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I’m eating dinner at Kaban at Chable Maroma, the brand-new five-star wellness resort in the Mayan Riviera, and I want to cry out of pure joy. The food is perfection. The dish is a mushroom carpaccio prepared with regionally procured seta mushrooms, Yucatan avocados (four times the size of regular avocados), herbs from the resort’s organic garden, and local serrano chilis. The source of all this freshness is sustainable-gastronomy curated by chef Jorge Vallejo of Mexico City’s Quintonil, the 11th best restaurant in the world. It’s thrilling, practically subversive, that this master of sustainable fine dining has infiltrated a region that teems with tourism, where many resorts sling wrist bands, blast reggae, and serve cuisine so generic, Mexico all but disappears.
“It’s important for us to share with visitors from other parts of the world how rich our culture is,” Vallejo tells me the next day as we sit together at Kaban, sipping club sodas with lime slices. Nothing separates us from the waves but a turquoise-blue swimming pool and a stretch of white sand. Vallejo, who used to cook for Enrique Olvera at Pujol (which, at number 13, fell behind Quintonil on this year’s Best Restaurant List), looks unassuming, refreshingly un-chef-like, with his polo shirt, his clean-cut hair and his baby face. He main goal is to make delicious, responsible food that honors his immediate surroundings and elevate his country. “Chable (one of the chef’s other restaurants) is luxurious,” he says, “but you never forget you’re in Mexico.” One example he points to is Kaban’s inclusion of cochinita pibil, normally a lunch or dinner recipe, on the breakfast menu: “Around here, locals eat it for breakfast,” he says, shrugging. He adds, “Mexicans used to be ashamed to be Mexican. When I was first cooking, the only good restaurants in Mexico were French. Now there’s great Mexican fine dining. We’re proud. And visitors love it.”
High-end resort food has, in general, become more sophisticated in recent years, because travelers – thanks to Instagram or to the Food Network or, perhaps, to authenticity as a backlash against modern life – have become more sophisticated. Gone are the days of chefs in tall white hats carving roast beef from a spit. Now luxury travel is foodie travel; discerning resort guests want to experience not just the resort, but the destination. They want to learn about the region’s cuisine. They don’t want their meals flown in from the other side of the world. And more and more, their desires are being fulfilled: At Tabacon Hot Springs Resort, for example, guests can enjoy a Costa Rican coffee class and tasting, and at the breakfast buffet, the resort’s home-grown herbs are set out still in their soil and pots for guests to snip onto their eggs. Breakfast at the new Excellence Oyster Bay includes typical Jamaican dishes: ackee and saltfish, goat curry and roasted breadfruit. At The Resort at Pedregal in Los Cabos, entrees at the restaurant Don Manuel’s are “sea-to-table”. (Think soft shell crab risotto.) At Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, the chef will take you shopping in the charming Tuscan market and teach you how to make gnocchi. At Casa Palopo in Guatemala, a local woman comes with her comal to shape tortillas by hand for the guests.
And at Chable Maroma (Vallejo is also the chef for the first Chable, opened two years ago in Merida), Vallejo buys fish directly from his favorite local fisherman, meat and eggs and produce are carefully chosen from local farmers. Almost everything is organic. “People see luxury in a new way,” he says. “People think differently about enjoying life. Enjoyment used to be about having a new car. Now it’s about experience. Collecting memories. So, food has to offer that. And chefs want to offer that, too: “we don’t want to just feed people anymore; we want to create experiences for diners. We want our food to tell a story,” Vallejo said.
It might seem like a stretch that any resort anywhere, regardless of how delicious the food is, can “tell a story.” Resorts inherently shield travelers from what’s happening around them. But Vallejo convinces me that you don’t have to be in the pueblos, eating tacos with the locals, to experience how the paisanos live. You can stay at a resort like Chable Maroma where luxurious rooms are made of local materials, where the spa offers regionally inspired treatments, including a “floral adornment ritual,” and where the chef has done the hanging-out-in-the-pueblos for you experiences, creating relationships with the food growers, eating with them in their kitchens. “There’s even a story in a fried egg,” Vallejo tells me. Where did the egg come from? How perfect and ripe is the tomato? “And then you just feel it,” he says. “It’s like a good song. I’m not the best English speaker, but when I listen to a song and don’t understand the lyrics, I can still feel the sadness or the joy. If it’s good,” he says, “you feel it.” ■