Name: Elena Reygadas
DOB: 27 August 1976
Place of birth: Mexico City, Mexico
Ms. Reygadas, as the owner of several restaurants in Mexico City and the recently named Best Female Chef in the World, how do you know when a new dish you’ve created is working?
If I think it works, I let it go. If we're satisfied, we're happy, we're excited with what we've accomplished, that’s the first part done. And then of course, the second part comes when when the clients and the customers try it. If they try it and they also think it’s amazing, then that’s great, but if it doesn't work, we need to understand that. But usually when we feel it works, then it works also for our guests. I think it's just a matter of trusting in your taste, trusting in your ideas, and also trying to communicate in the dining room what the kitchen is trying to do. Certain dishes, certain ingredients need to be introduced and explained, first in the kitchen and then in the dining room, and most people are fascinated with these stories. We have a really diverse array of guests coming to our restaurants, so certain dishes might work better for one or the other.
You also have a few different styles of restaurants: Rosetta is fine-dining, but you also have casual bistros and a bakery. Does that help to keep you grounded in a way?
Yes, I think so. I think having different places gives you more vision; to know that there are many different worlds and there are many different types of people and it’s important to think about all of them. That's the magic of restaurants! I always visualized Rosetta as not only a fine-dining restaurant, something for special occasions, but also a place where friends and people can come once a week, maybe just for lunch and a coffee or a cocktail. And that’s amazing. I think it's wonderful to have both things happening. And then of course, you might not go out for dinner every day, but you might go and buy bread for your family every day. So that's what I think is very beautiful about a bakery, it's more easily accessible place to enjoy every day.
“It was beautiful to see how different the bakery is from the restaurants. More people come in more frequently, so we got to know each other better. I love that community feeling.”
Apparently the opening of your bakery, Panadería Rosetta, helped to create more of a community around food in your neighborhood, La Roma.
I actually opened the bakery in the first sense simply because I love bread, and I always wanted to do my own bread for the restaurant. But people that came to eat at Rosetta wanted to buy the bread — and then it wasn't just the people who came to eat, but also other neighboring restaurants in the morning came knocking at the door asking if we could sell them bread. So I thought, “Well, let's do a bakery,” and I found a very small place one block away. I quickly realized how bread is much more accessible… It was beautiful to see how different the bakery is from the restaurants. More people came, more diverse clientele who come in more frequently and regularly, so we got to know each other better. I love that community feeling, just to know each other in the sense that you share a neighborhood. Today it’s getting bigger and bigger, it’s not just the neighborhood, but many people come from all over. And I think that's very beautiful.
It seems like there was also a need for an artisanal bakery in La Roma, where quality baked goods aren’t really prevalent.
Yes, it was very much needed! Nowadays, there's many bakeries, and very good quality bakeries. But 12 years ago, when we opened, honestly, there was not that many, and bread was seen as something cheap! There was this idea that no one would pay for a bread, especially not something of this quality because at the supermarket, it’s a cheap, industrialized product. I remember, at first people thought, “It's only bread, I can get it cheaper at the supermarket…” It really took time for people to understand that there's a difference in quality, in flavor, in nutrition.
Is it difficult, not just with bread, but with any boundary-pushing concept, to get people to warm up to these new ideas? How do people react to your ever-changing local and seasonal menu, for example?
Guests are happy to try new things — sometimes something is missing from the menu because it’s no longer in season and people are able to try something else, something they wouldn’t normally have tasted, or a food that is not in their palette. And then they go home use it more often in their cooking. I love to feel like a window to show what foods and products are out there! You can be open to other fruits and not just buying raspberries. So people can be open and give us a lot of confidence. But there are also guests who want to eat the same every time they come. And I don't want to disappoint that. So nowadays, we have actually shifted a bit to include certain dishes that can be there all year round in terms of seasonality. So it's more of a mix, and I think that's good because not all guests are curious and happy to try new things in that way. We've found the balance.
This diverse seasonal and local menu must also help to keep things creative in the kitchen, no?
Absolutely, that’s really important for me. Now we have a pasta that I'm very happy with because I love how it ended up. It’s a dish that breaks tradition very much. In Mexico, we have a delicacy called escamol, which is ant eggs, and we always eat them at a certain time of the year. It’s not something you eat every day because they're very difficult to get, and they are very fragile. But we always, always, always eat them with a tortilla and a little bit of salsa. But I wanted to do other things, so we ended up doing a pasta with them, which for purists could be really like sacrilege! (Laughs) But it’s beautiful, I love that. I love to break tradition — I mean, there's always a fine line that you need to be aware of and to respect, but I think it's important to sometimes break it to keep tradition alive.
Have you always been an adventurous and creative type of cook?
Well, growing up, my parents didn’t work in hospitality or restaurants, but they enjoyed eating! And my father especially was very into tasting things you cannot taste at home, he always pushed me to be curious and to be open to foods and tastes that were less common in a way. So I got that adventurous palette from him, whereas my mother is very social, she likes to gather and to be together, using food as a pretext.
It sounds like rituals around food and culinary experience are a big part of your family’s history.
The love of food was always part of it, yes! I remember very much how important food was for big events; I can recall so clearly the women of the family coming together to prepare tamales. I was there learning alongside my mother! Or even during Christmas time, we would get together to make rompope, which is a kind of eggnog-like drink, and I remember standing there and stirring the pot with my grandmother… It was such a communal thing because we were getting together not only to eat, but also to cook. Those moments of coming together around food were so special for me, and I try to remember that when thinking about my restaurants. I want to create those special moments, too.