Mexican chef Enrique Olvera talks about the challenges of opening his New York restaurant, Cosme

Laura Price - 11/02/2015

Enrique Olvera is probably the most well-known Mexican chef outside Mexico. His restaurant Pujol is No. 20 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and No. 6 in the Latin America list, he has already expanded within the country with three Eno coffee shops in the capital and a restaurant in the coastal resort of Playa del Carmen, and now he has opened his first location in New York.

Cosme, named after a market he used to visit as a child, was two years in the making and finally sprung to life in Manhattan’s Flatiron District at the end of 2014. Here Olvera discusses the challenges of opening a restaurant outside his home country.

In the past, most Mexican food outside of Mexico has been related to fast food and to versions that are over-simplified. I’m sure if you talk to a Japanese chef after he goes to eat in most Japanese restaurants outside Japan he’ll probably say the same, and we understand this is part of how food travels. However, we wanted to change the story a little bit.

I’ve always enjoyed challenges and New York is one of those challenges for chefs. It’s one of those places where it’s really complicated to open a restaurant and it’s really complicated to operate. The fact that I went to school there [The Culinary Institute of America] also had something to do with it.

The dream started two years ago. I went to cook at my friend Alex Stupak’s restaurant in New York. Two young fellows, both named Santiago, went to that dinner and told me they wanted to open a Mexican restaurant with me. I’d already gotten several offers to open in New York and I thought it was just some guys saying they wanted to open a restaurant, but a few months later they showed up at Pujol with a business plan to open a contemporary Mexican restaurant. We hit it off right away.

It was very important for me to be part of the investment – I didn’t want to just be a chef. When you put money into the game, you take better care of your business, so that’s one of the main components of the success at Cosme.

We wanted a concept of Mexico that we related to. I didn’t grow up with mariachis – I don’t relate to that Mexico. I feel more identified with a multicultural, contemporary society. It’s time to go past the lucha libre and all that paraphernalia – we wanted to change the conversation and show something we related to. In that process we also met the architect of Cosme, Alonso de Garay, and we talked about this idea of a restaurant that was very clean and modern.

The name Cosme came from the Mercado San Cosme. My grandfather used to take me there when I was a boy and I’ve always wanted to name one of my kids Cosme, but my wife wouldn’t let me because she said it’s a dog’s name! I figure if I can’t name one of my kids Cosme then I’ll name one of my restaurants that instead.

Coming from a fine dining background with Pujol, there are many things that I think are really wrong with fine dining. First of all, there’s a lot of waste. There are a lot of stupid decisions being made in fine dining restaurants just for the sake of aesthetics. When you cut things into geometrical patterns that are not present in nature, it doesn’t affect the flavour. When you chop onions into small dices they cook evenly, so that makes sense, but there were a lot of decisions that we made in Pujol that were based on showing off. We didn’t want to do that in Cosme so the food in Cosme is very simple – it’s driven by flavour and logic. It’s not driven by trends or what’s cool, it’s something that’s a lot more honest.

The restaurant has basically no decoration – the floor is cement, which we use a lot in Mexico. The walls are just grey – that’s something we like about Pujol – the idea is that the only thing that matters is the food you’re eating and who you’re eating with.

Mexican food is related to being happy and partying, maybe because of the acid level and the spice level, and we wanted to do that in the restaurant. The playlist is made by Nancy Whang. We’ve worked with her a lot so that the whole ambience feels very Mexican – it’s festive and happy.

Tacos are a way of life – they are not a dish. In terms of the food, we knew we needed to have a very strong tortilla programme. You can make a taco with foie gras, you can make a taco with anything, so tortillas are the backbone of our culinary programme.

We started bringing heirloom corn from Mexico to the US. If you go to Cosme we’ll say “today’s tortillas are from this producer”. It’s like wine – you don’t say you want white wine, you say you want Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s the same with corn.

Some of the products we’re using are from Mexico, like the dried chillies, but almost everything else is from New York. Sometimes chefs are a little bit too orthodox in how they approach food and they’ll say “I would never use something that is not Mexican.”

It would be stupid of me to lose the opportunity to use the ingredients that I don’t have in Mexico. You have all this beautiful fish in New York – it’s one of the most important fish markets in the world. The lobster we use is local, the snapper comes from Miami, the octopus comes from Portugal so we’re trying to mix and match.

One of the problems with the perception of Mexican food is that it’s heavy, spicy, that if you eat it you’re going to regret it the next day. Yes, some of the celebration dishes are like that, but those are meant to be eaten once in a lifetime. We don’t eat mole every Friday – it’s for a celebration or a wedding. At Cosme we wanted to focus on the Mexican cuisine that’s more driven by vegetables and by seafood, so there is a lot of influence from those things and from what we eat every day.

The menu is based on food that’s clean, easy, honest – things that you want to go back to. With fine dining sometimes you don’t want to go back [to the restaurant] but we wanted Cosme to be a restaurant that you want to go back to all the time.

Watch the video of Enrique's presentation in London: