The heat from the wood-fired grill singed my hair as I flipped the nopales (cactus). And I was in heaven, cooking at the helm of one of the most celebrated restaurants in Mexico.
This past December I persuaded my girlfriend to venture to Tulum, Mexico, with me to experience a nine-day “Eat Retreat,” part of a package offered at the Casa de las Olas resort. It wasn’t your typical beach vacation where you dig your toes in the sand and soak up the Caribbean sun.
Instead, this trip focused on the food and flavors of the Yucatan. The highlight was a two-day cooking class and mescal tasting with chef Eric Werner, owner/proprietor of Hartwood.
Werner and his wife, Mya Henry, did what most of us only dream of – they sold all of their possessions in 2010, said goodbye to the chaos and chill of New York and set up shop in the jungle across from Tulum Beach.
It was definitely a change of pace. Werner, from upstate New York, worked at Vinegar Hill House, an acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant, and had cooked in New York City with famed pastry chef and restaurateur Francois Payard. His wife, a Chapel Hill native, worked stateside in the hotel industry.
Their journey wasn’t easy. The couple maxed out credit cards, battled ant bites and howler monkeys and used machetes to claim the land on which the restaurant stands. It’s on the two-lane beach road,
Werner and Henry learned to adapt to the elements – cooking with wood soaked by the rain; sending taxis to pick up produce from the market; shutting down the restaurant when the skies poured rain.
Now, Hartwood has emerged as the “go to” place for dinner in Tulum. Celebrities and chefs from around the world vie for a coveted table. Why? Because Werner blends layers of rustic flavor and smoke, utilizing the fresh bounty of ingredients foraged from the Yucatan soil and from the sea. And, as a result, his food is what I dream of and crave.
The beauty of Hartwood is its connection to the elements – only a thatched roof is over the kitchen; just an overhang covers the bar. The only full walls are in the back, where the prep stations and rest rooms are; elsewhere the exteriors are half-walls you could hop over. The restaurant is otherwise open to the sky. The place closes in September, the height of the rainy season.
But Hartwood is open tonight.
During dinner, stars glimmer from above as Werner and his staff dance around in a smoky ballet, working by candlelight and the amber glow of the wood fire. Hartwood is truly off the grid, using only solar panels and a small generator to power the blender, the iPod and the refrigerator.
Over the past five years, Werner developed deep roots with the farmers and fishermen who supply his restaurant. There are no US Foods or Syscos to ensure “on time” delivery of products. Rather, Werner invested his time and energy with locals, buying their chaya (spinach), honey and myriad other ingredients. In turn, those farmers and fishermen have grown along with Hartwood.
During our cooking classes, I witnessed the synergy between Hartwood and the locals. First to arrive was the fish guy (Werner utilizes a fleet of three boats) with sea trout and snapper. Next, the vegetable guy rolls in. Then the fruit truck pulls up loaded with avocado, coconuts, papayas, melons and fat bananas.
Everyone is smiling, including me.
Hartwood is a foodie favorite. Famed Danish chef Rene Redzepi – his Noma restaurant in Copenhagen is usually ranked among the best restaurants of the world – was so taken with dining here that he wrote the forward to the Hartwood cookbook. The dozen of us side-trippers from Casa de las Olas included a sculptor who doubles as actress Meryl Streep’s personal chef.
Sure, I learned to grill cactus and make ceviche with fish caught that morning. I sipped mescal and ate the worm from the bottle. I made mole. On this trip to southern Mexico I also went to the farmer market at Valladolid, 90 minutes away, and climbed the steep steps of Ek Balam, the ancient Mayan archaeology site another 30 minutes farther.
But what I truly loved about this experience was spending time with a person who lives life to its fullest. Werner’s approach to cooking mirrors his approach to life – taking risks and striving for balance.
Sights and sounds
The view: When you look over the half wall that separates Hartwood from the beach road, you see all of the activity buzzing on the street, as well as palapas (the thatched roofs made of dried palms), a specialty shop called Mr. Blackbird and the jungle. From the roof of Hartwood you can see the beach, and looking west you can see the lagoon and the jungle. Because Hartwood is in the jungle, upkeep is constant.
Within the open-air restaurant, smoke was created from a pail of copal resin that was lit and coaxed to a smolder. Werner looked like a Catholic priest swinging his incense around the place. It keeps out the skeeters and the flies! The floor is made of white gravel and crunches under your feet when you walk.
The sounds: There was always a buzz of traffic on the two-lane beach road. In the morning and around lunch, water trucks that bring in potable water drive through as well as the supply trucks with ice, fruits and fish and herbs – plus taxis ferrying the tourists and the police zooming by on motorcycles.
When the pots weren’t sizzling, you could hear the crackle of the wood fire, the crunch of gravel under the shuffling feet of the purveyors delivering the fruits of their bounty. Birds called from the canopy above. Werner shouted out commands to his staff. The energy that flowed through Hartwood was as palpable as the jungle heat. And you could hear rock music jamming through the open air.