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What Happens When You Put Three Top Chef México Contestants in a Bullring?

The show’s premiere season is drawing to a close, but for the country’s food scene, things are just starting to heat up.

When it comes to picking travel destinations, the way to my heart has always been through my stomach. I’ve often added places to my wanderlist based on ideas pulled from cooking shows. Anthony Bourdain is eating tagines in Morocco? I’m in. Top Chef contestants are wandering through street markets in Singapore? Take me there. So I couldn’t have been more thrilled to find a new show to add to my inspirational arsenal: Top Chef México.

It’s no surprise that the franchise picked Mexico for it’s most recent incarnation. Mexican cuisine has come a long way from the ubiquitous fajita combo plates at Tex-Mex chains. Just as regional Italian dishes like fresh-cut pasta all’Amatriciana overthrew questionably-authentic spaghetti and meatballs some years ago, Oaxacan moles and Yucatecan cochinita pibil are now taking the place of nachos and burritos (neither of which are actually Mexican) on menus around the world. In fact, these days, Mexican fine dining establishments are everywhere from Paris to Hong Kong and one is even on the list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. (That honor goes to Enrique Olvera’s Pujol in Mexico City.) 

And as viewers watching Top Chef México now know, it’s not just the world’s view of Mexican food that’s changing—the food itself is changing too. Inventive chefs, spurred in part by worldwide interest in organic foods and farm-to-table meals, have started blending classic European cooking techniques with traditional Mexican flavor combinations. They’re also elaborating on a long Mexican tradition of adopting non-native ingredients. (Pork, beef, chicken, and even cheese weren’t used in Mexican cooking until after Europeans arrived.)

Salas, Tanabe, and Quiroz

The first season of Top Chef México is about to end, but before the finale (which airs tonight), a few lucky travelers (myself included) were invited to a dinner hosted by local artisinal tequila brand, Casa Dragones, where we had the chance to taste dishes made by three of the leading chefs on the show: Matteo Salas, executive chef of Aperi in San Miguel de Allende; Irving Quiroz, pastry chef, author, and independent confectioner; and Katsuji Tanabe, chef/owner of Mexikosher in Beverly Hills and Season 12 contestant on the original Top Chef show.

As fans of the show know, Top Chef contestants are no strangers to cooking in unusual settings, so this dinner was held in a candle-lit bullring in San Miguel de Allende. The menu highlighted the kinds of creative and innovative combinations that we’ve seen on the show and the style of cooking that defines contemporary Mexican cuisine. The meal started with toast topped with sweet potato purée, shrimp escabeche, and caviar—a combination that gave a traditional Mexican technique (cooking foods en escabeche, or in vinegar) an upscale European twist. This was followed by artichoke hearts in fennel gazpacho with Parmesan cream, citrus, and radishes. These  traditional European ingredients were all used in a distinctly Mexican way. Next came a jook (Chinese rice porridge) with sous vide tongue and a fish sauce caramel; that dish  showed how similar Mexican and Asian flavor profiles can be and how beautifully they blend together. The whole meal wrapped up with a fusion dessert of ladyfingers, macarons, and sorbet that used local berries and was paired spectacularly with a glass of Casa Dragones' Joven tequila. 

The night may not have been one of the show’s famous elimination challenges, but each plate would have wowed the judges had it been presented on a real episode. I was so impressed by what the chefs could do while dealing with the constraints of cooking in a bullring that their restaurants now have permanent spots on my wanderlist.

Hungry for more? Top Chef México’s finale airs on NBC Universo tonight, May 19th, at 9 pm EST, and subscribers can catch up with the full season online. Viewers who subscribe to Canal-Sony (only available in select countries outside of the United States) can already watch the full season and finale. 

>>Next: How New York’s Mexican Speakeasy Got Back to Its Roots