Text and Photos: Vicky Santana Cortés
She is small, lively, and warm. She speaks emphatically, without too many flourishes; her statements gain expressiveness from the glow in her eyes as she tackles a subject she loves.
She has been cooking since childhood, “Because I really like to eat,” she says easily. Her family was undoubtedly the birthplace of Elena Reygadas’ love of cooking. Her mother, a woman she considers an unparalleled hostess, often delighted their large family with her cooking. Her father was equally influential, since he passed on his innate curiosity to his children, who were always encouraged to try new ingredients and tastes while traveling, especially to the interior of México. “I’m grateful to him, because that really influenced the education of my palate. Our father raised our awareness and taught us to pay attention to how food reflects the history of a region,” she explains.
Her brother, filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, also “pushed” her toward cooking when he was making his first movie. Elena had nearly finished her literature studies at the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM) when Reygadas asked her to help with the catering for his film. During breaks between filming, she learned what it meant to plan a menu and take responsibility for serving a large group of people.”That was a defining moment, because that was when I realized that I wanted to cook more than anything,” remembers Elena.
Once she finished her literature studies, she acted on this idea by traveling to New York to do a year-long diploma course at The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. The school gave her a technical foundation, and with that experience under her belt, she packed her bags again and headed for London.
Her husband had been offered a scholarship there and she took advantage of the opportunity to continue her training, this time in the real world of restaurants. Her nearly five years of work at the Italian restaurant Locanda Locatelli provided the best possible school. She gained experience at every single work station. While pastas were certainly the restaurant’s forte, Locanda Locatelli is also where her love affair with bread began. She learned to make it with the help of a baker who taught her the secrets of real bread. Elena took over as the head baker when her teacher left. She gave her creativity free rein, experimenting with many ingredients, times, and temperatures.
She enjoyed learning everything she could. The arrival of her daughter —who is now eight— made Elena feel it was time to return home. If she wanted to continue growing in her profession, she needed someone to help care for the little girl. Once back home, she started holding private dinners, first one day a week, then two, and finally three. She invited her friends, who in turn invited their friends, expanding the group. Dinner for thirty turned into dinner for fifty. It was too much for just her and an assistant chef, so two people became four. Actually, five, since by then she was pregnant with her second daughter.
The experience in that old mansion in the Roma neighborhood was unsurpassable. Elena offered two starters, two first courses, two mains. It was a crucible that allowed her to determine what she liked and what she did not, while she also forged relationships with producers, many of whom are still her suppliers. At one of those dinners, an old acquaintance told her that he would be willing to back her as soon as she felt ready to open a restaurant. After the birth of her younger daughter, Julieta, Elena knew it was time to take another step forward in her career, and she accepted the offer from the person who is now her financial partner.
Rosetta: Her Third Child
First came Rosetta, which opened its doors in 2010 in the heart of Colonia Roma, a cosmopolitan neighborhood in Mexico City. Heavily influenced by Italy in the beginning, over time the restaurant has added the flavors of other cultures, particularly that of Mexico. “Ninety-five percent of the ingredients we use at Rosetta are Mexican and I do love exploring Mexican herbs and fruits, which are what make our cuisine unique.
A side from wanting to make the best mole (a spicy sauce with many variants) in México, I carefully select the ingredients: for example, a chilguaque —a kind of chile— and I can imagine it in a Béarnaise sauce with eggs,” she says.
In 2014, when she was honored as the Best Female Chef in Latin America by the Veuve Clicquot company, which honors outstanding women in various fields, the jury observed: “her cuisine is restrained, seasonal, and thoughtful, but also highly imaginative.” Elena fully identifies with this description, since her imagination leads her to explore all the possibilities of a simple carrot, for example. She is constantly taking notes.
Sometimes recipes arise from an “alchemist’s” inspiration, and other times from her thorough and analytical observation of what might work or not. She tries over and over, tasting with her work team, and if the dish is good enough, it will be featured on the menu of Rosetta.
She opened the more informal Lardo restaurant in 2015. It is a bar with an open kitchen. The intensely flavorful food is “made to share.” Elena describes it above all as “social interaction, with more familiar, universal dishes. There you’ll find everything from a cauliflower salad to eggplant Parmesan to a plate of salami or a pizza with red onions and habanero chile.”
But First There Was Bread…
“Bread-making is one of the most beautiful things there is,” says Elena passionately. In the land of tortillas, the chef defends the bounties of bread. Her slender build allows her to state authoritatively that bread does not make people fat (she eats all kinds of bread). She says she is fascinated by the process and the secrets of fermentation. She explains that her time in New York made her realize that México lacked a bakery that offered breads with a thick crust and breads made with a yeast starter.
Bread always accompanied the food at her private dinners and now Rosetta also makes its own bread. Two years after opening Rosetta, Elena opened La Panadería, where she begins her work day very early in the morning.
She and Verónica, who has been with her from the beginning, supervise the team of bakers who quickly fill orders from locals, who must often wait in line to be served. The small establishment, located a block from Rosetta, smells of bread and coffee. The choice of breads is extensive and varied, and the customers are warm and friendly. A new branch of La Panadería has opened in Colonia Juárez, another neighborhood of the Mexican capital.
Bread represents intimacy, warmth, and sharing. “I believe a meal should always include bread. Bread is meant to be shared, and torn by hand, not cut. Bread brings you closer to others,” says Elena. “It is true that bread has been demonized. People say that it’s not good and that it makes you gain weight, but the problem is actually all those ‘improvers’ like instant yeast and bleached, overly refined flours used in industrial baking. I think that bread made with good flour, good slow fermentation, and natural yeast is not only good, but conducive to digestion. “I consider bread a glorious food and I have a lot of respect for it.”
What is so magical about Elena’s bread? In her own words, the key lies in the fermentation, which takes place slowly and naturally, giving the bread a certain flavor, heft, and structure that makes it special. Another secret is that she uses natural yeast, not instant.
“Live yeast is flour and water. If you leave this mixture out, it attracts bacteria from the air. It becomes alive, it bubbles, it smells slightly acidic, and it makes bread expand. That natural yeast makes bread much easier to digest, makes it taste better, and gives it a longer shelf life. That is how real bread is made,” she concludes persuasively.
The chef’s passion is turned into flavor in every loaf of artisan bread. If México were to someday define “a bread route,” Elena’s La Panadería would surely be a mandatory stop.