Far from its previous metropolitan locations, the third edition of Noma is popping up in the jungle—in Tulum, Mexico, to be precise. Yet there’s more adventure to Noma Tulum than just its location. It’s also the first of the Danish restaurant’s pop-ups to involve an additional creative partner alongside René Redzepi: former Noma pastry chef-turned-taquería-owner Rosio Sanchez. Since leaving Noma in 2015, Sanchez has been schooling Europe in the art of the Mexican taco at her Copenhagen-based taco stand, Hija de Sanchez. But now, as Noma briefly sets up shop in Tulum, she’s back collaborating with Redzepi, foraging for ingredients across Mexico, and experimenting in Noma’s Caribbean-front kitchen. AFAR got a chance to catch up with the Mexican American chef on the pop-up, traveling through Mexico, and how the country has brought her closer to her roots.
“I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago full of immigrants and first-generation citizens, where everyone spoke Spanish. Even my mom didn’t speak English for a long time. I was eating tortillas every day and going to the [Mexican] market. I would eat tamales from the ladies on the corner and tres leches cake on birthdays. I grew up not thinking about [the culture], but these days all of the food I make is rooted in Mexican culture. [In my cooking,] I always have drawn on the food I liked growing up. But now that I’ve traveled more to Mexico, I’ve been able to have really good Mexican food, and I’m establishing new flavor memories.”
You’ve been cooking in Denmark since 2009—what’s it like to now be in living in Mexico, working with Noma Tulum?
“The products we get to use here are incredible. They are the best we could find in Mexico. It’s just amazing to be a part of this experience and to be with a team so focused on their palates. It’s given me a lot more confidence. Just getting to taste how fresh everything is here is great for a cook.”
You’ve traveled pretty extensively through Mexico. What places stand out to you and why?
“Oaxaca has always stood out to me, ever since the first time I visited. It has everything, and you can walk everywhere. It has the best market. And mezcal—I love mezcal. You can see history in the streets, but it’s also a modern city. It’s so colorful all around.
“On this trip [with Noma Tulum], the place that really stood out to me was Tabasco. Going to the market there was crazy: There was so much and it was all displayed so beautifully. We were only there a few days, but it felt so wild. It’s in the jungle and it doesn’t even feel like Mexico—it feels like another world, somewhere in South America.”
What will surprise people most about the menu at Noma Tulum?
“The ‘wow’ thing is that we’re not trying to cook Mexican food. It’s more about how we’re applying the ingredients and the way we’re getting these ingredients together. We’ve amassed different ingredients from different parts of Mexico—clams from Ensenada, chiles from Oaxaca, oysters from Nayarit—and that’s not easy. Everything has to go through Mexico City. You can’t just have products shipped from Oaxaca.”
What has inspired you personally, and your cooking style, here in Mexico?
“I’ve been inspired a lot by the fruits—especially the riñon tomatoes in Oaxaca. It’s been a real eye-opener to get to use fresh fruits like cacao, star fruit, anona, and mangoes in all their different varieties. It’s very inspiring because you can never find this quality or these types of fruits in Copenhagen. The citrus varieties are mind-blowing. The others [at Noma Tulum] have been super inspired by the spices here, i.e., chile. [Laughs] For them, it’s like ‘Wow!’ It’s fun to watch them eat [spicy food].”
What have been some of the most eye-opening experiences you’ve had while preparing for Noma Tulum?
“Definitely visiting the small communities outside of the major cities. On one trip to Yaxuná, Yucatán, we had cochinita, a slow-cooked pork with citrus and chile. Everything was grown there: the suckling pig, the orange tree, the axiote. It’s like if your mom had a garden with all the ingredients for the meals she prepared. Even more incredible, the ladies who made those tacos for us will be making the tortillas at Noma Tulum.”
And finally, what have been the challenges and rewards of Noma Tulum?
“Logistics. It’s such a huge team. It’s a big job. It’s something to manage and to admire. The reward for me has been the chance to cook with some of the best people and also being able to cook in Mexico as a Mexican American girl. That’s a huge reward.”
Noma Tulum runs from April 12 to May 28, 2017.