For my whole life, whenever someone mentioned “Cancun,” I instantly pictured lapis blue swimming pools, raucous Spring Break revelers, and snorkeling with rainbow painted fish. I never thought it would also be a hot culinary destination celebrating the best of Spanish, French, and Mexican chefs.
This year at the fourth annual Wine & Food Festival Cancun-Riviera Maya, I was shown what I had been missing. From Spain’s renowned molecular gastronomy of Chef Joan Roca to the traditional Mexican cuisine of legendary Chef Alicia Gironella, the festival brought the flavors of the world together in inventive and fantastical dishes.
Over the four-day festival, amateur cooks got to test their skills side-by-side with the chefs in hands-on classes. There were opportunities to listen to the promoters of today’s culinary arts describe the food scene and discuss the challenges and trends they are taking on. Also, there were top wines to savor from acclaimed wineries, and multiple extraordinary dinners. This is NOT the Cancun you went to on your storied college Spring Break — it’s found a sophisticated palate over the years and it’s ready to serve you.
From the keynote speech through the Divas Dinner and beyond, the chefs were on a mission to educate and amuse with the fresh, regional ingredients they love. Chef Joan Roca said, “We are here to discuss ‘why’ we cook what we do, not so much ‘how.’” A proponent that “modern cooking must have roots,” he has traveled the globe to engage cultural influences that inspire his menu at El Celler de Can Roca (which, in case you find yourself in Girona, Spain, plan ahead, as he and his brothers are taking reservations no earlier than 11 months from now). He believes travel allows a deeper connection to the food, and that being “surrounded by the landscape that inspired the food rounds out the experience.”
Related Story: #GOGOEats on Vacation in Hawaii, Bermuda, and Barbados
Chef Mikel Alonso concurred, saying that “travel transforms culinary identity with inspiration and informs to develop products and flavors.” The chefs further agreed in the magical diversity found in Mexican cuisine. Since Mexico spans over 17 latitudes including two oceans and the Gulf of Mexico the sheer volume of biodiversity allows for wondrous variety. Even experienced Mexican chefs may find it complicated to be educated in the salt content and array of plankton diets found in the assortment of fresh catch that find their way to their kitchens.
Chef Alicia Gironella brought attention to the continued effort of conserving the biodiversity throughout Mexico. Take corn, for example, a staple in many traditional dishes and available in a medley of native maize. Some regions have a special varietal that has grown there for generations, similar to grapes for wine varieties; the regional differences are discernible and desirable for particular recipes. There are distinct identities to the corn tortillas made in a particular region that make that element unique to a dish. Like many areas of the world, Mexico’s agricultural lands need protection from development and other destructive elements that force the crops from their terra.
Sustainability for all resources, agricultural, forests, sea life and wildlife is a top priority for today’s chefs, and throughout the events that followed, there was a nod to that drive of sustainability and keeping traditions alive while incorporating contemporary techniques.
At the traditional Star Chefs Dinner, the tasting event featured 39 chef stations and wine tasting tables hosted by acclaimed international chefs, who generously served to the swarms of followers. Chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco offered a deliciously layered “White Gazpacho flavored with Almond Milk & Green Grape, Vanilla Oil.” Chef Rafael Zafra of Benazuza at Hotel Oasis Sens in Cancun delighted with “Mollusks Cold & Hot Aquachile,” featuring the fantastical liquid nitrogen presentation from the clamshell.
The sold-out evening was fluid with a bustling flow around the pool at the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort & Spa, but it was not so crowded that guests couldn’t find an opportunity to meet the creators of the bites they enjoyed.
Related Story: A Fiesta in Cancun!
The weekend continued at The Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort for two days of The Gourmet Tasting Village. Regular festival goers looked forward to these days and the abundance of flavors discovered from over 25 wine boutiques and local favorites from the top hotels and artisan products found in Cancun and Riviera Maya. After crunching on a salty cricket and savoring a sip of Sangrita with Xoximilco, I meandered over to ME Cancun’s booth for a chilled “pops de camaron con queso de cabra y almendras” (shrimp with goat cheese and almonds), which might have been my favorite bite of the day.
Elaborate displays of sweet treats from Palace Resorts and airy Mini Macaroons from El Dorado Royale brought delicate surprises among the savory plates throughout the Moon Palace Arena. The afternoon was rounded out with wine tasting from Secrets The Vine, and, in a first for the festival, the French Market specializing in sumptuous cheeses and wines.
My luxurious food tour ended with the Divas de la Cocina Mexicana Gala Dinner highlighting a collaborative menu created by the 10 best Mexican female chefs. I was invited in with a dramatic “Warrior” cocktail and a story told by Martha Ortiz and Paola Garduño. The drink — created in a deep red and garnished with a black feather — symbolized female power and strength, and a statement to what these chefs were bringing to the dinner. I continued to be drawn in by the first course of delicate Lionfish wrapped in thinly sliced avocado with a depth of full flavors and creaminess. Chefs Susanna Palazuelos and Lula Martín del Campo shed light on the promoted consumption of Lionfish, an invasive species of the Caribbean Sea now needing to be fished to protect native small crustaceans and fish.
Truly the most intriguing plate of the night was a classic tortilla soup with a creative mystery in “Shadowed Beauty.” A shallow handmade rustic bowl sprinkled with delicate edible petals and crispy butterfly shaped blue corn tortillas dusted in sparkling glitter was presented by waiters who poured a richly spiced clear broth.
As the evening progressed we were given glimpses of the chefs’ pasts with a taste of a “Bridal White Mole” created by Chef Alicia Gironella, originally developed for her daughter’s wedding 30 years ago, and a coconut mole that Chef Martha Chapa dreamt up while on a beach vacation. The final dessert of the night was sweet mocha and tart citrus tastes combined with an espresso and Mezcal pairing that brought an explosive ending to the accomplished gala.
I look forward to next May when the chefs return to Cancun and Riviera Maya for the feast of the year that combines the flavors of the world with traditional Mexico for a new standard of contemporary cuisine.
About the Author
Sarah John Afana is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute but chooses to spend her time exploring Mexico, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world for GOGO Vacations as a marketing specialist. She makes fantastic office treats and handles the company’s social media. She is also an accomplished artist, creator, and photographer.