Open Jaw

Beyond The Taco

Cuisine in Mexico has evolved to 6 star deliciousness

Can you imagine guests taking photos of their food at an all-inclusive resort 20 years ago? Have you noticed how often it happens today?

As a food lover and fairly adventurous diner, my memories of those days is of buffets featuring many choices of generally bland dishes – despite the fact that you were in a different country with a distinct (and delicious) cuisine, it was often nowhere to be found at the resort. Oh, how times have changed.

The proof of this was immediately evident during a visit to the sparkling clean kitchens at the Royal Playa Del Carmen, which along with its sister property the Royal Cancun, bills its dining experience as ‘Luxury Gourmet by Real Resorts.’ It’s not an idle boast, and recent visits to other Mexican resorts demonstrate that while Real may be at the upper end, it’s definitely not alone in providing a culinary experience that can be a holiday highlight.

“It’s all part of the incredible evolution of Mexico’s all-inclusive product,” says Wally Dagri, public relations manager for Real Resorts. “It has gone from mass market mediocrity to a huge range of privileged experiences.”

With some guests still clinging to misperceptions about the safety of food and water in Mexican resorts, the industry has probably overcompensated.

Chef Jose Maria Mejia

A tour led by Executive Chef Jose Maria Mejia and Food & Beverage Manager Isaac Lopez begins with a hygiene demonstration. With some guests still clinging to misperceptions about the safety of food and water in Mexican resorts, the industry has probably overcompensated. Kitchen staff don’t just wash their hands – they wash their arms like surgeons, every 1/2 hour or anytime they change from preparing meat and fish to vegetables. Every vegetable is washed and then washed again.

During my visit, the kitchen staff of more than 100 is preparing for the finale of the Mayan Culinary Festival, a weekly event at the resort and its Cancun sister, leading up to the end of the Mayan calendar in December. While Mexicans in general were surprised by the interest in that potential world ending event, Real Resorts officials were also taken aback by the rapturous reception of guests to a menu of Mayan-inspired dishes.

“People have absolutely loved it,” says Dagri. “They ask a million questions, they want to see the raw ingredients, they want the recipes to take home.”

Judging from the obvious passion and pride of the chefs and other kitchen staff, they have been surprised and overjoyed by the reaction too. Many of them are of Mayan descent and quite a few speak the Mayan language. They point out the maize, beans, fruits, vegetables, herbs, seeds, greens and spices that were staples many centuries ago and still form the base of Yucatan cuisine.

Resort officials were also taken aback by the rapturous reception of guests to a menu of Mayan-inspired dishes.

They demonstrate making corn tortillas by hand, grinding annatto seeds into a savoury paste for meat and fish, and they serve delicious drinks made from corn, sweet potato or a spinach-like green.

The next night I attend the Mayan Culinary Festival at the Cancun location. There’s a selection of a la carte restaurants for guests to choose from, but the huge dining room is packed, as almost everyone has chosen the Mayan buffet. Judging from the heaped plates that are rapidly emptied, the meal is a huge success.

A month later and 2,500 km. away in Puerto Vallarta, I have another Mexican gourmet experience at the Occidental Grand Nuevo Vallarta. Here, the buffet is replete with a huge range of choice that’s not only delicious but designed to cater to a wide range of diets. In the a la carte restaurants the presentation is so alluring that iPhone camera flashes are a frequent sight.

Occidental Grand Executive Chef Yann Gresselin hails from Montreal and was trained in French cuisine. But after 20 years in Mexico and the Caribbean, he agrees that his palette is filled with a rainbow of colours and the palates of his guests have broadened considerably. “It’s challenging to please so many tastes, but it’s also exciting that so many guests are so excited by the food,” Gresselin says.

The Mexico Tourism Board recognizes the growing importance of cuisine to its tourism product, both inside and outside the resorts. You can check out a section on Gastronomy on its website. The Board has also developed an excellent product called The Routes of Mexico, which encourages visitors to explore beyond the resort. Among the intriguing options is a route dubbed “The Thousand Flavours of Mole,” which explores the many variations of this quintessentially Mexican sauce – in the 3 different states that claim to be the originators of mole.

From the freshest seafood to the spiciest salsa, Mexican cuisine is an attraction unto itself. And to understand how important that is to visitors, just spend some time on the review sites, looking at all those iPhone photos of artfully presented plates.

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