. Tasty. Acidic. Spicy. It’s like when you have sushi and it’s great for the first time. I couldn’t believe it. My virginity was taken. In the best possible way.”
From then on, Redzepi couldn’t stop himself. It was as though he was caught up in an intoxicating affair.
Even as he polished and perfected the New Nordic cuisine that would make him famous, he started slipping away for pilgrimages to Mexico. Every village and roadside stall felt like a new world.
Redzepi might try to make enfrijoladas outside of Mexico, but even he would probably fail. “You have to have an avocado leaf,” he says.
“From that little tree. On a hill. Near Oaxaca.”
“It’s like a whole new energy enters your body when you come out to these parts,” says Eric Werner, the chef and co-owner of the Tulum restaurant Hartwood.
We’re in a Jeep heading into the humid thickets of the Yucatán jungle, and the red-dirt road is turning into a thumping riot of dips and jags.
The vehicle keeps tossing back and forth like a dinosaur’s plaything. Werner, a 36-year-old with the tangly beard and piercingly bright eyes of an Old Testament prophet, is an American, but in 2009 he and his wife, Mya Henry, uprooted their lives in a gentrifying New York City and headed for the shaggy-drifty refuge of Tulum.
A year later, they opened Hartwood, which has quickly gained a reputation for the elemental beauty and purity of its food. Many of Hartwood’s chief ingredients come straight from a milpa, a rural organic farm a couple of hours away from Tulum.
It’s that milpa that we’re bouncing into now. When we get there, Redzepi enters another state of rapture. He darts around the rocky, weedy expanse with Werner and Antonio May Balan, the 54-year-old father of 10 whose family has tended this land for many years.
Redzepi approaches this land and its produce with the same voracious curiosity that he might bring to a sylvan glade back in Scandinavia, except that for him, being here is akin to being on Mars.
There are dwarfish lime trees. There are chillis the size of Tic Tacs that, when plucked from a branch and placed on your tongue, unleash an instant conflagration of capsaicin. Redzepi says: “It’s like a present. A new flavour.”
WO days later, in Oaxaca, with Ruiz as his guide and Bowien as his sidekick, Redzepi steps into a market that seems to stretch on for miles.
He plows through it like Bugs Bunny on a carrot bender, nibbling into tacos and plums and tamarinds and densely fatty corozo nuts, spitting out seeds and shells as he walks. He picks up a sheaf of green leaves and gasps. “Look at the quality of this epazote,” he says.
Redzepi and Bowien make a fascinating duo. Redzepi is the New Nordic pioneer who is not entirely Nordic: His father, of Albanian heritage, moved to Denmark after growing up in Macedonia.
Bowien has specialised in giving a souped-up vroom to Sichuan and Mexican cuisine, but he was raised on neither: He was born in South Korea but adopted by a white couple in Oklahoma.
Both chefs carry themselves with the confidence and wariness of the perpetual outsider.
And both of them had a lousy go of it last year: Bowien saw his molten-hot Manhattan flagship, Mission Chinese Food, shut down because of violations of the city’s health code, while 63 diners at Noma came down with norovirus just a couple of months before the restaurant temporarily lost its top spot on the world’s 50 best list.
Because of all this, perhaps, they’ve bonded — and Redzepi appears to have taken Bowien under his wing.
As we amble and devour our way through Oaxaca, Bowien starts to fret about whether he’s going to be able to come along for the Tulum leg of the journey.
His wife and their new baby son are stuck back in Mexico City. He feels guilty being apart from them. Redzepi, whose own wife is due to give birth to his third child in a matter of weeks, shifts into life-coach mode.
“Tell your wife,” he says. “You’re coming to Tulum.”
“I could go, yeah,” Bowien says. “That would be insane, though.”
“Chef, this is your future here we’re talking about,” Redzepi argues. “You have a Mexican restaurant.”
“See if you can get there by three,” Redzepi goes on. “You’ll have a swim in the Caribbean sea. That’s better than 15,000 Xanax.”
“I just had a baby,” Bowien protests.
But resistance is futile; he’s already faltering. Bowien materialises in Tulum the next afternoon. He looks simultaneously fired up and dazed.
As the sun goes down, he joins us as we wander up the road to get a taste of Werner’s cooking. Hartwood, at night, glows in the coastal blackness. Torches flicker. A hot orange light radiates from the wood-fired oven.
“Look at that heat in that kitchen — heat and smoke,” Redzepi says, admiringly.
The place has a kind of wild, primitive elegance. If Keith McNally had existed back in the Stone Age, this is the restaurant he would have dreamed up.
Werner and his team take local proteins — octopus, grouper collar, pork ribs slathered in jungle honey — and roast them to a point of breathtaking tenderness and char.
With each platter that comes to the table, Redzepi and Bowien pretty much wilt with pleasure. Everyone is full, everyone is exhausted. But Redzepi has one last command.
“One thing we have to do?” he says.
“We have to go to the beach. We have to go look at the stars now.”
Moments later we’re huddled silently on the shore, scanning the Mexican night sky and scouting out the rim of the waves for sea turtles.
Naturally, it is Redzepi who sees the racing flare that the rest of us manage to miss.
“Did you see that shooting star?” he asks.
“It was like the brightest I’ve ever seen.”