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The Challenges & Rewards of Cooking Local in Tulum

The Challenges & Rewards of Cooking Local in Tulum

There was trouble in paradise.

Both generators were down at Eden Supper Club on Tulum’s famed Beach Road. Crews worked for hours to restore power in the restaurant, which was set in a jewel box of palm trees and mangroves. Chicken and beef weren’t available that evening, though they were on the menu. Avocado and tomatoes, however, were plentiful.

“It’s a very creative, culinary environment,” said Tanyia Kandohla, owner of Eden. “You have the idea of something, but you have to work with the ingredients you have. We are like the frontier meets the Amish.”

Eden’s chef, Marcelo Mateus, delighted in the challenge of cooking only by candlelight. He adapted the ingredients on hand to prepare a soft-boiled egg soaked in aubergine (eggplant sauce), a succulent soup with plump mushrooms, fresh lobster tail with an avocado puree, and a dark chocolate ganache with vibrant hints of jalapeño and sugar cane.

“We try to include at least one fantastical element in each of the dishes and in the restaurant to create a romantic experience,” Kandohla said. “It’s like Gatsby in the jungle.”

And so is Tulum’s growing reputation as a premier food destination. Like Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Tulum’s gastronomy is decadent and self-invented. It is tempting to describe Tulum’s evolving food scene by name-checking its most renowned, press saturated restaurants. But to do so is to miss the series of intriguing paradoxes that make cooking and eating here both intentional and improvisational.

Bookended by lush jungle and the Caribbean Ocean, Tulum is part of the coastal boundary of Quintana Roo. It became an official Mexican state 40 years ago after a bitter, bidding war with Belize. For decades, Tulum languished as a small, seaside resort town known for its Mayan ruins, hippies, fish tacos, and cochinita pibil.

Over time, Tulum attracted enterprising foreigners who saw promise in its white sands, glittering turquoise waters, and rustic charm. The steady success of Zamas, one of the first hotel and restaurants on Tulum Beach and perennial favorites like Mateo’s, known for its exquisitely prepared octopus, soon attracted entrepreneurs and investors from New York and San Francisco.

“The hipsters started coming and that raised the bar,” explains Javier Ornelas, a chef and caterer who migrated from Mexico City 12 years ago and is steeped in Tulum’s gastronomic history. “There were more expensive hotels, fancier restaurants, and celebrity chefs. Hotel rooms can run as much as $500 to $1,000 a night.”

With an intoxicating blend of unique culinary concepts and savvy marketing, restaurant juggernauts like Hartwood, Safari and Mur Mur lure thousands of visitors to Tulum each year. Recent events such as Tulum’s first Food Wine and Spirits Festival, organized by American chef Diane DiMeo, further capitalized on the town’s reputation as a foodie’s paradise.

But Tulum’s environmental and economic infrastructure groan under the weight of its popularity.

Massive trucks billowing black smoke clog the dirt road to deliver gallons of fresh water to restaurants, hotels, and shops dotting the water’s edge. Restaurants that primarily rely on local ingredients must plan their menus around growers’ whims or whatever the fisherman across the street was lucky enough to catch that day.

Contrary to glossy magazines, the restaurant industry within Tulum isn’t just mandated by trend. What follows is a snapshot of the evolving, local food scene as seen through the eyes of five chefs and restaurant owners, who like Gatsby, dare to shape humble ingredients into a new, gastronomic destiny while facing the challenges of an oft-fussy surrounding environment.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote and was recently published in New Worlder blog. Click here to read the rest. 

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