As a kid, Enrique Olvera spent hours in his grandmother's bakery in Mexico City. He loved watching everyday ingredients like flour, sugar and eggs fuse into something entirely different.
For Olvera, even the simple act of baking a cake felt like magic.
He absorbed every detail as his grandmother gently coaxed masa into handmade tortillas. On Sundays, he joined his father in the kitchen, chopping onions and tomatoes for breakfasts of scrambled eggs and dry beef.
That vantage point drives Olvera's new cookbook, Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes for the Home Cook. But Olvera, the chef behind Mexico City's Pujol, one of the world's top restaurants, almost turned away from a career in the kitchen.
Despite the draw of the family bakery, Olvera's father didn't want his son spending too much time there. He wanted Enrique to go to college and get a degree.
So for a while, Olvera reserved his bakery work for summer vacation. It was the art of seduction that ultimately led him from his grandma's kitchen to the world of high cuisine.
The teenage Olvera fell in love, and wanted to impress the girl so much, that he learned to cook beautiful meals for her. Those meals not only landed him a wife, they also inspired him to sign up for culinary school. But with that decision, the debate between father and son bubbled up again.
"I think it was really tough for him because as he was growing up, my grandparents had a fight over whether he should go to school or take over the pastry shop," Olvera says.
Those difficult conversations may have contributed to his grandparents' marriage falling apart, Olvera says. For his father, the pain of those long-ago conversations still lingered, a generation later.
"For him, it was personal — the fact that I was going to go back into the kitchen," Olvera says.
Olvera made a compromise with his dad. He found a culinary program that offered a bachelor's degree — at the Culinary Institute of America — and left Mexico for New York.
"I think once we went to school and he saw it was not just like guys having fun, he was OK with it," Olvera says.
In New York, Olvera immersed himself in the curriculum at the top-notch culinary school. Like most training grounds for professional chefs, Olvera's lessons were steeped in the cooking of Europe. For example, he dutifully learned to speckle the rims of his dishes with little dots of sauce — drawing on the traditions of France, not Mexico.
"Mexican food doesn't respond to any of that," he says. "So if you see how we cook, we don't saute, we're burning things down, we're using the stems. The only thing that you can apply to Mexican technique is the passion for the craft. But the techniques are entirely different."
At 24, Olvera returned to Mexico City — and opened Pujol. Olvera's flagship has repeatedly made lists of the best restaurants in the world — its success built on the techniques he learned as a kid in his grandma's bakery and his parents' kitchen.
"It is impossible then to separate our cooking from our family story, from the products from the region we grew up in, or the regions our ancestors hailed from," Olvera writes in Tu Casa Mi Casa. "It is impossible not to carry, wherever your path leads you, the flavors you grew up with."
With Pujol's success, Olvera went on to open four more restaurants in Mexico and two in New York. Now, he's getting ready to roll out two more — this time, in Los Angeles.
Over the years, the flourishes he learned in cooking school began to fade — decorative sauce dots and all.
"We've made peace with our own aesthetic, with the aesthetic of Mexican cuisine," he says. "Because after going to culinary school, when I would see chiles rellenos, it was like, 'I don't know if that's beautiful or not.' I was too close to it."
Now, the cover of Olvera's new cookbook features a simple photo — of chiles rellenos.
"Now I see that picture, I feel it's so beautiful. It's colorful — simple but elegant. And the plate is a little chipped. Before, that would be unacceptable. And now, it's perfect. That imperfection actually attracts me a lot more."
Because perfectly imperfect is exactly how it would be at home.
The radio story was edited by Matt Ozug.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Last year when I was visiting Mexico City for my first time, I had the amazing luck to snag a table at one of the top restaurants in the world, Pujol. I wish I could say I dine at places like this all the time, but I don't. I have never sat down to a meal featuring mole aged more than a thousand days alongside ox tongue with quail eggs. It was dazzling. It was a meal I could never in a million years see myself preparing at home. But the chef at Pujol, Enrique Olvera - he doesn't want his high-end restaurants to feel worlds apart from your kitchen table because ultimately, he says, all cooking is an act of love.
ENRIQUE OLVERA: You don't need to make 1,800-day-old mole.
OLVERA: Just a simple quesadilla can show a lot of love.
CHANG: We met Olvera inside the kitchen at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. He's out with a new cookbook that he hopes will reconnect people with the love he believes drives all cooking. The book's called "Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes For The Home Cook." The recipes are like artifacts from his childhood, a time in his life when he would spend hours on any given day hanging out in his grandmother's bake shop in Mexico City.
OLVERA: My father didn't want me to go work too much at a bake shop.
CHANG: Why not?
OLVERA: I don't know. I guess he wanted me to study (laughter).
CHANG: That's so funny because my mom is an amazing cook, but when I was little, she would always shoo me out of the kitchen. She would just say, go study; I'm going to feed your brain; go study (laughter).
OLVERA: Yeah, it's the same thing.
CHANG: So I never learned (laughter).
