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Chef Luis Ronzón on food, waste & natural ingredients

December 10, 2020By Eva Ramirez

Luis Ronzón is an internationally renowned chef who has worked at award-winning restaurants including Copenhagen’s Noma and Quintonil in Mexico City. Discover how a celebration of culture, respect for our planet, and innate passion for food collectively imbue his work as a chef.

I first met Luis Ronzón back in February 2018 when I visited Chablé Resort in Yucatan, Mexico. An internationally renowned chef who has worked at award-winning restaurants including Copenhagen’s Noma and Quintonil in Mexico City, his experience is vast and varied. With a passion for sustainability, his inventive dishes combine gastronomical innovation and traditional, local ingredients. My most vivid memories from the trip are courtesy of his remarkable culinary talents and I still remember the taste of my final plate of food at Chablé’s Ixi’im restaurant where he is Executive Chef; a cilantro sponge cake with charred pineapple and soursop sorbet which concluded an incredible trip with a tart yet sweet explosion of flavours.

Chablé Resort grows a lot of the food they serve on site through indigenous farming principles similar to biodynamic agriculture. Much of it is grown in Ka’anches, traditional Mayan raised structures used to grow produce, often in accordance with the cosmos, while keeping it away from the reach of animals. As Luis walked me through the farmland one morning, he explained how they harvest seasonal produce every day and pointed out his favourite ingredients – cilantro, for its adaptability to both sweet and savoury dishes and habanero chiles, for their sweet spiciness. We watched one of the farmers pluck a Yucca the size of a lightsaber from the earth, and I was told it would be the main ingredient for my lunch later that day. Signalling towards some lettuce which was growing beside sprigs of mint, he said that by conserving the soil organically and letting things grow naturally, nature often did the taste pairing for us. 

What I witnessed from experiencing Luis’s cooking was a beautifully instinctive and almost sanctimonious approach to handling produce and ingredients – respecting their connatural qualities, be it the flavour, texture or aroma – and preparing them in a way which enhanced but never detracted from what nature had provided. Below we discuss how a celebration of culture, respect for our planet, and innate passion for food collectively imbue his work as a chef. 

How did you become interested in food and a career as a chef? 

Well, being a chef is actually my second profession, my first was an accountant! My father is an accountant so I think he indirectly influenced me. I think my first hands-on introduction to cooking was because of my grandfather who used to be a baker. My first job was at a bakery when I was 12 years old as a baker’s assistant and I still remember learning to make the sugar crust that goes on ‘conchas’ (traditional Mexican sweet bread rolls). I used to love eating it!

How did working at Noma and Quintonil shape your views on food waste and being resourceful in the kitchen?

When I was at Noma, besides learning new cooking techniques, I learned a new way of understanding cooking. It changed my whole perception of what it was. I felt so grateful for being there, and it marked my life as a cook. So, once you understand the philosophy I think it is easier to do it at home, which is what I did, by taking it to my country and applying it to the ingredients I’d grown up with. I’ve continued to do this ever since and also while at Quintonil later on. We used to have a kitchen garden on the rooftop which improved the connection between our cooks and the produce. As we learnt to make our own compost and save the scraps from the kitchen, we soon realized that we, as cooks, had the power to close a cycle and be resourceful.

How would you describe your food philosophy?

I’d simply say it is organic. I’ve learnt to cook with what I have in my surroundings and get the best out of every ingredient, no matter if it is expensive or cheap. Every ingredient has organoleptic characteristics and that’s what we have to appreciate, as well as knowing when they can be improved by cooking. That;’s not always the case though. For example, to me, there is no better way to eat an avocado than just sliced! So, I try to cook or transform ingredients only when I think it’s needed.

What are some of your favourite local ingredients and why?

I love citrus fruits and here in Yucatán you can find them easily. There is a small town called Oxcutzcab, which in Mayan means ox = breadnut, cutz = turkey, cab = honey. That’s where almost all citrus fruits come from. You can find everything from orange, sour orange, lime, lima, china lima (a mix between orange and lime), tangerine, naranjitas de san josé, etc. I love the fresh squeezed juice citrus fruits provide and the aroma that’s in their skins. They are a very noble, fragrant, and versatile ingredient. You can use the juice, the flesh, the skin, etc, and you can use it either raw or cooked, sometimes preserved or fermented too.

What is one of your happiest food memories?

