A TALE OF CORN
CHEF’S TABLE BY ELEAZAR BONILLA
Written by Natalia Redondo
A tale of Corn at La Zebra Tulum. I know of very few elements, particularly food related, that have the power to break boundaries and permeate every corner of a society, regardless of its complexity, distance or gaps in between. This product is generous, sturdy, resilient, just like the people it feeds. This is what corn is to Mexico. Particularly in the various versions of a tortilla.
I am Mexican, so the “promise” in itself was alluring, but mostly I was curious. I wanted to know what was being presented to the foreigners that join that table, as I am aware that most of the visitors in this boho-chic town are foreigners, also wanted to know what “authentic Mexican” meant for Chef Bonilla. What are we authentically like?
I arrived at La Zebra Tulum as sunset was kissing the beautiful beach, we were welcome with big smiles and accommodated in an outside lounge area and soon enough a bright red cocktail in hand-blown glass was offered. It was delicious, fresh and crisp, a lovely welcome.
After been introduced to the rest of the party, we were led inside a beautiful and charming space, for the rest of the party it was a lovely decoration, for me it felt as if I had just walked in my grandmother’s dining room.
Soft boleros were in the background, just as any family in the center of Mexico plays while the food is getting ready. The flashbacks I was getting were tumultuous and heart warming. Until one of the guests mentioned how cozy and warm the space was, and defined it as “homey”, which made me smile as I knew I wasn’t the only one who was going down memory lane.
A forever smiling waiter introduced himself, Santi, and introduced his brother José, as his helper, and with literally his hand in his heart he explained that it was for him a pleasure to be there to provide us with this unique experience, he meant it and we all felt it. It was impossible to stop smiling while looking at him.
Chef Eleazar walked in with a shy yet honest smile, he seemed so young, also some of his team members carrying in box-like trays with corn grains and colorful tostadas (grilled tortillas) and a bunch of small bowls with salsas. Eleazar introduced himself in a mix of anxiety and perhaps a bit of nerves, in a cute way. He welcomed us and said that we were about to embark in a journey where he will tell us his own story along with every dish.
He presented us the first course, the tostadas, explaining that he started with that as it was for him the beginning of it all, the first solid thing he ever tasted was a corn tortilla, he grew up amidst corn as his father was a tortilla maker (tortillero) and it became the forever link to his family, his roots and his heart.
It felt so adequate, it is indeed where we all Mexicans come from, we come from the tortilla, taco, tostada, quesadilla, sope, huarache, tlayuda, gordita…we all sigh at the smell of recently ground tortilla put to the comal (flat iron grill), we anticipate its softness and mineral salty taste that is as perfect on its own as a complement to any other flavor.
Mexico is a country full of variety and contrasts. However, regardless of the zip code, there is one thing every household in this country always has: tortillas. It’s everyone’s true love and something that brings us together. It erases all the differences in our society.
There are taco stands on the streets where a working single mom, students, a banker, a business owner, and a gardener consult each other on how spicy are the salsas and pass the lemons or the salt. For that time, everyone standing there is just Mexican while we enjoy what we think is the best and most delicious thing in the world.
That is who we are and I felt proud and joyful to see that other people where discovering it.
Chef Bonilla kept bringing food in amazing presentations, imaginative and beautiful dishes, one course after the other, with every dish an episode of his life was revealed, he would tell how the ingredients came together or at what time of his career did he become familiar with the technique used in the dish.
Dinner became a dance of textures and flavors. Several areas of the country, where the Chef has lived or worked, were represented. It was not long before I realized that we were already at the sixth course and it had gone so smooth and timeless.
For every dish a drink would accompany, the right combination and the perfect match, a wide arrange of flavors came from cocktails, beer, agua fresca and the great selection of boutique winery produced Mexican wine. More than a drink pairing, it seemed like the bar was serenading the food.
The mood inside the room was joyful and bubbly, we were all complimenting the food and pointing out an aspect of the dishes. Some were comparing to their own family traditions or heritage.
The volume of the conversation kept increasing, sort of the way a family meal does, where it all starts a bit shallow and cold and after a while the jokes are flying around and everyone is catching up and more food and more drinks turns up everyone’s volume. It felt heartwarming and sweet, it felt like a Sunday afternoon at my parents dining room with all the family.
I found the moment magical, and then I surrendered to agree that it is one of the most authentic mexican experiences I have ever had. Even as a Mexican myself. It is a journey into our heart, where the joy of chilies and our multi-cultural sauces are hugs to the preparations, we enjoy simple things, we love to share our food and happiness, which can fit inside a tortilla.
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