In November, 2023, Time Out magazine named Mexico City as the #1 city in the world for culture. In the 1990s and early 2000s Mexico City, was known for smog, sprawl, and street crime, and was not usually near the top of the list of cities most international tourists wanted to visit. But, over the last ten to fifteen years, local government officials and private sector entrepreneurs have worked to spark a new wave of urban renewal and transformed the way Mexico City is seen around the world. In 2016, The New York Times listed Mexico City as its number one recommended destination to visit. While urban planners, architects, and police have all played big roles in Mexico City’s evolution, a new group of globally renowned chefs has also helped catalyze Mexico City’s transformation, and also helped boost Mexico’s soft power by elevating Mexico’s gastronomy to be more universally regarded as one of the most complex and tasty cuisines on the planet.
During a recent podcast interview, journalist Laura Tillman, author of the new book The Migrant Chef: The Life And Times Of Lalo Garcia explained, “I think when I first moved to Mexico City in 2014 it was immediately apparent that the food scene here was very exciting. It was this kind of cultural diplomacy.”
“Mexico was telling stories about its food culture that were opening broader conversations. I recognized that by talking about food there was an opportunity to tell stories about all of the different things that are happening in Mexico today,” she added.
Over the last 15 years, Mexico City has really evolved and especially in neighborhoods such as Colonia Roma and Condesa a new group of restaurants have played a role in this transformation. Lalo Garcia’s flagship restaurant, Maximo Bistrot, is located in the middle of Colonia Roma, and has been credited with helping develop momentum for this new wave of restaurants that have helped to re-define Mexico’s cuisine.
Garcia is chef a who was born in Mexico but after migrating with his parents to work as a farm laborer in the U.S. was trained at restaurants in Atlanta before he returned to Mexico where he got an opportunity to learn about and embrace Mexican cuisine with a fresh perspective.
During his childhood, “he was eating the food from his village, tamales de ceniza, moronga blood sausage, mole, carnitas, all of these foods that his mother would prepare. When he came back to Mexico he was working at Pujol, this top restaurant, he learned a lot [there],” Tillman explained.
Garcia also traveled within Mexico to expand his knowledge of regional delicacies.
“He traveled to Oaxaca. He spent a lot of time in Baja California. He’s brought all of those different experiences to his restaurant along with his travels to France and Italy. When you go to Maximo today you will see all of those influences on the menu,” Tillman said.
Garcia is new part of a select group of local chefs who have helped burnish Mexico’s soft power credentials.
“A lot of people talk about the role of Enrique Olvera, Ricardo [Muñoz] Zurita, Monica Patiño, and a cohort of women chefs, who were opening these restaurants that were bringing this movement to the forefront of fine dining in Mexico City in these white tablecloth restaurants,” Tillman explained.
The new cohort of world-class restaurants in Mexico City has helped to transform the perception of Mexico’s capital. International tourism has also played a big role in changing the way Mexico is perceived around the world and in helping to sustain expensive restaurants like Maximo Bistrot, Pujol, Azul Condesa and Rosetta.
It’s important to look at the economics driving this trend. As of 2021, when Mexico’s federal government published its most report on incomes in Mexico City, the minimum salary in Mexico’s capital was 141.7 pesos a day or just over $3000 per year. The latest report shows that in Mexico City around 2.5 million people earn less than $6042 per year. (Six out of every 10 workers, or 59% of the work force.)
Mexico City’s upper income bracket, by contrast, a group of just over 50,000 people, earn salaries that top $30,000 per year. On the one hand, 50,000 people is a significant pool of local customers who might visit upscale restaurants a few times a year. But, on the other hand, it’s just 1% of the city’s workforce. To put it in perspective, 50,000 people isn’t enough people to fill up the seats at the soccer stadium at Mexico City’s National University (UNAM) campus.
By comparison, in 2022 over 4 million foreign tourists, most of whom come from the U.S., flew in to the Mexico City airport. Anecdotally, it seems like high-end restaurants like Maximo rely heavily on tourists to support their operations.
On a recent weekday night, it seemed like most tables were filled with English-speaking guests. For many people who visit Maximo, the big take-away from the experience might be seeing the restaurant filled with locally hired chefs and waiters catering to a mostly international clientele. So, in some ways it seems like Maximo is part of Modern Mexico’s successful export-focused economy.
“I first moved to Mexico City at the end of 2014. It was immediately apparent that the food scene here was really exciting and that it was this kind of cultural diplomacy where Mexico was telling stories about its food culture that were opening up broader conversations about inequality and the livelihoods of urban and rural workers,” Tillman said.
“In talking about food there [is] an opportunity to tell stories about all of the different things that are happening in Mexico today,” she added.
Check out the full conversation with Laura Tillman about Mexico City’s cuisine and culture here.