An American chef with an Italian background cooks farm-to-table in Mexico. Let the challenges begin!
By Carolyn Haitsch
Long before the term “farm-to-table” came into fashion, Justin Ermini, Connecticut native, graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and chef of the acclaimed Mexico City restaurant Anatol was walking the walk. “It’s a philosophy that as a chef you adopt and stay true to no matter if it’s popular to talk about or not,” shared Ermini. “I believe it has always been a way of cooking for most households and restaurants all over the world.”
This farm-to-table cooking philosophy took root early in Ermini’s career. Working at Jean Georges in NYC in 2001, most of the ingredients used were from local farms; the same was true for restaurants he worked at in Vermont and Italy. But it was while working throughout Firenze, Italy that he learned most about true farm-to-table. The experience influenced his cooking by giving him a true understanding of keeping the integrity of ingredients and steered him in a direction of developing a menu that is not only seasonal but ingredient driven. “When a fruit or vegetable is in season and left on the vine until perfect ripeness, then used in a timely manner, that’s when you as a chef can achieve an amazing dish,” said Ermini. Traveling throughout the US and Europe taught him this key to making great food: “A chef can only manipulate a product so much. If you start with amazing ingredients, you are 90% there.” As an ever-growing and learning chef, his philosophy has evolved to keeping things simple and tasty.
With an impressive resume—including working at several Michelin-star restaurants throughout the United States and Italy—it’s no wonder Las Alcobas Mexico City, recently named #1 hotel in Mexico by Condé Nast Traveler, came calling when they wanted to open a farm-to-table restaurant. Chef Ermini considered it an opportunity not to be passed up and moved there with his wife, also a chef. “The culture is amazing and the city has so much to offer.” Even after two-and-a-half years, he and his wife who enjoy exploring the city, still find there is amazing food and new places to discover. “The culinary scene here is growing at a rapid rate and doesn’t lose its tradition, culture or soul.”
But with all the positives to his new home city, there have been some challenges: familiarizing himself with ingredients, learning the language and figuring out the logistics of getting food from small towns to his restaurant. Consistently using what local farms or fishermen are delivering is a challenging concept and keeps things up in the air. The menu needs to be flexible. At Anatol, a few classic dishes always remain on the menu, but the rest rotate out due to the freshness and availability of ingredients. If an ingredient is not up to quality or cannot get delivered when it is supposed to, the dish is changed and menu reprinted. On the other hand, the constantly changing menu is exciting for Chef Ermini and his cooks. It’s a way to express their creativity on a daily basis and keep challenging themselves.
So how does an American-born Italian-influenced chef meld his food with the flavors of Mexico? Beautifully! A perfect example: his signature black bean soup. One day a woman came in selling the most amazing large, polished black beans; they were extremely fruity. Chef Ermini wanted to keep the integrity of the bean but still showcase his own style. After cooking the beans in pork fat he changed it to duck fat to accommodate their large Jewish clientele. He then incorporated some newly discovered ingredients, one being Chilhuacle chile from Oaxaca. Using duck fat, he thought why not use the foie gras they were already getting from Guadalajara. They made a terrine, added some cilantro and tomato seeds and voila! An organic collaboration of his style integrated into the available ingredients of Mexico. It’s creations like this that have earned him rave reviews and an outstanding reputation.
One of the more interesting new ingredients he discovered while in Mexico City is a salt made in Chiapas from ancient natural wells near a lake and is called Sal de Pozo. It’s mild and more minerally than sea salt. Also, a leaf from the Oaxaca region of Mexico called Oja Santa, which he describes as somewhat similar to mint, parsley and perhaps shiso from Japan. There continues to be all sorts of new culinary discoveries to be made in Mexico City.
So what’s on the horizon for Chef Ermini? He will lend his expertise as consulting chef for the follow-up restaurant to Las Alcobas’s flagship Mexico City property opening spring 2016, Las Alcobas Napa Valley, and continue to cook for and explore Central America’s vibrant capital city. “The food is incredible and I learn about a new cooking tradition, style and ingredients on a daily basis.” Anatol is in excellent hands with Chef Justin Ermini at the helm, an original farm-to-table chef keeping things creative, simple and tasty.