Dispatch, Mexico: Hokol Vuh, a gastronomical experience

Chefs Rene Redzepi of Noma in Denmark, Ana Ros of Hisa Franko in Slovenia and Roberto Solis of Nectar in Mexico at the press conference as Hokol Vuh began.
Chefs Rene Redzepi of Noma in Denmark, Ana Ros of Hisa Franko in Slovenia and Roberto Solis of Nectar in Mexico at the press conference as Hokol Vuh began. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann is in the Yucatan for the Hokol Vuh feast. This is his first dispatch.

It is an unprecedented assemblage of 18 of the best chefs in the world, gathering initially In Merida, Mexico, to begin learning about Mayan ingredients, cuisine and culture.

For five days, they will tour the state of Yucatan, see historical sights, meet artisans and local chefs, eat unfamiliar produce. And then, paired with another chef they may have just met, they will create new dishes for 200 people who have each paid $1,400 to taste the chefs' interpretation of regional foods.

The final night's meal, and the trip, share the same name: Hokol Vuh.

On the evening of the first full day, Jose Luis Hinostroza surveyed the two tables where the chefs sat down for dinner.

"He's the best chef in Norway," Hinostroza said, indicating a tall, tattooed and t-shirted man.

He continued: "He's the best in Russia. She's the best female chef in the world. He's the best chef in Australia. He's the best in Spain."

On it went. A significant number of the chefs are alumni of Noma, a Danish restaurant which is considered by many critics to be the best in the world. (It is currently closed as a new location is being prepared.) Noma's founder and creative force, Rene Redzepi, was sitting at one of the chefs' tables; he was instrumental in assembling the invite list. 

Hinostroza himself is on the staff of Noma, and was there to assist Redzepi.

Redzepi is no stranger to Mexico. He "popped up" in Tulum recently, and some of those involved in that project returned for this one.

On Day 1, I was seated at the equivalent of the children's table, with chefs' assistants, a sommelier, a food stylist and a photographer.

Across the table from me was Michelle Brito Alonso, a sommelier, who was brought in to advise the chefs on beverages.

Her Mexico City-based consultancy is positioned as "sensorial," promising to connect what one eats and drinks to senses and memory. "My job is to make sure you connect foods and beverages with something happy, something great in your life."

The most important things in life occur in moments, she said, and she tries to bring together foods which could subliminally connect to, for instance, a sunset.

For one client, a jazz musician, she began by interviewing him about the inspiration for every song on his recent album. Each, it turned out, was deeply personal. She put together a combination of drinks and dishes which, she felt, directly connected to the feelings he was expressing in music, and his fans paid to attend a concert/meal.

Nacho Urquiza photographs one of the dishes served to chefs on the opening night of Hokol Vuh. His wife (and food stylist), Laura Corderal, provides soft light.
Corderal and Urquiza photographed (without enhancement) every dish that arrived at our table in Nectar, the highly rated restaurant of event godfather Roberto Solis. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Hinostroza, on my left, said he sees -- literally sees -- colors associated with the foods he eats. (It is not necessarily the actual color of the food.) He is experimenting with creating dishes by pairing foods which he sees as being of like, or opposite, colors.

On my right was Laura Corderal, food stylist, and her photographer husband, Nacho Urquiza.

Corderal told me about her secrets to enhance food for photography, and that when she is done, she has also rendered it inedible.

Corderal has translated more than 700 books from English to Spanish, including those in the William Sonoma library.

I asked what she learned as a result of those projects.

"Food ingredients are infinite," she said.

Still, chefs must make choices. In a few days, we'll find out which Mayan-influenced ingredients, in what combinations and quantities, are expected to satisfy expectations that are $1,400 high.

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