CBSNews.com recently featured anarticle talking about Jorge Vallejo, the chef and owner of Quintonil, a Mexico City dining destination that has been named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants. But for his new venture, he’s going off the beaten path to create a venue honoring Maya culture.
The core of his new restaurant, Ixi’im, is corn, which Vallejo describes as “one of the spinal cords of the Mexican gastronomy or the Mexican culture.”
“It’s a very democratic ingredient. Because it’s not about the monetary value,” he said. “It’s all about the flavor, the pureness of the ingredient. And that’s what we want: to say, ‘We are corn.'”
Vallejo said his mission is to distinguish a Mayan eating experience by preparing humble ingredients with a modern flair. That includes escolar, a buttery fish from the Gulf of Mexico.
But Ixi’im isn’t just about food: it also quenches a thirst for tequila. Ixi’im has 3,800 bottles, the largest tequila collection in the world. The oldest is a bottle of Jose Cuervo that’s 240 years old.
Ixi’im is part of Chablé, a luxury resort built on the grounds of an old hacienda. Vallejo’s restaurants are a retreat for global visitors and have served as a bridge to the United States. “I will say, 90% of the people that come into the restaurant are not Mexicans,” he said, adding “We had to give English lessons to our waiters because probably out of that 90%, 60% of the people are Americans.”
Ixi’im is just 45 minutes from Mérida, the Yucatán capital, but it feels like a place from another time. The building used to be a 19th-century plantation that produced rope – and the area has always been influenced by Mayan culture. “The people here, they are very proud about their culture,” Vallejo said. “They are actually the ones that keep the tradition. They are the ones that keep the flavors. They are the ones that keep the environment.”
Vallejo’s own food traditions started early. “I heard that when you were a kid, instead of toys for Christmas, you would ask for a roast chicken,” said “CBS This Morning: Saturday” host Michelle Miller. “I can eat chicken and rice every day,” he responded. That kitchen-obsessed kid who had trouble concentrating in school decided to give cooking a try. “I was just in my own world,” he said. “I was lucky enough to find something that I can lose myself [in], which is cooking.”
“I have a three-year-old daughter,” he added. “Probably the kids are the most wise people in the world because they live now. The present. For me, being a cook, or serving people, it’s about that.”
For Chef Vallejo, the way to honor his Mexican heritage is to bring Mayan cuisine to the world stage. “That’s what we want to showcase here in the restaurant: The pureness of the ingredients, but how it can really work in a luxury ambiance,” he said.
He’s certainly succeeded with Quintonil, which has been rated as one of the best restaurants in the world. But Vallejo said his work is far from over. “I feel, you know, very proud about what we achieved already,” he said. “But as I told you, I’m still learning. So, for me, of course, it’s as you’re saying, ‘mission accomplished,’ but still not finished.”
The Yucatan Times Newsroom with information from CBSNews.com