CHANG: But unlike me, Olvera was smart enough to stay planted in the kitchen, absorbing every detail as his grandmother gently coaxed masa into handmade tortillas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OLVERA: This is one of my first food memories, just - my grandmother used to love this.
CHANG: We're kneading masa now, which is essential. The warmth and the motion of the hands erase the cracks in the dough. That prevents the tortilla from cracking later.
It's soothing to just stand here.
OLVERA: It's good exercise. So instead of going to the gym, just make tortillas.
CHANG: Right. I'm going to have a really buff right hand.
When the masa's smooth, you're ready to flatten it into perfect circles. You roll a piece into a small sphere, place the sphere between the sheets of plastic and center the corn putty inside the jaws of the tortilla press.
And, Enrique, I just smash to my heart's delight, right? Bam.
OLVERA: Like, literally put all of your body weight - yeah, perfect. And then flip it. And then do it again.
CHANG: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHANG: Then place the raw tortilla onto a hot pan until it puffs up.
It's like a little pillow.
OLVERA: So it souffles.
CHANG: Slide a lime across the warm skin, add a dash of salt - instant snack.
OLVERA: Smell of tortillas is also very - I think it's very seductive. I'm probably biased.
CHANG: The art of seduction is exactly what led Olvera from his grandma's kitchen to the world of high cuisine. He fell in love as a teenager and wanted so much to impress the girl, he learned to cook beautiful meals for her. Those meals not only landed him a wife, they inspired him to sign up for a culinary academy in New York.
OLVERA: My father wanted me to go to college. And so I started looking at some cooking schools that had a bachelor's degree. And that's one of the reasons I ended up in New York.
CHANG: Soon after graduating, Olvera returned to Mexico City to open Pujol when he was barely 24. And with Pujol, Olvera wanted to celebrate Mexican cuisine. He wanted to push it to its fullest potential. But in those early days, he struggled to figure out what to borrow from his formal training and what to throw away.
OLVERA: Training at most cooking schools are mostly European and French techniques. And Mexican food doesn't respond to any of that. So if you see how we cook, we don't saute. There's - we're burning things down. We're using the stems. The only thing that you can apply to Mexican technique is the passion for the craft, but the techniques are entirely different.
CHANG: Over the years, Pujol has made the lists for the best restaurants in the world. Olvera has gone on to open four more restaurants in Mexico, two in New York. And he's getting ready to roll out two more in LA.
Does working in high cuisine constantly - does it kind of pull you away from the simple love of cooking at home, so you have to deliberately return to the family kitchen table to reconnect?
OLVERA: The inspiration in our restaurants is home cooking and simple cooking. So we've always been very connected to that. And whenever we want to travel for inspiration, we go to small towns in Mexico and visit people's homes. You know, they make tortillas for us. They make salsa for us.
CHANG: Salsa - to me, salsa is the thing I buy in a jar when I need to bring something to a party. But in Olvera's cookbook, salsa shapeshifts from chunky to brothy, from richly red to glowing green. He calls salsa the very essence of Mexican cuisine. And today, he shows me how salsa ranchera can spring from charred tomatoes, garlic and serrano peppers.
OLVERA: You want to burn the...
CHANG: Oh, yeah. OK. Until it blackens?
OLVERA: Get it black. There's nothing intimidating about burning stuff. You know, I think most people have a really easy time at burning things.
CHANG: I think I could handle this, Enrique. I think even I could do this.
After the vegetables soften, you want to smash them up in a molcajete, a heavy bowl made from volcanic rock. Never, Olvera says, never ever grind those veggies in a blender.
OLVERA: My grandmother used to say that if you make salsa in the blender, it would taste like electricity.
CHANG: You could taste the electricity.
OLVERA: So you should always make it in the molcajete.
CHANG: I scoop up a big blob of salsa, and I slam into my mouth momentarily, forgetting just how many serrano peppers we mashed into this stuff.
OLVERA: With pepper, it's like really strong.
OLVERA: And then it goes.
CHANG: You're right. No, now it's good. Now it's good.
And just as the burn of a hot pepper fades, the conventions of haute cuisine have slowly faded at Pujol. Olvera's is getting back in touch with the kitchen of his childhood memories, casting off fussiness for simplicity, even when it comes to plating. Gone are the little dots of sauce that used to speckle the rims of dishes.
OLVERA: It's not Mexican anyway, you know. And we've also made peace with our own aesthetic, with the aesthetic of Mexican cuisine because after going to culinary school, you know, I would see chile rellenos, and it was like, I don't know if that's beautiful or not. No, it was just - I was too close to it.
CHANG: But then Olvera points to the cover of his new cookbook. It's a simple photo of chile rellenos.
OLVERA: Now I see that picture, I feel it's so beautiful. You know, it's colorful, simple but elegant. The plate is a little chipped. Before, that would be unacceptable. Now, it's perfect. That imperfection actually attracts me a lot more.
CHANG: Because perfectly imperfect is exactly how it would be at home. Chef Enrique Olvera, thank you so much.
OLVERA: It's my pleasure. (Speaking Spanish).
CHANG: Chef Enrique Olvera. His new cookbook is called "Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes For The Home Cook." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.