A little less than a year after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City. The massive success of the restaurant–it’s currently ranked as one of the 20 best restaurants in the world–has brought its chef both acclaim and opportunities. In addition to Pujol, Olvera now has restaurants in New York, San Miguel de Allende, Playa del Carmen, and, most recently, in Los Cabos.
Olvera’s latest project, Manta, is the signature restaurant at The Cape: A Thompson Hotel. The laid-back yet luxurious property opened its doors on June 26, sporting a scenic location above Monuments Beach and its famed surf break, in the tourist corridor that connects cape cities Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. Manta, like every room, suite, bar and restaurant in The Cape, boasts spectacular views of El Arco and all the granite rock formations that stretch to Land’s End.
The restaurant’s name has two meanings. Manta is the Spanish word for blanket, and thus signifies comfort and warmth, two attributes the restaurant strives to provide for guests. And it’s a reference to manta rays, symbolizing the restaurant’s commitment to focus on fresh local seafood. Tasting menus fuse Mexican standards with Pacific Rim influences, and showcase Olvera’s trademark knack for surprising flavors.
I recently sat down with the chef to discuss his approach to cooking, and his vision for Manta.
How much familiarity did you have with Los Cabos before Manta, and did your level of familiarity or affection for the area play any part in your decision to participate in the project?
I’ve been coming here for the past 10 years. I know that because my oldest son was one when we first came to Los Cabos. The area has this reputation of fine hospitality. I think it became one of the most important destinations for luxury tourism in México. I’m in the luxury business, so I was attracted from the start to this kind of hospitality. I think that many hotels in Los Cabos have greatly improved the quality of hospitality in the country. I wanted to be part of that, so Los Cabos for me was always in my mind.
I actually like it so much that at one point I thought I’d never open here because I didn’t want to come to Los Cabos to work. I wanted to just enjoy the destination. But here I am now working. I guess I couldn’t hold it back.
I know you oversee the food and beverage aspects, but what was your level of involvement in the aesthetics and ambiance of Manta?
I jumped in the project a little bit late, when some of the decisions were already made, but Manta definitely has my personality. We’ve been adapting the restaurant to my taste. When we got here everything you see that is black was wood. We actually burned the wood. The owners make fun of me because they say I like to burn things. I mean, it’s getting there. I’m trying to put myself and my personality into the restaurant. I’ve been talking to the DJ for the past week about the playlist, giving him my input on the music. We’re still working on the lighting. We’ve been open for two weeks, so there are still many things to fine tune. But I’m very proud of where we’re at right now. And the view is probably the best in Los Cabos.
Do you have any involvement with other bars and restaurants here in the hotel?
We’re not in charge of the operation for the hotel, but I participate in the design of the menus, and we’ve incorporated some recipes of ours. As far as the day to day operations, I can’t take any credit.
What parts of the menu and décor at Manta are site specific, meant to evoke the flavors or culture of Los Cabos and Baja California Sur?
Well, we’re working with mostly local ingredients, so we definitely have a sense of place in that way. But I think food is a little more regional and less specific to the destination, so we’re incorporating things from the region, from the Baja, not necessarily Los Cabos. Baja has a Pacific influence, so that’s why we’re playing around with Peruvian and Japanese flavors; because a sashimi, a tiradito, and a Mexican ceviche have a common language. It’s fun to combine those things.
Essentially what we’re trying to do is to have a beach feel. That’s why the food is so light. It is seafood, and it’s playful because you’ve probably spent the whole day in the pool, and don’t want to come here and have some heavy meal. So we’re trying to keep things fresh and seafood (focused), and that reflects the destination.
Are we cooking specifically for Los Cabos, Cabo recipes only? No. We want to bring in more personality. Thompson is a different kind of hotel than any other I’ve seen in Los Cabos. It’s more of a happening. Most of the local hotels are more contemporary, classic. Here I feel the vibe and it’s a little more fun. Therefore, the restaurant is also accommodated to that crowd. Not so quiet and mellow, but more happening.
You’re best known for Pujol in Mexico City, which has been regularly ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world. What would you say are the similarities between the dining experience at Pujol and Manta?
The thing we’re doing the same is we’re buying the best quality (ingredients) we can, and hiring the best people we can. That concept will never change.
Where did the name Pujol come from?
It’s a nickname that people used to call me in high school. When I went to school in New York, most restaurants there had the name of the chef. Calling a restaurant Enrique in México seemed kind of weird. But I did want my personality in the name.
I read somewhere you won an award for your thesis at the Culinary Institute of America. True? What was it?
True. Long time ago. I did a project about art and cooking. The idea was to incorporate principles of art into cooking, and how cooking can be an artistic expression. I was very young. I had a lot of dreams.
How soon after you graduated did you open Pujol?
It wasn’t long. I was 24 years old when I opened Pujol. I graduated from the CIA in May, 1999. They gave me a six-month visa. I used it to go to Chicago, and worked there until December. Then I flew back to Mexico City in January, found a place by March, and we were open in May, 2000.
What about Manta do you think is different from any other restaurant in Los Cabos?
It has my personality, so there is that. But to say I’m doing something here that has never been done before would be a little bit pretentious, because there are always references from other cultures. It’s definitely very personal We have anticuchos (a Peruvian street food), but you haven’t had an anticucho of octopus like that. I didn’t invent anticuchos. They were already there. I think it is more a question of creativity and doing something nobody else has done. We can talk about being honest and sharing what you think, and the flavors that you like. We’re trying to be authentic and creative.