I think my birthdays were the happiest. My mom (RIP) was a great cook, and every year on my birthday she cooked Cochinita pibil for me. Each year we’d have a party and all of my friends loved coming because there was always Cochinita pibil. After she died, for some reason, I moved to Yucatán which is the land of Cochinita pibil, so I feel like she is always present!

 Can you share some of the resourceful ways you avoid food waste when cooking/creating recipes? 

First, it’s important to think of a smart menu that lets you use the most of each ingredient. So, maybe for one dish you only use a certain part of an ingredient but the scraps can be used for another dish (in the same or in a different restaurant). We do it a lot with citrus fruits – all squeezed citrus fruits for juice are saved. We’ll make the skins candied and incorporate them in desserts or into our sourdough bread which also has pecans in it. The pulp of the citrus fruits will get used as well, to make confitures.

Another example is that we save the pineapple scraps and skin to make a traditional fermented beverage called Tepache. We spice it with cinnamon, black spice and molasses and let it ferment for 3-4 days resulting in a very refreshing drink with a lot of probiotics. We use it for cocktails or cook it until it’s reduced to make a syrup that we serve on a steamed bun stuffed with pork belly – delicious! Corn is another ingredient which we use in varying ways. We save the husks to make ashes, ice creams, infusions, and more. By being creative and resourceful, we can get hundreds of recipes out of a single ingredient!

What are some traditional farming and cooking methods which you feel are important to celebrate and preserve? 

I think the pib technique is one of the most important cooking methods or techniques in the Yucatan. I love putting things inside that underground oven! The food at Chablé/Ixi’im definitely wouldn’t be the same without it. Its flavour is present in almost every dish, it’s an instantly recognisable smoked, herbal, soily flavour that you simply cannot create in a conventional oven.

The other main thing that makes food at Chablé so special is the ka’anche’s. These are an ancient Maya technique for growing vegetables and herbs and assure that no animals will eat your produce as they are elevated beds on stilts. The ka’anche’s provide us with almost all the herbs that we use at Chablé, assuring the freshness and therefore the flavour of our dishes. I realised that our freshly picked vegetables taste so different from those that we buy in the supermarket, it makes a huge difference!

Why is using indigenous produce important to you and what are some of the ways you do this at Chable?

The main idea is to promote the consumption of local ingredients. Sadly, even local people have been influenced by foreign ingredients, changing their local ingredients for imported ones. This results in local farmers stopping to grow their ingredients due to no one buying them. As you know, sustainability is more than just ‘grow your own vegetables’, it’s a very complex phenomenon. It may begin with local consumption and growing organic but it encompasses so much more; reducing gas emissions and ecological footprint, promoting the local economy, the wellbeing of local societies, ethical monetary benefits, reducing meat consumption or going vegetarian/vegan, and so on. Every one of these concepts is a huge topic in itself worth talking about, which makes sustainability so complex and interesting. For myself as a Chef, when I cook or look for suppliers, I think of all of the above and try to consider and incorporate the most factors as possible. After a while you start to realise that, that we as decision makers have the power to permeate a team, a clientele, a town (like the one I reside in – Chocholá), suppliers and maybe influence or inspire others beyond that too, because after all I was (and still am) influenced and inspired by many others. This is the most exciting thing to me.

What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions around Mexican cuisine?

Well, besides so many people thinking that Mexican cuisine is only about tacos and chilies, (it is not!) I would say Mexican cuisine is actually a mix of many different cuisines. For example, food in the state of Oaxaca is very rich and even broader than the food of other countries – it is a whole cuisine in itself. Then, the food here in the Yucatan peninsula is so different from the Oaxacan as we use different cooking techniques, different ingredients and so on. The food in the north (Monterrey, for example) is totally different. Ensenada, in Baja California has the most amazing seafood, some of which is actually exported to japan, which indicates how high quality it is! The state of Michoacan is home to one of the richest and most ancient cuisines in Mexico and I think it is still very much undiscovered. So, as you can see, Mexico is a huge country and that is why we have so many different cuisines within the same territory. 

Another misconception that is common is that Mexican cuisine can’t be sophisticated or refined. People are amazed when we explain what we do here at Chable, particularly Ixi’im, what we cook and the ingredients we use across my restaurants, because they have never tried them in that way before, or didn’t even know a certain ingredient or part of a fruit/vegetable/flower was edible. But that’s another story, that we as cooks, are taking charge of…