Dispatch, Mexico: The Hokol Vuh prep school

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Matt Orlando, chef of Amass in Copenhagen, samples a sauce being prepared by chefs Christian Puglisi (back to camera, left) of Reloe, also in Copenhagen, and Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn, on Lummi Island, Wash., as Esben Holmboe Bang of Maaemo in Oslo watches.
Matt Orlando, chef of Amass in Copenhagen, samples a sauce being prepared by chefs Christian Puglisi (back to camera, left) of Reloe, also in Copenhagen, and Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn, on Lummi Island, Wash., as Esben Holmboe Bang of Maaemo in Oslo watches. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann is in the Yucatan for the Hokol Vuh feast. His fourth dispatch follows.

Last Thursday afternoon, nine pairs of internationally renowned chefs took out their knives and got to work. The following day, each team would be expected to create a Mayan-inspired dish to serve at Hokol Vuh, a multi-course, $1,400-a-plate seated benefit dinner for 200 people.

They had spent the previous three days learning about Mayan ingredients and preparation techniques, and now it was time to gather in the kitchen of Chable, a resort in Yucatan, to test their ideas and do any prep that could be done in advance of the feast.

I approached Matt Orlando, former head chef of Noma and currently running Amass, a restaurant he started that's also in Copenhagen, and I asked if I could be of help.

I was more than happy to do kitchen grunt work in proximity to Orlando because I'm intrigued by his restaurant's vision. He's interested in exploring the unknown properties of not only familiar foods, but also of food byproducts that other chefs wouldn't hesitate to toss in a waste bin or compost pile.

Rather than dispose of shells, skins, stems, bones and other organic matter, Orlando grinds, heats, cools, inoculates, ferments, pickles, buries and combines what would be regarded by others as castoffs, and comes up with fascinating results. Out of the organic matter left over from the production of almond milk, for example, he created a product that tasted, and even had an edible rind, like brie.

I asked him at one point whether he would incorporate a food that was rendered edible and had nutrient value, but was less than delicious.

"No. Everything must be delicious," he said.

After accepting my offer of assistance, Orlando directed me to a mountain of epazote (a Mexican herb) and asked me to separate the leaves from the stems. I asked whether the leaves needed to remain in good shape or whether I could remove them with more speed than care. "You're going to puree them and make epazote oil, so it doesn't matter."

The leaves stripped off easily. As I worked, I mentioned to Orlando that I had once dreaded seeing the herb cilantro in any recipe until I learned that the stems are edible. Tearing the leaves off cilantro one by one was the worst sort of kitchen drudgery to me, so it was liberating to know I could simply chop the herb up, stems and all.

For his dish, Orlando had acquired 200 local bananas with the intention of slicing off some of the skin lengthwise, removing the flesh and using the remaining skin as a vessel for a dish incorporating grilled white corn, habanero oil and micro-diced mango, pumpkin, sweet lime and grapefruit, all above a squiggly line of recado negro (a sauce made from charred chiles) and topped with allspice leaves/epazote oil, and then smothered under a heap of roasted pumpkin seeds.

But there was a problem: the skin of the ripe banana turned out to be too thin to support the ingredients without splitting.

Orlando wasn't sure what he would do about it, but appeared confident he'd come up with a solution. After Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Wash. was told about the situation, he took time from his own preparation to place a banana, sliced open as Orlando had demonstrated, in a salt crust, and roasted it. The skin, supported by the crust, looked beautiful, but Orlando was determined to find something closer to his original vision.

Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann pours freshly blended epazote oil into a chilled bowl to cool.
Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann pours freshly blended epazote oil into a chilled bowl to cool. Photo Credit: Michelle Brito Alonso

In preparation for making the epazote oil, Orlando instructed me to fill the bottom third of a large metal bowl with ice and water, then nest a second metal bowl of the same size above it, which would chill the surface of the top bowl.

I was next to put leaves into the receptacle of an industrial-strength blender, and fill it about four-fifths of the way to the top. Into that I would pour in a half-liter of sunflower oil. Blending them together was not merely to create a puree, he said; they needed to be blended until the temperature of the puree reached above 140 degrees in order to release the chlorophyll from the epazote into the oil. Otherwise, it would give the oil a muddy taste and muddy look.

When the sides of the blender jar were warm to the touch and vapor was rising off the liquid, I poured the mixture into the chilled bowl to bring the temperature down quickly.

The oil was completed in four batches.

My reward: Orlando painted two stripes of the herbed oil over a spoonful of the mixture he had created from the other ingredients. It was sensational -- I wished I could somehow capture that flavor and revisit it on a regular basis.

As I was blending the oil, Orlando and his cooking partner, Anders Selmer (who owns two restaurants in Copenhagen: Musling and Koedbyens Fiskebar), had figured out that by leaving just a little of the banana attached to the skin, it would give the skin sufficient structure. They moved forward with the dish almost as originally conceived.

My job with Orlando finished, I turned around and saw chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., who had gotten a later start because he was with a group of chefs who had visited a local apiary that afternoon. He was slicing cucumbers. "Need help?" I asked.

The ultimate in kitchen drudgery: Separating cilantro leaves from stems.
The ultimate in kitchen drudgery: Separating cilantro leaves from stems. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

"Yes, if you could take this cilantro and wash it..." He indicated a bunch of the herb as thick, at its narrowest point, as a Mexican votive candle in a glass jar.

It was a lot of cilantro.

He instructed me to first cut off the dirty roots and give it several rinses in a sink basin, changing the water each time. I'd know when I was finished, he said, because the water would be as clean at the end of the rinse as at the beginning.

I did so, and was prepared to begin chopping it. "What I'd like you to do now is pick off each of the leaves -- you can leave about this much stem." He demonstrated, allowing about a quarter inch of stem to remain attached to each leaf.

This was, of course, a recurrence of my cilantro nightmare.

But times 100.

If a Mexican votive candle to St. Jude, the patron of lost causes, were handy, I would have lighted it. This was going to take forever.

Wetzel came over and helped for a while, but then had to return to his duties. Lisa Abend, a journalist based in Copenhagen, took pity and joined me in plucking leaves. If not for her, I would likely be there still.

The task finished, I joined the chefs for dinner. Generally speaking, I'm appreciative of the work that goes into a meal, but that night I regarded every salsa and every filling anew, remembering that someone somewhere, likely without the word "chef" in her or his job description, helped make the dinner a success.

The chefs pose with the kitchen staff of Chable, who prepared their meal on the night before the Hokol Vuh feast.
The chefs pose with the kitchen staff of Chable, who prepared their meal on the night before the Hokol Vuh feast. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

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