“Here, the dogs don’t bark,” said René Redzepi. “Even the bees don’t sting.”
This November, in a hacienda not too far from ancient Mayan ruins, the Noma chef waxed poetic on Yucatán, the southeast Mexican state where, indeed, the bees are famously stingless. “There’s this pace that’s so different,” he said. “You can’t even get into a heated discussion here; people just won’t accept it.”
Redzepi was surrounded by 17 star chefs, including friend and Mérida-based Roberto Solis, Virgilio Martinez, Daniela Soto-Innes, and Leonor Espinosa, with whom he’d cook a blowout dinner that night. Organized by Solis, the nine-course feast, called Hokol Vuh, aimed to raise the profile of Yucatán’s traditions, ingredients, and way of life, and the chefs arrived a week early to explore the state with Redzepi and Solis.
“We cannot try to get an idea of Yucatán without visiting all the haciendas”—abandoned colonial-era mills—”going to the ruins, swimming in the cenotes, and, of course, eating the food,” the chef said. “I want to want to be part of this, because my life in this region started twelve years ago, and it’s not going to go away.”
Redzepi wanted to bring these experiences back to Denmark, but also to share them with his culinary peers, who could then share them in their home countries. “I genuinely believe that all cooks can come here to learn,” he told Food & Wine. “Mexico for me is like going to Japan. There’s the same level of learning here.”
The education starts with the food, and with tasting the syrupy Melipona honey cultivated by Mayans for thousands of years, and eating the ultra-tender marinated pork—cochinita pibil—wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted in a fire pit. The state is rich with millenia-old culinary techniques and ingredients, so much so that when Redzepi opened Noma Mexico in Tulum, he sourced most of his ingredients from the area. The week before the Hokol Vuh dinner, he snapped several photos of dishes and tools that piqued his interest, including a burnt corn kernel salsa unlike anything he’d ever tasted, to take home as inspiration.
Redzepi comes to Yucatán often to learn as much as he can, and to sing its praises. “My point is to just tell people how amazing it is here,” he told me. If you go to the region, here are the three things he says you must eat before you leave.
The marinated, slow-roasted pork dish for which Yucatán is famous. The meat is wrapped in banana leaf and cooked for hours in an underground, stone-lined fire pit.
You cannot understand Yucatán, Redzepi said, “if you’ve not been to a village and had cochinita pibil.”
A sort of open-faced, deep-fried tortilla topped with bean paste, lettuce, avocado, pickled red onions, and pulled chicken, salbutes are one of the most popular antojitas in the Yucatán and a favorite of Redzepi’s. “I just think they are amazing,” he said.
“It’s like a taco. It’s rolled, with boiled egg on the inside, and it’s covered with pumpkin seed sauce. It can be amazing,” he said. It can also be quite bad “if the tortillas are dry and the eggs are overcooked.” The dish is tricky to find, but worth the chase.