Postcard from Oaxaca: The Gourmet Awards
When it comes to gastronomy, I don’t give much credence to best lists, awards, prizes and the politics that invariably accompany them. There has been much controversy within the professional culinary community about who and why S. Pellegrino 50 Best has chosen who they have. A New Yorker reporter interviewed me and several colleagues here a couple of years ago trying to extract juicy gossip about the inner workings of the Latin 50. One restaurant owner, in his cups, made reference to inclusion for the kind of favors better left unsaid. I knew to whom he was referring, and the reporter knew I knew: she tried to pry it out of me but I wouldn’t talk. Who really knows.
Michelin, meanwhile and its meticulous system of inspection by very knowledgeable researchers, while to many increasingly irrelevant, is at least reliable and relatively scandal-free.
In Mexico we don’t have Michelin. We do have Culinaria Mexicana’s well researched “120 Mejores Restaurantes” guide, for which about 40 of the country’s top food writers and editors earnestly vote. As I am amongst them, I can honestly report that voting is swayed only by the CDMX-centric nature of the judges, and that every effort is made to expand beyond the borders of the capital. There also exist a couple of highly commercial, less than scrupulous guide books and sites as well as umpteen blogs, Instagram and twitter accounts of varying quality.
The Gourmet Awards, in its eighth year, bills itself as “the Oscars of Gastronomy” and is backed by Travel & Leisure magazine. Prizes, chosen by a small group of reporters, editors, food photographers and high-profile media personalities, are doled out at a ceremonial dinner, Oscars-style. The good news is that a concerted effort is made to include and recognize chefs and restaurants from the four corners of the Republic, as well as from local venues, in this year’s case, Oaxaca.
This reporter and a select group of food/travel writers as well as many renowned chefs, were schlepped down to Oaxaca City last week to present, receive and report on the winners. The gala dinner, held in “La Calera”, a converted mineral refinery, combined Hollywood-style Chanel & pearls glamour with down to earth, hard working industry earnestness. The joy many young and not so young chefs expressed was genuine and redeemed what could have been seen as a decadent, Champagne-soaked back-patting fest.
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the moment the top prize, named in English “Best of the Best” was awarded to the very much deserving Máximo Bistrot. Chef Lalo García, who tends to shun the commercial/social side of the restaurant world and has limited patience for schmoozing, and his wife co-proprietor Gabriela Lopez Cruz were genuinely proud to receive their “G” shaped statuette. They have toiled for years at what is possibly the finest and inarguably most consistent kitchen in the country.
The three young Rivera-Rio brothers of Monterrey’s Koli exuberantly took their prize for beautiful plating and that’s saying something as the artsy visuals are highly competitive in color-filled Mexico.
New opening in Mexico City went to Meroma, an unpretentious colonia Roma bistro run by a skilled Mexican/American couple, Mercedes Bernal and Rodney Cusic.
Le Chique, the undervalued gem near Cancún that celebrates Mexican gastronomy through post-modern eyes was recognized for its ‘degustastión’ (tasting menu).
The ‘most promising chef’ award went to David Castro Hussong of the picturesque and unpretentiously creative Fauna in the Valle de Guadalupe. Baja was again lauded as Drew Deckman grabbed the ‘regional cuisine’ prize.
In the same regional vein, Celia Florian the tireless promotor of traditional Oaxacan cooking at her Las Quince Letras, was given an ovation as she accepted a well-deserved trophy for her work in the category of ‘trayectoria de cocinera tradicional’.
As happy winners, gracious runners up and exhausted reporters chomped on tacos of grilled tasajo nursing hangovers at the market the next morning, the many briefly abandoned restaurant kitchens, best and nearly so, began to be repopulated by their proprietors. I and many of my colleagues were pleased with the choices, and as always,, take it all with a grain of salt.
A partial list of nominees (winners in bold) are below:
Best of the best:
Carmela y Sal
Masala y Maiz
Mejor Arte al Plato
Mejor Restaurante Local
Las Quince Letras
Mejor Experiencia de Vino
Mejor Experiencia Dulce
Restaurante de Hotel
Cocina de Autor Riviera Maya
Mejor Casual Dining
Agua y Sal
Mejor Menu Degustación
David Castro Hussong (Fauna, Valle de Guadalupe)
Mercedes Bernal y Rodney Cusic (Meroma, CDMX)
Elsa Olmos (Cercano Comedor, CDMX)
José Luis Hinostroza (Arca, Tulum)
Israel Loyola (Jacinto 1930, San Miguel de Allende)
Mejor Cocina Regional
Pasillo de Humo (Oaxaca)
La Tradicion (Yucatan)
El Mural de los Poblanos (Puebla)
Deckman´s Baja California)
Carmela y Sal