"It's exciting to be in a kitchen and see a monkey jump in and take one of the bananas that's ripe," says chef Eric Werner of Hartwood in Tulum. "Sometimes it's a clear indication of what fruit is really ready and at its most delicious."
On a day-to-day basis, most chefs concern themselves with issues like staffing and product consistency. Eric Werner of Hartwood has to deal with monkeys.
"We have monkeys that come into the restaurant during the day, and on occasion during the night. We have many kinds of jungle animals in the kitchen, all of which are harmless," Werner says. He adds that he did encounter some poisonous snakes and spiders in the course of constructing his restaurant in Tulum, located on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán peninsula.
"It's exciting to be in a kitchen and see a monkey jump in and take one of the bananas that's ripe. Sometimes it's a clear indication of what fruit is really ready and at its most delicious," he says. "The bats will come in and hit the papaya. You'll know, this is the most perfect time to eat this papaya. You allow the wildlife to tell you that."
Werner and his wife Mya Henry, whose jointly authored cookbook Hartwood: Bright, Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatán debuts this week, are not natives of Mexico. Before moving to Tulum in 2010, Werner did stints in the kitchens of Peasant in Manhattan and Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, while Henry worked at the Soho Grand Hotel. It was while on vacation in the Yucatán that they decided to pack up everything and move down to the tropics.
Only two hours away and yet a far cry from the tequila-fueled orgy of Cancun, Tulum has long been esteemed as an off-the-grid respite for savvier travelers who are willing to forgo things like 24-hour electricity and contemporary septic systems for tropical calm and stupidly beautiful beaches.
It's for those very reasons, however, that this insider's paradise has lately become something of a style section punchline. "Coming to Tulum and not taking a yoga class is like swearing off wine in Tuscany," declared the New York Times last year. The Daily Mail wrote that Tulum has, in recent years, "turned from a cheap and chilled-out backpackers' paradise to the ultimate in barefoot chic, populated by bearded hipsters and tattooed girls in carefully mismatched bikinis."
It's true that there are shops selling $250 maxi dresses along the town's narrow beach road, where there were clear signs of upscale development when I visited last winter. And yet I somehow managed to spend nine days without saluting the sun once, or learning how to grow a beard.
I did manage to visit Hartwood, which you'll find at the top of just about every Tulum trend piece written in the last three years. For better or worse, the restaurant stands at the intersection of two Tulums: glitterati vacation destination and dusty Mayan village. But beyond its well-heeled patrons and its nods to Brooklyn gastro-tropes, Hartwood is a very serious restaurant with a very serious chef at its helm.
"In the beginning, people were like, 'What are you doing here?'" says Werner of Hartwood's nascence as a sloping plot of wild jungle. "And then they saw that we were operating off of no electricity, that all of our water was being brought in, that we were conducting all of our own waste management and recycling. We were working hand-in-hand and learning about the Mayan culture around us. They started to see that this wasn't some nonsense pop-up where we were trying to capitalize off of Tulum's touristic value."
But while Werner might have access to an outdoor oven for cooking lechón and sources his corn and squash from nearby milpas, he's not quite audacious enough to label his menu as Mexican. "I don't consider Hartwood to be 'traditional Mexican' whatsoever," he says firmly. "I consider it to be more of a new style of Mexican cooking, which bases a lot of its principles off of Yucatecan cuisine."
He also resists the idea that Hartwood is part of the town's transformation into a tourist mecca for trendy foreigners. "Tulum is a mixture of all different types of people from all over the world, and it's always been like that," Werner says. "Our whole idea for creating the restaurant was to include the community in everything that we did. The restaurant's DNA is completely embedded in the community that surrounds us, and that spreads not only to Tulum, but out to Cobá, to Valladolid, and reaching further into the Yucatán to Mérida, Campeche, at times even in Chiapas." Werner claims that about 75 percent of the customers he sees each night are Mexican nationals, some visiting from nearby Cancun, some from Mexico City and beyond.
The chef also argues that Hartwood's commitment to the local community touches every dish that comes out of its kitchen. One of the cookbook's vignettes focuses on Juan, a taxista of Tulum who operates as a sort of fixer for the restaurant's many needs.
"Our network of taxis goes all the way across the peninsula," Werner says. If the Caribbean happens to be particularly stormy one day, the restaurant might end up buying fish for its many ceviches from a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, four hours to the north. "We'll have Juan meet up with another taxi coming from the Gulf, handing off the fish in the capital of Mérida, and then bring it right back to Tulum. The fish is still only out of the water for a maximum of five hours before it hits the restaurant."
And that's only as a last resort. Most days, the fish at Hartwood has only been out of the water for two hours.
The restaurant's proximity to the sea also presents its share of problems. "There's so much saltwater attacking everything," says Werner, who notes that he manages the restaurant more like a ship than a building. He estimates that without daily maintenance, the jungle would swallow up Hartwood in a matter of weeks. "The vegetation around us grows so rapidly that it will just climb and attach to the wood and start splitting open or rotting. When we first made the tables for the restaurant, somebody told me, 'These won't last more than six months.' We're going on six years with the same tables." Those tables are kept fresh with weekly coats of marine-grade varnish, plus the occasional bandage of glue or concrete.
"It's not a matter of not wanting to make new tables—it's a matter of taking care of the things that you have," he says. "If I were to throw out a table because I think it's too old, I would be totally frowned up by the community as being wasteful."
And minimizing waste is always a goal for Werner. Part of Tulum's charm derives from its hippie, ecologically conscious ethos—one that predates the rise of buzzwords like "carbon footprint" in the US. Likewise, the kitchen at Hartwood runs on very little electricity, outside of its refrigerator and a few small appliances, while the stove and oven are heated with wood fire.
After explaining the restaurant's water recycling system, Werner spends a few minutes regaling me about a low-energy lightbulb that he found on a recent trip back to the States. "It produces a warm light, so I can use it in the restaurant without being blinded—and it cuts my electrical usage in half!" Being nerdy about sustainability, he says, is necessary in Tulum. That means finding new ways to preserve the energy captured by the restaurant's solar cells or using wood from fallen trees to power the grill and oven.
"Cooking with fire is a total love affair," says Werner, who learned to cook over wood when he was working in New York. "It has to be something of a passion, because down there it reaches 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity. If you're going put yourself in front of an oven that's 800 or 900 degrees, and the grill is kicking off the same, you must love it very much."
Fire entices everyone, he says, but it's something that takes years of getting used to. "You need to have the understanding that you can't control it as much as you want to."
Listening to Werner, I'm inclined to say the same thing about the jungle itself. He may only be borrowing a piece of land that time and nature will ultimately take back, but he's steering his ship admirably in the meanwhile.