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Encore: Chef Enrique Olvera On Perfect Imperfection In The Kitchen

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With COVID restrictions lifted, a lot of us are going out for more meals at restaurants now. And if we're lucky, we are having meals that we may still think about years later, like a meal I had in Mexico City a couple of years ago at a restaurant called Pujol. I had mole aged more than a thousand days alongside ox tongue with quail eggs. I mean, the whole meal was just dazzling.

Before the pandemic, I actually got to hang out with the chef at Pujol, Enrique Olvera. We met inside the kitchen at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., and we talked about his cookbook called "Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes For The Home Cook." We're going to revisit that conversation now, starting with his childhood memories of hanging out in his grandmother's bake shop in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ENRIQUE OLVERA: My father didn't want me to go work too much in the 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).

OLVERA: Yeah.

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...

CHANG: Oh, I see.

OLVERA: My grandmother used to love this.

CHANG: We're kneading masa now, which is essential. The warmth and the motion of the hands erase cracks in the dough. That prevents the tortilla from cracking later.

It's soothing to just stand here.

OLVERA: It's good exercise, too.

CHANG: It is (laughter).

OLVERA: So instead of going to the gym, just makes 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 sheets of plastic and center the corn putty inside the jaws of a tortilla press.

And, Enrique, I just smash to my heart's delight, right? Bam.

OLVERA: Like, literally put all of your body weight to it. 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.

OLVERA: So...

CHANG: It's like a little pillow.

OLVERA: It souffles.

CHANG: Slide a lime across the warm skin, add a dash of salt - instant snack.

Oh, so good.

OLVERA: The smell of tortillas is also very - I think it's very seductive. I'm probably biased.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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 (unintelligible).

CHANG: Oh, yeah? OK. Until it blackens?

OLVERA: Till it blackens. There's nothing intimidating about burning stuff. You know, I think most people have a really easy time at burning things.

(LAUGHTER)

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 a molcajete.

CHANG: I scoop up a big blob of salsa, and I slam it into my mouth, momentarily forgetting just how many serrano peppers we mashed into this stuff.

OLVERA: With pepper it's, like, really strong.

CHANG: Yeah.

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 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 chiles rellenos, and I 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 chiles 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. And 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: That was an encore presentation of my conversation with Chef Enrique Olvera. His cookbook is called "Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes For The Home Cook."

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "PATH TO SPRINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.