Game Changer: Elena Reygadas

Elena Reygadas belongs to a new generation of Mexican chefs wh0 have taken their culinary heritage into their own hands and transformed what it means to cook in Mexico, with perspectives stemming as much from looking inside than outside their homeland. Reygadas studied literature at the Universitad Nacional Autónoma de México, then attended the International Culinary Center in New York City, where her love for bread was born.

When she opened her flagship restaurant, Rosetta, in Colonia Roma in 2010, she was fresh from a five-year stint cooking Italian food at London’s acclaimed Locanda Locatelli, and had tested the waters for her brand of ingredient-driven cuisine with a series of pop-ups that allowed her to start developing a customer base as well as a network of suppliers. Born at the tension between tradition and innovation, the cuisines of chefs like Reygadas and Enrique Olvera, Jorge Vallejo, Eduardo Garcia, Edgar Nuñez, or Gabriela Ruiz reflect a deep knowledge of the country’s rich gastronomic lexicon and a fearlessness at imprinting it with their own histories. Working with Mexican farmers, fishermen, and foragers, they have claimed their native products as worthy of fine dining, and in the process turned their restaurants into global dining destinations.

Rosetta, located in a stately former mansion typical of its Colonia Roma neighborhood, has become a must-stop for chefs and food enthusiasts alike; Alice Waters ate there twice while participating in Mesamerica a few years ago. Reygadas turned the interior courtyard into one of several dining rooms, the al fresco effect emphasized by tumbling leafy vines and carefully placed lighting. Across the street, lines sprawl every morning on the sidewalk in front of the original Rosetta Panadería, with neighbors and tourists grabbing coffee and loaves of bread to go or patiently waiting for one of the few seats inside. Three more Panaderías exist, with a fourth one soon to open. Café Nin is just that, an all-day café serving much of Panadería’s offerings along with plated dishes. Lardo opened in 2015, offering small plates, fresh pastas, ice creams, great wines, and some pizzas. A pizzeria is set to open by the end of the year. Each of Reygadas’ spaces reflects her warm and welcoming personality and inhabits its location in a timeless way that makes it feel like an instant classic. The lack of pretension characteristic of Reygadas’ spaces and food is a direct reflection of her own attitude towards the acclaims she has received, including the 2014 Latin America’s Best Female Chef Award from the S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best organization. She is now working on her first book.

Over a guava roll, the signature item of her Panaderías — the guava is caramelized for six hours with just a little sugar, a seemingly simple preparation that highlights the quality of the raw ingredient and makes for an intense fruit flavor — she shared with New Worlder how she continues to grow as a chef and a business owner.

How has Rosetta evolved since it opened in 2010?

It has evolved a lot, because when I opened it, I came from London working with an Italian chef for many years, so it was very much influenced by that and what I learned in London, but done with Mexican ingredients. Then, little by little, I got to know the producers, and became more comfortable too, more confident. It started to be more me. Suddenly mole was there, but a very special mole. Pasta with Mexican herbs. I wouldn’t say fusion the way we did in the 90s; it’s very difficult to describe. People describe it as Mexican Italian, but I don’t really know. I like to share new ingredients, ingredients that haven’t been used very much. I am Mexican, I’ve lived almost all my life here, and I still discover new ingredients. The diversity that Mexico has is amazing. And maybe those mix with Italian, Indian, French—I love doing a mix of things. It’s food that cares more for flavor than technique.

You opened the first Rosetta Panadería in 2012, Lardo in 2015, Café Nin in 2017, and this year you’ll open a fourth panadería and a pizzeria. Do you have a particular strategy for your expansion, for opening new restaurants?

It was, and is still is, very organic. I am not very strategic in that I just follow my instinct. It works on my side. We opened Rosetta in Roma because I wanted to live here when coming back from London, walk to schools with my daughters, walk to work. It’s the place where I want my restaurant but also at that time, nine years ago, [nearby neighborhood] Condesa was much more hip. There wasn’t much to eat in this new style of cooking here in Roma. The panadería was inside Rosetta, early on, and neighbors would come knock at the door in the morning to ask for breads. This place [that became the Panadería] was a small gallery. It was a bit empty, so I told the owner of this building that I was interested if it became available, which it did, and I opened this bakery in 2012. At that time, I thought ‘I’m super good, I hate the idea of expanding.’ When I opened Rosetta, [my youngest daughter] Julietta was 6 months old, so I was busy.

Then, a beautiful building became available on [calle de] Havre, and a friend convinced me to open a Panadería there. It’s a new neighborhood; Rosetta helped open up this neighborhood, Maximo [Eduardo Garcia’s acclaimed restaurant] came after us, so this is a bit like that. It was really hard at the beginning because Juárez wasn’t very hip. It’s harder to access, it’s a destination, you need to go there specifically. But it started to be known and do super well. Then the other commercial space in the building emptied and we decided to expand to make the café next door. The menu of the café is still slow but people come and go. People are working and reading there, tourists come. It’s very different from Rosetta, Panadería, or Lardo; it’s between a bakery and Lardo.

