AT THE CANCUN RIVIERA 5TH Annual Food & Wine Festival, I consumed the best food in the world while suffering from acute food poisoning. It was not the festival’s delicately prepared dishes that caused my gastronomical distress, but rather the remnants of my grandmother’s Passover brisket I’d consumed days prior to the event.
My stomach was doomed before I even boarded the plane.
So when I arrived at one of the most celebrated culinary events in Mexico, I couldn’t keep my food down. The stomach pangs I experienced were enough to make any tourist remain bedridden… but I had a food festival to attend, damnit! Like Hunter S. Thompson stumbling dizzily through a bustling hotel lobby, I traveled from dinner to luncheon to dinner feeling generally confused and desperately clutching my stomach.
A culinary dreamworld and a personal hell
Some information about the festival: it’s extremely prestigious, and it hosts some of the most renowned chefs in the world. This year specifically featured culinary arts by Mario Blanco, Jorge Vallejo, Jesús Escalera as well as a number of other prominent Mexican and Spanish chefs. The meals were served at six different hotels. The festival is part of Cancun’s attempt to redefine itself not as a Las Vegas-y tourist destination, but as a world-class cultural hub and an epicenter of gastronomic creativity.
I was hosted by the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, whose representatives promptly escorted me to a tequila tasting upon my arrival. The hotel restaurant was called La Joya, where we were prepped on the distilling process of tequila– how the sweet agave leaves are baked for over twenty-four hours, cooled for another twenty, ground and then fermented. The tequila is taken as a shot by the drinker, who then sprints to the nearest bano and deposits the drink into a restaurant lavatory made of the finest porcelain.
It was only until after the intake of several fine tequilas — Resposado, Anejo, 1800, not to mention mescal — that the sensations of abdominal pain and body aches became all consuming. The following night was as sleepless as it would have been if I were being tormented by the bloodsucking Chupacabra.
A malady of disproportionate portions
The following morning I explored the beautiful Coral Beach, and chatted with locals nearby. They were a group of six, about my age, who teetered playfully among the rocks near the hotel.
“Tengo esto,” they said to me, offering me a cold Tacate.
“Si, gracias…” I responded reluctantly, refusing to deny the graciousness of my hosts.
And after a moment:
Oy vey. They were offering me another beer. Bubbles a plenty were building inside me.
Opulence in the dining room and the bathroom
The luncheon later that day, honoring the French cuisine of chef Henri Charvet, was delectable. I enjoyed such highlights as the foie gras croquant, drizzled with apple and balsamic syrup, and the quail in crapeaudine, served with spiced grapes, spinach custard, and pine nuts. The restroom experience was a must to-do. Boasting toilet paper folded like origami of the highest quality, my stall was filled with the impeccable aromas of lilies and lavender.
The Gala dinner, a tribute to Barcelona’s cuisine, was even more impressive. Bringing together eight chefs to celebrate the culinary achievements of chef Albert Adria, the event was hosted at Secrets’ The Vine Cancun Hotel. The event sought to repurpose traditional Yucatan flavors in a contemporary way designed for the insatiable pallets of food critics and common folk alike.
The meal started with small tapas with such far-fetched names as “Nordic landscape” and “shrimp fossil with poblano pepper juice.” The dishes that really stole the show, however, were Paco Mendez’s X-ni-pek Onion, a single, slightly cooked pink onion marinated in a savory sauce, and Xavi Perez Stone’s Fish Confitte in Iberian Ham Fat, which cut like butter and melted on the tongue. One dish I couldn’t seem to embrace was the “Escamol,” or ant larva. This is regarded as the Mexican equivalent of caviar. Unlike the Escamol, my stomach possessed a favorable blend of unique acids with a slightly overpowering hint of simmering bile. It’s never-ending gargling resounded throughout the immaculate ballroom, eliciting whispers from the crowd.
Deserts were no less impressive, especially Rafael Zafra’s unique and triumphant Maiz y Cajeta, a chocolate, corn and vanilla confection.
Later that night, I threw everything up in my toilet.
The “love that comes out of food”
The following day, I had the pleasure to observe chefs Nacho and Poncho Cadena, a father-son team, teaching a class in an intimate kitchen setting. Nacho, who was later bestowed the lifetime achievement award at the Wine and Food Festival “Passport” event, explained some of his philosophies regarding food artistry. At his restaurant Milk (which would have been the worst substance for me to ingest at that time), Nacho changes his menu everyday depending on the day of the week and the mood of his guests. He loves to watch the evolution of his clients, as they grow happier, brighter, and more talkative due to the “love that comes out of his food.” If a client is happy, he’s happy. For Nacho, it’s important to forget about the diet and just enjoy the experience. When guests point to his protruding belly, he explains that it is simply the translation of his flavors.
As I write this I am still recovering from the festival, both from my astonishment at its lavishness, and from my viral gastroenteritis. I may not have been the Cancun Riviera Food Festival’s ideal guest, but it is a testament to their culinary genius that they could make me enjoy the food, even if they couldn’t make me stomach it.