Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells, and sensations that drive their approach to food. Since returning from an extensive culinary education in some of the world’s best kitchens, Oswaldo Oliva has lit up Mexico City with his imaginative, playful food at the critically acclaimed Lorea.
Oswaldo Oliva’s return to Mexico City in 2017, with the opening of his very first restaurant, Lorea, was a pivotal moment for both chef and city. At that time, Oliva was perhaps one of the hottest properties in all of the food world, having spent 10 years away from Mexico in two world-leading restaurants: El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, and Mugaritz, deep in the Basque countryside. Over that decade, learning first under the legendary Joan Roca, and then as the right-hand man to Andoni Luiz Aduriz, Oliva had the opportunity to study and master nearly everything there is to know about fine dining from technique and aesthetics, to service and produce.
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It took a trip to Mexico City with Aduriz in 2015 to find what he’d missed in Spain, however. Not just with the vibrant fine-dining scene, led by the irrepressible Enrique Olvera at Pujol, but with the swarms and swarms of young foodies going from taqueria to taqueria; the city was livelier and hungrier than ever before, and Oliva knew that if he was to strike out on his own, it would have to be in his country’s capital. Three years later, Lorea shines just as bright as Pujol, or any other world-acclaimed destination restaurant in the city. From the moment you buzz the doorbell of its discreet townhouse frontage, climb up stairwells heady with incense, and slip through to its spacious, open-plan dining space, you know you have arrived somewhere special.
Oliva’s menu changes daily; sometimes twice. Creations are fleeting, conjured on the day from the finest produce that Mexico has to offer – which is saying something, considering the rich larder Mexico has to play with. Over 15 courses, Oliva’s food opens your mind, keeps you gripped over hours, and leaves you satisfied and tantalised in equal measure.
You can switch from a whole cob of black-and-blue huitlacoche (corn fungus) topped with crunchy puffed barley, to a fillet of Veracruz sea bream treated with the delicate touch of a French grande maison, served in a pool of decadent beurre monté (melted butter). And then once you think you’ve got comfortable, a plate of bright-as-a-daisy yellow tomatillos, sliced into gossamer-thin ringlets and served with lemon curd, remind you once more to expect the unexpected when you sit down at Lorea. Culture Trip speaks with Oliva about why Mexico City is emerging as the gastronomic capital of the world, why its citizens have such a zest for life, and how his last meal would be the night out to end all nights out.
Who are you, and how do you cook?
My name is Oswaldo Oliva, and I am the head chef of Lorea in Mexico City. Lorea is a fine-dining Mexican restaurant focused on giving an immersive experience for diners from all over the world. We cook with the very best local produce, and we strive to bring amazing flavours to the table.
What is the flavour of your city?
My city tastes like spices and smoked chillies, with notes of tropical fruits and agave spirits that follow you everywhere you go. One thing I pine for when I’m away from Mexico City is the flavour of our tacos – they are an incomparable experience here, they are really something special. I’ve never found them anywhere like I’ve found them here.
What is the character of your city?
Ours is a gigantic city, diverse and dynamic. Food is by far the most exciting element of our culture: we love finding new spots that dazzle our senses, and we love sharing our discoveries with friends and new visitors. In fact, there is nothing we love more than taking new visitors around the city for the first time – we want people to love the city like we do, and when they come back for a second visit, we love that they have made that connection.
Beyond all else, we love to love life. Anything that gets in the way of that – traffic, rain, insecurity – gets us angry; we just want to be out in the city. Take somewhere like Avenida Reforma, for example. In the spring, it’s one of the most captivating places in the world, with the beautiful jacaranda trees blooming, painting the city purple in the process. It’s one of the most inspiring and stunning sights you could ever see – how could you not want to be out there and enjoying it?
Where would you eat your last meal?
If I was having my last meal in Mexico City, I’d want to go big, go double, go out in style. I’d start off at Bósforo Mezcalería in downtown Cuauhtémoc, a stone’s throw away from Alamada Central park, and I’d clean out their mezcales and their peanuts. After that, I’d head straight to Los Cocuyos around the corner, and go through all of their tacos. You can take me after that.
What is your city on a plate?
I would say that the first section of our menu is Mexico City on a plate, because we guide our guests to eat with their hands instead of silverware. In Mexico, we eat with our hands a lot, and bringing that trait to the fine dining table is something that I’m very proud of. Many of the dishes on our menu are inspired by the flavours and techniques of our taquerias; our cuisine is built from casual, traditional restaurants, and I’m glad to have mixed some of that spirit into Lorea.
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