Lardo came about because a friend lives in the building. I always wanted to do something with an open kitchen. With an open kitchen, it’s a much more relaxed restaurant, a more stable menu. A friend I worked with in London told me that he fell in love with Mexico and said he wanted to do something with me. It was perfect because at that point I felt ready to expand and grow. But also really nervous of how am I going to do it, between the different places and my daughters. He and I are partners in Lardo. For the first time, I got to work with another chef. Before that, I got to do whatever I wanted, and at Lardo I can still do what I want, but it’s been great to have the back and forth; it’s a dialogue. Even though now [the scale of my work] is bigger, I feel much more relaxed, I have a system in place. You need to get yourself much more organized when you grow. We had no systems at all before. And it’s good for my team to grow.

How have you set up your organization? Do you have “business” mentors?

It’s a bit of everything. I always ask Enrique [Olvera], because he’s always been so generous with me. A friend once told me that it’s easier to have more restaurants, because you need to organize yourself in systems. How I think I have been able to do it, the people who have worked at Rosetta a long time head the other places. I feel that the team really knows what I want. I think the key is just to work a long time and give confidence to people. We have a general office that is for all the systems, human resources, more and more systems for ordering, all that.

I am still in the kitchen. I never want to be out of the kitchen. But it depends, I am there at certain periods more than others. I’m there for service, and always on the creative side, to develop new things, including at the Panaderías. When we opened Lardo, I was there all the time and I felt Rosetta becoming fragile. So we now have a very stable menu at Lardo. Rosetta’s menu changes all the time and we have the strongest team there too. Then I decided to do a book, in Spanish and English. That takes a lot of time. I’ve been writing a lot, working on that a lot. Through the book, we have organized our dishes a lot. This book was also great in the way of revisiting recipes, of seeing what works best. Although it has been hard work—I’m doing all the writing myself—it’s been good to look back at what we do. So I’m less in the kitchen lately, but I never want to not be in the kitchen. We are a big group so I can focus on cooking.

After the pizzeria, I’m not opening anything else for two years. I want to be with my daughters. And travel. Being a woman in the kitchen, I don’t see a difference. Being a mother, that is where it is different. In Mexico, women are still who look after the children. I have two wonderful girls at my house who help me, but still, I need to organize. Because of my daughters, I have to be more organized, and much more stable. I love being a mother, I feel that it gives me more balance.

In all my kitchens, we have more women than men. Not in the dining room but in the kitchens. Not because I chose it that way, but it just happens. Many have children. It’s amazing how they organize. Most are single mothers. It’s crazy how because of that they get so strong, very responsible. It’s a big thing in Mexico, how many women are raising children alone, and need to work.

How big is your staff?

Two hundred and ten now. We do everything in-house, we have a guy who goes to the market every day, accounting, human resources, all these invisible sides of restaurants.

You pride yourself in taking ingredients to unpredictable places, and you call your cuisine “free, curious, and imaginative.” Can you give some examples of these unpredictable places?

When I started, Rosetta wasn’t an Italian restaurant, and even Italians were very confused. Italians thought it wasn’t an Italian restaurant and they were angry. Yes I do pasta and I love gnocchi and risotto, but is it Italian if you put in hoja santa? People want to understand the type of food that you serve not related to your person but related to boxes. But the amazing thing is that now people don’t care if they come to Rosetta and it’s not an Italian restaurant.

You were named Latin America’s Best Female Chef in 2014. What does a recognition like that mean to you? And does it change anything to what you do? Or to what people want you to do?

It’s a very strange thing, to give an award for being a woman chef. But I understand why it’s done. It’s a way to encourage women to feel like you can do it. In my case, when it happened, it was very good for the team, it gave them a lot of security, to feel recognized and secure in themselves, in what we were doing. On my side, I never changed things because of that. A chef friend told me now you need to change things—I think he meant, I needed a bigger sommelier, a tasting menu, because Rosetta is not the type of restaurants that gets on these lists. But no way was I going to change who I am and what I do. I am very secure in what I do. Some people do come and say why did they name you? To be honest I never thought about it much. It was good for the team.

I think these lists are so dangerous. They can encourage but also can destroy. It also encourages a competition that is not healthy. Food and cooking is a marathon. It is very strange to decide who is different. Food is about personality, creativity.

You are working on what you call “projects for civil society.” What are some of those?

We have a couple of things, we work with Casa Gallina in Santa Maria de Rivera—it’s a place where art, looked at in many ways, is used to transform society. I know the guy there so he asked me to do classes. It’s an area that is very big and powerful but also very problematic socially. There are lots of fondas there, so we’ve been giving them ideas, telling ways they can get better, without changing who they are but also in terms of food safety. I also participate in Gastromotiva and in Table des Chefs. Now we are starting to send food to refugees, to one of the four houses of refugees from central America here in Mexico City. They are women refugees. We do dinners for communities in Chiapas, for Oaxaca after the earthquake. We’re always doing a lot. We’re now working with a literature program for children, Bunko, to encourage them to read more. They just opened a place in [Colonia] Roma. The idea is to do a dinner for them once a month to raise money. It’s very important to help the poor but also very important to put attention on education.

The Game Changer Five

Last supper, last cocktail?  

Good bread, olive oil; Negroni

Next up on your travel bucket list?  

A book!

Mentor/Idol/Girl Crush?  

My daughter.

Best lesson your mother taught you? 

Eating is a social moment, a moment of sharing,

How do you inspire the next generation?  

Showing that eating well brings not only a profound transformation to our bodies, to our being, but also the planet.