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.