“Experience” is the perfect word to describe the Chili Pepper Culinary Experience at the El Dorado Royale Resort in Cancún, Mexico. From the time the event began, my senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and especially taste were fully engaged, connected to the rich culture of Mexico (even though we were at a very Americanized resort in a tourist town).
The ride up to the Generations Riviera Maya Resort, where my room (which was bigger than my apartment in Houston) was located, was just the beginning. Right away, it was clear that the Karisma Hotels and Resorts crew plays no games and cuts no corners when it comes to hospitality. Walking up to the concierge to check in, I was offered a welcome drink (champagne), and then, when they couldn’t find my reservation for a second, I was offered even more to drink while I waited. Little did I know this would be the beginning of healthy liquid diet throughout the rest of the week. The full butler service at the hotel was a nice element, but the whole staff seemed to have the white glove vibe.
I noticed right away that after O.D.ing on saying, “thank you,” or “gracias” to everyone who did so much as open a door for me, that the staff would respond with, “It was my pleasure.” It truly seemed that everyone on the resort felt blessed and fortunate to work there — which makes it easier to accept being the privileged customer at a nice place. I was treated like one of the property’s many celebrity patrons, which is pretty awesome for a woman on the hustle.
In short: Disney World might have a new rival for “happiest place on earth,” because I felt like everyone was my new friend, and “Cheers” might have to rethink that theme song because everyone definitely knew my name.
After my reservation turned up, a butler walked me up to my room where he explained that on one side of the resort was a mangrove swamp. Apparently, it was a joke on the resort that one side of the hotel was hell and the other was heaven. In purgatory, my room, the first thing I noticed was the mini living room, followed by the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept on, and then, that view of the Caribbean. Ay, dios mió…that view was, by far the most beautiful, peaceful view I have ever witnessed in life.
I was tempted never to leave my room, but I am so glad I did. There were chilies to eat and sweat to mop off my brow.
When I heard “Chili Pepper Festival,” I was thinking along the lines of an outdoors, fall festival where there are tons of things to buy that relate to a patron veggie, a couple rides to check out, and a maybe a performer or two. And this, friends, is why you read up on an event before you attend it. Because I was waaaaaay off.
What I got instead of a fair was a series of delectable dinners from world renowned chefs and frequently-flowing drinks specially chosen to complement each course. Each pairing was so perfect that it was difficult to pace myself and not just chug champagne while scarfing down the dishes.
I arrived in Mexico a little late for the festivities – about midweek – but that was more than enough to be impressed. My first night was called “Mole and Champagne Tattinger,” and featured marriages of four different kinds of moles accompanied by four different kinds of Tattinger champagne. The welcome drink was a strange sort of chili pepper smoothie. The consistency was thick and icy instead of fluid and liquidy like other cocktails. While other cocktails are made to quench your thirst while they give you a buzz, this cocktail was to whet your appetite for the rest of the night’s experience.
Chefs Rick Bayless and Ricardo Muñoz Zurita were the lead chefs for the night, explaining the painstaking, day-long process of making the perfect mole and their choices of ingredients to diners. First up was yellowtail with its subtle flavor, joined with a semi-spicy tostada to open up the palate. Next was a pipián that made me want to lick the plate and also gave a rebranding of pumpkin from “basic white girl” to rich and complex, as the mole sauce obtained its consistency from the fruit’s seeds. A personal favorite, the “langostinos” reminded me a lot of gumbo roux — a tad spicy but not overbearing. Finally, if we were not already stuffed, Chef Bayless’s famous Oaxaca black mole (the “king of the seven moles”) served with tender pork most definitely did the trick, filling whatever space in our stomachs was not yet full of mole and champagne.
Dinner was rounded out by dessert of several kinds of chocolate cake, mousse, and coffee-flavored ice cream paired with edible flowers to complement their beautifully plated predecessors.
Still full from the night before, I was escorted by golf cart (shoutout to the butlers) to the next day’s lunch — a ceviche bar served with drinks from Mexican distillery Santanera. To give an idea of the quality of tequila Santanera serves, the cheapest bottle I could find back in the States is $90. Now, admittedly not a superfan of ceviche, I was skeptical. The onion is always too onion-y and the seafood too seafood-y. I knew Chef Benito Molina was very popular for his ceviche, but as I do not pretend to have a mature enough palate to enjoy certain fishes plus a ton of onion, and then, adding chili peppers in the mix felt super sketch.
