Together, María Elena Lugo Zermeño and her son, Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, have achieved in restaurant Nicos something unique. Without the need for white tablecloths, theatrical gimmicks or groundbreaking techniques, they have created a restaurant that is endlessly celebrated around the world for doing one simple thing better than anyone else: Mexican cuisine as it is served at home.
Opened in 1957 by María Elena and her late husband, Raymundo Vázquez, as the only café of an industrial neighbourhood in northern Mexico City, the restaurant quickly grew into a 25-seater space, then an 85-seater, at a time when Mexican cuisine was still not on the global radar. What has remained constant throughout the various changes in the regional and international gastronomic scenes over the past six decades is Nicos’ founding concept to provide a real taste of Mexican culture through its time-honoured recipes.
Learning the craft from her mother and grandmother, María Elena first developed Nicos’ gastronomic offer by standardising and recording the recipes passed down in her family. Nearly 40 years later, in 1996, her fourth child, Gerardo, left a career in architecture to follow his passion for cooking and became head chef of Nicos. He gained formal training at the Institute of Gastronomic Culture, led by Alicia Gironella, in Mexico City, and widely researched the national cuisine and products, earning the title of ‘gastronomic archaeologist’.
Many of Nicos’ recipes are widely acclaimed as the best in Mexico, such as the classic chiles en nogada, a dish served between August and September in occasion of Mexico’s Anniversary of Independence on September 16. The colours of the dish – green for a large chilli stuffed with meat and dried fruits, white for the nut sauce that covers the chilli, and red for the pomegranate seeds that dot the dish – represent the colours of the Mexican flag.
The Lugos were instrumental in the declaration of Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco in 2010 – thanks to his knowledge and experience, Gerardo was invited to cook as sous chef at a gala dinner in Paris to support the candidacy of Mexican Cuisine. When the title was finally given to Mexican cuisine, the chef was invited by Unesco to cook a special dinner for his country’s officials at the ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya.
Gerardo and María Elena have expanded their influence in Mexico City by opening a number of other outlets, from La Nicolasa – an organic shop for traditional and rare produce, frequented by many of Mexico City’s top chefs – to Fonda Mayora, a space in trendy Colonia Condesa serving traditional recipes with a contemporary twist.
Gerardo is also the mind behind Maizajo, a mill and tortillería dedicated to the preservation of heirloom corn varieties, where unique tortillas are made and sold daily using the traditional process of nixtamalisation, which involves cooking corn with lime mineral to release its nutrients.
Voted into the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Nicos ranks among Mexico City’s longest-standing restaurants and has become a touristic spot in its own right, as well as a beacon of quality and authenticity in Mexican gastronomy. Still characterised by its identity as a neighbourhood family restaurant, Nicos defies the standard rules of fine dining with a casual atmosphere and homely feel. María Elena and Gerardo’s decades-long joint career and unwavering dedication to preserving and promoting Mexican home cooking make them worthy recipients of The Diners Club® Lifetime Achievement Award for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018.
Avenida Cuitláhuac 3102
Mexico City 02080
Get to know María Elena and Gerardo inside restaurant Nicos:
María Elena and Gerardo will collect their trophies for The Diners Club® Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards ceremony in Bogotá, Colombia, on Tuesday 30th October. Read the interview with the chefs on the 50 Best blog.