You seem to have a love of street food that expresses itself in your menus. What about street food do you appreciate, and how does that translate in your restaurants?
I love the precision of fine dining, and I love the power of street food. The flavor of it. The soul of it. So we’re trying to bring in that soul from the street food, and combine it with the attention to detail and execution of fine dining. Food that is perfectly cooked but has a lot of flavor, that is not cold and monochromatic. Something that explodes in your mouth, but in a subtle way that is not overwhelming.
You always seem to add a flavor note in each dish that is surprising. Do you have a particular approach to try to find that one element that will really stand out?
It is something that I do naturally. We like to do that, we like to give you a little punch you’re not expecting. We’re aware of that, but there is not a creative process that takes me to that place. It’s just something that I have in my palate. I know what I like in there to give it a twist.
Manta features multicourse tasting menus with your choice of three, four or five dishes. What is your approach to the creation of tasting menus?
Right now the menu has 30 dishes, and every day we choose between 15 and 18 to offer. So the menu is flexible. I know that, for example, in New York or Mexico City, my best customers go maybe twice a month. There are crazy people that go a little bit more than that, but it’s usually a restaurant where people go once or twice a month at most. At Manta, I think our customers will probably come back two or three days in a row. So we offer a different menu each day so no one has to try anything again unless they want to.
Do you have any philosophical limits in terms of making tweaks to traditional Mexican dishes? What constitutes going too far, if such a thing is possible, in terms of putting your own spin–Pacific Rim influences, for instance–on a traditional recipe?
There’s always some restraint that you need to have. You don’t want to take it too far. When I was younger, fusion cuisine was very in vogue, and I think there were some excesses that happened. A lot of people had a backlash and then everybody started being very classical. Now I think that if you’re subtle, if you have something that is not meant as a statement but just to have fun, people can take it lightly. You want to be playful, and you must know your own food.
Fun seems to be the operative word. I get the impression there’s a good deal of humor in your cooking. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. Cooking is supposed to be fun. Part of what I love about cooking is that it is fun. It’s not something that is super straight and gloomy. You have to be focused, for sure, but you always want to have fun as well.
How important is plate presentation?
Presentation tells you that you love your craft, right? If you are very meticulous with your cooking process, then everything else follows. Presentation is not the end. It’s not the goal. If you make a beautiful dish, it’s the consequence of your cooking process. Our presentations are very natural. We’re doing something carefully, but whatever happens, happens. We’re not like drawing things on the dish. We’re carefully creating things on top of that plate because we care about our job, and we’re proud of what we’re doing in the kitchen. But we don’t think making lines or funny shapes adds value to the dish. If you really care about your work, though, usually you get something beautiful. It’s a consequence of craftsmanship.
Will Manta have a signature dish?
Customers will dictate that. I never know. But people fall in love with things. Right now the octopus is probably the most popular dish.
Can you tell me a little about your wine program? How much of an emphasis will there be on wines from Valle de Guadalupe and elsewhere in México?
We’re trying to use the same principles for our wine purveyors as we do for our food purveyors. We like small purveyors that care about their product, and we buy a lot from family-oriented businesses because they seem to have a lot more soul.
We also want flavorful wines that go well with the food, so we’re focusing on wines that go well with seafood: Chardonnays, Grüners (Grüner Veltliner is a white wine varietal most commonly associated with Austria), Sauvignon Blancs…those kinds of wines. And then México obviously plays a big role in the menu. We’re conscious that a lot of people that come to the hotel from outside the country are probably interested in Mexican wines.
We are not pretending to have the biggest wine list in Los Cabos. But we want you to feel comfortable that whichever wine you have at Manta, you cannot make a mistake. We want 100 wines that are hand-picked by our staff. No matter what you choose, you’re going to have a great bottle.
Are there any Mexican wines for which you have a particular affection, either because of their consistent quality or pairing versatility?
There are plenty of them, but I have a particularly strong bond with Vena Cava. Vena Cava has been doing our house wine in Pujol for a few years. I love their Sauvignon Blanc. And it’s one of the most beautiful wineries in México.
Now that you’ve opened a restaurant in Baja, you’re obviously a big part of the peninsula’s culinary scene. How familiar are you with the top chefs and restaurants in Baja?
Well, they’re all my friends. I know Jair (Téllez of Laja in Valle de Guadalupe), Benito (Molina of Manzanilla in Ensenada), Diego (Hernández of Corazón de Tierra in Valle de Guadalupe), and Javier Plascencia (of Misión 19, and the best known of Tijuana’s famed family or restaurateurs), and Angel Carbajal (of Nick-San in Los Cabos). We’re all friends, and we’re all in the same boat. It’s a very small industry, and we know and like each other.
Do you also have a tortilla program?
In all my restaurants, the tortilla program is very special. That is the quintessential part of a Mexican restaurant. You can’t have a good restaurant without good bread or good tortillas. And we don’t do bread. We’re hand pressing our flour tortillas, and our corn tortillas. We’re bringing corn from Oaxaca and other parts of the country, and we nixtamalize in-house.
I know you’re involved in a number of restaurants. What level of involvement will you have in day to day operations at Manta? How often do you expect to be in Los Cabos?
I’ll be here as often as I can. I was supposed to be here for seven days this time, and it has already been 20-something. I like the destination, so it’s not a problem. I actually look forward to coming here as often as I can. Like you say, I have other restaurants that I have to tend, but probably like a week out of every two months sounds about right. In the beginning, I’ll be coming more often. But I do want to be present as much as possible.