The Hartwood Restaurant in Tulum is a delicious experiment in avant-garde cuisine, offering inventive dishes crafted from ingredients found locally and around the world, taking the concept of Mexican fare to a whole new level.
“I didn’t even consider cooking Mexican food,” said Eric Werner,Hartwood’s chef and co-owner. “I would never try to do what the cooks do here. They have local food in their bones."
Werner also functions as the restaurant’s forager,general contractor,waste management expert and agricultural apprentice. He is enchanted by the mouthwatering flavors that are evoked from food cooked over a wood fire and incorporates the many fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and spices of the Caribbean into the offerings on Hartwood’s diverse menu.
Upon moving here from Brooklyn with his wife,Mya Henry, in 2009, Werner opened the restaurant in Tulum, which is the current “endpoint” of the Riviera Maya. This international beach destination lies just south of Cancun and is quickly becoming one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations, but despite its growing recognition Tulum has retained a strong connection to its heritage and construction is tightly regulated.
No stoves, deep fryers or convection ovens can be found at Hartwood,and the kitchen is open to the elements, perched atop an expanse of poured concrete and adorned with picnic coolers full of ice and whole fish, work tables and baskets of fresh fruit. The prep work is done by hand using knives or a blender that is powered by the restaurant’s small generator, executed by a small team of locals led by sous chef Jamie Klotz. But don’t let the rustic description fool you – Hartwood is one of the Riviera Maya’s best restaurants.
“There are 14 different fresh juices at the bar,unforgettable slow-braised short ribs and a lime tart so soft and smooth you want to sleep on it,dusted with fragrant dried flowers of the chamomile plants that grow on the roadsides,” writes The New York Times. "Jicama for salad is cut in smooth white squares, dotted with sweet purple cactus preserves and set on a pale-green mint cream. Plantains are roasted whole in their skins until smoky and succulent,then dusted with fresh-grated canela, soft Mexican cinnamon.”
At night, kerosene lamps and fires burn to illuminate the “room” at Hartwood,lending a timeless feel to the space. Although Werner’s cooking tools may be primitive, his style is quite modern and right in step with his peers and in line with the world’s culinary elite. As one of today’s legendary chefs, he is literally rewriting the meaning of “fine dining” and “haute cuisine,” incorporating foods that are natural, minimal and focused on sustainability.
“They are dabbling in agriculture,animal husbandry and oceanography,and reviving culinary skills like pickling, alt-curing and smoking,” writes the New York Times. “In this movement, sometimes called ‘New Nordic’ even in the tropics, geographic labels like Mexican are losing their weight, and food that is regionally ‘authentic’ is no longer the quest.”
Werner literally spends hours on the road each week, buying local produce at places like Oxkutzcab and Tizimin in the local highlands. Since the coastal soil with its limestone bedrock is not ideal for growing, much of the region’s agriculture takes place in the forested interior. Local ingredients include red avocados, purple zapotes and ciruelas, or native plums. Many agricultural practices used by the ancient Maya for more than 6,000 years are still employed.
Amazingly, Werner uses a 900-degree wood oven and a 600-degree grill to cook for 120 people a night and plans are underway to add a pibil, or traditional Yucatecan pit oven. Since the region’s climate makes it possible to grow almost anything,there are also a variety of locally produced imports available, including mangoes, coconuts, bananas and pork.
“For Werner,raised in rural upstate New York, it has been liberating to uproot his work,” writes the New York Times. “The experiment of Hartwood has proved that a chef can carry ideas, skills and tastes anywhere. And the feather-light footprint of Hartwood – not much more than a wooden roof,some dried corncobs and an oven fashioned from earth and stone – means that the restaurant itself is rootless, too.”