Balancing avant-garde techniques and presentations with a deep respect for culinary history, chef Jonatán Gómez Luna has helped reshape Mexico’s gastronomic story. The winner of the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 reveals the inspirations and struggles behind his singular success
Growing up in Mexico City, Jonatán Gómez Luna never wanted to be a chef. For him, entering the public sphere would only ever come through music, with his mind set on becoming a drummer in a rock band. But teenage dreams of stardom have now morphed into success and adulation in an entirely different theatre: the gastronomic arena.
While Gómez Luna always loved food, cherishing the traditional fare created by his mother and grandmother, cooking had never crossed his mind. Then one day, when his friend and guitarist in their band asked if the drummer could help him cover in his regular restaurant job, Gómez Luna got his first taste of the professional kitchen. He was swept up almost immediately.
“I was there just one day and said ‘Wow, this is another world.’ I felt so comfortable,” Gómez Luna says. His buddy then asked if he could help out for three further days; then it was another three days; then it was the next 20 days. What started as a quick cry for help resulted in his first steps en route to becoming the acclaimed chef he is today. “I didn’t choose the kitchen, it chose me,” he explains.
Looking to develop his craft, he enrolled into the Centro Culinario Ambrosía in Mexico City. There, his culinary tutor recognised the aspiring chef as a singular talent and connected him with legendary chef Joan Roca. The Spaniard took a chance on the young Mexican, inviting him to work for six months at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona – a grounding that Gómez Luna cannot credit enough. “For me, it’s the best restaurant in the world. It is traditional, but also avant-garde; everything is perfect,” he says admiringly.
The interior of Le Chique is modern and luxurious, accented by dark wooden furniture and beams
Following his time with the Roca brothers, Gómez Luna went on to work at various bastions of high-end dining across Europe, including Noma in Copenhagen and Quique Dacosta’s eponymous flagship in Dénia. Under the Rocas, he learned the value of reimagined traditionalism; under René Redzepi at Noma, he learned the importance of a restaurant’s terroir and working in harmony with its surroundings. Inspired by these experiences, Gómez Luna quickly found his calling. “I took everything, from Joan, from René and everyone else, and knew I had to make my own history. I knew I had to return home,” he adds.
Excited by his quest and brimming with inspiration, Gómez Luna duly returned to Mexico and opened Le Chique in 2008 with Karisma Hotels & Resorts, under whom he previously worked as a development chef. Transporting the techniques and philosophies from his time in the gastronomic hotbeds of Europe to the Caribbean coast near Cancún, Le Chique was the first restaurant of its kind in a region with a fine dining scene still in its infancy. But Gómez Luna’s mission was clear: to pioneer a unique gastronomic experience that championed Mexico, its dishes, producers and people, through a wholly creative lens.
Attempting to break down inaccurate and limited depictions of Mexican cuisines, Le Chique presented a tasting menu that navigated its way through the country’s varied and nuanced culinary offerings. To this day, a meal at Le Chique take diners on a tour of the country without leaving the dinner table. However, getting the dining denizens of Mexico to buy into such a concept proved somewhat challenging.
“In the very beginning, everyone thought I was mad. A 24-course tasting menu? At the time, Enrique Olvera at Pujol was serving a 10 or 12-course menu, and even he was considered crazy,” he says. His struggle to win over sceptics lasted five long years, numerous 18-hour days and the shedding of many tears, he admits. Simply, gastronomy in this form was somewhat alien to the majority of Mexican diners, particularly in terms of reinventing staple dishes, but gradually the restaurant’s reputation grew as a national and international destination.
Frijoles (beans), a regular staple of Mexican cooking, here are inflated and topped with caviar
A peek into the kitchens of Le Chique certainly indicates a restaurant at the cutting edge of modern gastronomy. Dehydrators, lyophilizers and sous vide machinery are all present and utilised liberally to deliver dishes destined to surprise and, ultimately, delight. These include plates such as the pambazo – a staple sandwich of Mexico City dipped in a red pepper sauce – here reimagined and delivered as a wafer-thin cracker. The Caesar salad, often miscategorised as an Italian classic despite its Tijuanan origins, is served inside a hollowed book, deliberately selected as a reminder that Gómez Luna wants to educate you just as much as he wants to feed you.
Placing people first
After the coronavirus pandemic forced Le Chique to close for more than a year, Gómez Luna felt a great responsibility for the team at the restaurant, including his 25 chefs in the kitchen and sizeable front-of-house crew. Like many, he also credits the enforced break with teaching him to slow down and realise the value of life.
Now, Le Chique is closed to the public twice a week. Where Sundays are left for the team to rest, every Monday, for six hours, he and his brigade assemble in the kitchen to work solely on creativity. Within these sessions, the team experiments and plans new dishes, crafting the future of its ever-evolving tasting menu.
Gómez Luna has earned the respect of many chefs across Latin America for his operation at Le Chique
For at least two of those hours, Gómez Luna just wants to listen. “Having 25 people just speak about their mum’s recipes, their home, their village, their state… I have learned so much,” he says. Despite having worked with many of the team for the 12 years prior to the pandemic, he says he has never felt closer to them since he began this creative process.
Consciously avoiding the quasi-militaristic dogma of traditional fine dining kitchens, the chef has earned respect both within his team and among his contemporaries in Latin America. “When I was named the winner of the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award, it was so unexpected. It was amazing,” he says wistfully. As the award is voted for by fellow chefs, Gómez Luna sees it as clear affirmation of his operation at Le Chique, and the value of placing people first.
Sights set internationally
With Le Chique ascending through the ranks of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, Gómez Luna has already succeeded in his mission to help educate the world on the wonder and varied nature of Mexican gastronomy. Now, he has his sights set beyond his homeland, with his first international venue due to open in New York City before the end of the year.
Located in midtown Manhattan, a double bill of new establishments – Tán and Lúm – is set to renew Gómez Luna’s mission to break down misconceptions about Mexican food and drinks. Where Tán aims to bring attention to the produce from the two oceans that enclose Mexico’s east and west, Lúm will be the chef’s first drinks-focused outpost, offering a unique speakeasy-style lounge centred around tequila and mezcal.
“Everyone thinks that Mexican food is just nachos and burritos. I never ate them growing up,” he says. “New York is so complicated, but Lúm and Tán give me the opportunity to show real Mexican food and drinks. This will be authentic Mexican cooking. Think street food, but through a relaxed and comfortable fine dining lens. I think New York is ready for that.”
But he’s not finished yet. Currently in the pipeline is another new concept, named Honora – translating as honour – which will look further back into the history of Mexican culinary traditions, specifically via its family matriarchs. “I think the best food in this country is created by women,” Gómez Luna says, adding that his venue will honour the cooking of generations prior, sustaining and reviving techniques and recipes that may otherwise be lost to time.
Gómez Luna may already be seen as one of the best chefs in Latin America, wholly respected by his peers, but it’s clear that his mission to showcase his country’s cuisine in an entirely refreshed – and refreshing – manner is far from over.
The list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on Tuesday 15th November. Follow us on Instagram, like us on Facebook, find us on Twitter, tag #LatAm50Best and subscribe to our YouTube channel for the latest news.