Of course, I was wrong. First, I was delighted not to have to eat mounds of ceviche: sample sizes were served on tiny tortilla chips, and the taster could decide which to consume more of. The first was a pork leg and oyster ceviche, probably the most ceviche of the ceviches offered that day. Onion showed up strongly, and the chilis were very noticeable. The next was a yellowtail ceviche, a delightful diversion from the fishiness and/or sliminess of many seafood ceviches with the light, mild taste but firm, meaty texture good yellowtail offers. Now, the sardine ceviche was interesting to taste, and even more interesting to chew. The sardine tasted like sardine – salty and umami rich, but adopting the taste of its supporting veggies, fruits, and sauces. Perhaps if it were served in a bowl and not on a chip it would have been easier to chew, but the fish’s tough skin mixed with the crunchiness of the chip did not mesh well for me. That’s okay of course, a food festival would be kind of silly if the boundaries of your taste weren’t tested.
The pesto ceviche was the winner and managed to make me forget it was ceviche. It felt as if I were eating a dip or hors d’oeuvres, and I was left wanting more.
My final night was a gala dinner honoring Chefs Bayless and Zurita (“the Richards”), and – food aside – was a really neat experience. Five internationally known chefs – Josefina Santacruz, Solange Muris, Benito Molina, José Miguel García, and Jonatan Gomez Luna – planned a five-course meal to exemplify all the best of Mexican food and culture.
In the resort’s Fuentes Culinary Theater, the culinary experts explained their process and made a sample of their respective dishes while their actions were displayed on large screens around the room. Leon Alva spruced up the room décor by provided his original artwork around the theater. His paintings were reminiscent of Jackson Pollock… if Pollock would have had a plan before splattering paint all over his canvases.
Chef José Miguel García started the evening off with lobster aguachile, seasoned with smoky lime and onion ashes (yes, ashes — they burnt onions and raked up the refuse to use as an ingredient) and featured a foam made with local lime. Habanero peppers were ever-present and gave the dish a little kick. Guests sitting near me who were not used to spicy dishes were suddenly very grateful for the serrano pepper pale ale from Brewery Espanta Pájaros, a nanobrewery in Mexico.
The second dish belonged to the extremely charming Chef Josefina Santacruz, and was the BEST tamale I have ever tasted. Santacruz explained that she wanted to cook a dish that “yelled out ‘Mexico’, which is the culture of the corn,” and one that featured “corn in different stages.” She desired to create something that if, blindfolded, people would automatically recognize as Mexican. The result was a corn tamale with guajillo sauce and quelites (Mexican herbs), which she served with Tattinger champagne. Like I say: It was special.
Chef Solange Muris was up next, letting us know that she has “never met a fish that scared her,” thus, her “Ocean Surprise 2017” included fish from all regions of Mexico. The fish was seasoned with chili dust and accompanied by a fried bean sauce with dried seaweed on top. For this course, it was time to break out the wine! – a Hartford Court Chardonnay from the U.S. Sonoma Coast, that is.
Rounding fourth was Chef José Miguel García’s pork loin and mole coloradito with matcha sauce, the most tender pork to have ever graced a fork. Served with a pinot noir from La Crema (Williamette Valley, USA), it finally felt as if we had reached the grand finale of our dinner (as exemplified by the swell in happy, satiated laughter and conversation in the auditorium), thus, we moved on to dessert.
Chefs Benito Molina and Jonatán Gómez Luna tag teamed a dessert that they called, “It’s a lemon pie?” When we were served dessert, we realized where the confusion lay: the sweet treat looked just like a regular lemon, except it was made of all sugar. After being instructed to crack the “lemon” open, a perfect, marshmallowy merengue appeared next to a lemon foam and the tiniest bit of ice cream. More Santanera organic tequila was served, as if we were not already food-drunk.
At the end of the night, Jeroen Hanlo, VP for Food and Beverage Operations, Karisma Hotels and resorts, told me that the resort was interested in the Chili Pepper Culinary Experience because “people are looking less for vacations and more for experiences.” He added that they noticed “Curiosity about ingredients is increasing, and people want to know ‘What is this? Where did these things come from?” The culinary experience allows guests to have a hands-on experience answering any questions they had about the Mexican culture. Also, the food is insanely delicious.
Karisma Hotels hosts themed culinary series in many of their hotels. If you love food, being treated like royalty, and want to replace your vacation with an experience — this is the spot to see.