It takes a lot of courage and conviction to follow a dream and go off into the unknown while trying to make a living and raise a family. When I first met Eric at Mesamerica in Mexico City I was fascinated and a little envious of his adventurous life. We all dream of taking off to an idyllic and picturesque location far from the complications and monotony of our urban lives but don’t actually follow through. I have over the years contemplated a move to San Sebastián, Medoc, Costa Brava, Peru or even Sicily. These fantasies sometimes ease the travails of everyday life and are an escape of sorts and looking back I wish I had stepped off the beaten path and lived another story of my life. Eric Werner is living his philosophy of a sustainable environment while doing what he loves (cooking) and has been very successful.
Our conversation was recently published and I am posting it today while planning a trip to Tulum and a meal on the beach at Hartwood in the near future.
Chef Eric Werner of Hartwood, Mexico: Living a Sustainable Life
An American transplant from Brooklyn, New York into the Mexican Yucatan, this culinary pioneer has turned his dream of cooking sustainably into a living , working reality. Werner’s passion and desire to create his own cuisine sans all the accoutrements of a New York restaurant kitchen drove him to open a unique restaurant on the beaches of the Mexican Riviera just to the south of Cancun in Tulum, Mexico.
The Hartwood restaurant is located on the jungle side of the Tulum beach road on the sun washed shore where with just a grill and a wood burning stove, totally off the power grid this young chef with his wife is serving food that is attracting visitors from all over the world. All cooking is done over an open fire and a grill he built with his own hands. A hut made of whitewashed branches holds the “bar” where his exotic cocktails are created to accompany the dishes made with ingredients the couple scours the interior Yucatan for every day. The menu changes daily based on what they find or are able to obtain.
This expat is not cooking “Mexican” food rather he is concentrating on building flavors combining traditional methods with his sometimes foraged bounty of fruits , vegetables and herbs from the “fields” in the forest behind his restaurant. The area is a UNESCO protected region for its biodiversity and strictly regulated . Solar panels power the music and lights while organic composting enriches and revitalizes the mangroves inland and leaves a zero carbon footprint. The exotic produce is also sourced and harvested from the communal farms referred to as Mayan Milpas where Werner’s project is also active in the education of organic poly farming practices for local inhabitants. True to the restaurants sustainable philosophy the fish that cooks over the grill at Hartwood is spear fished from the Boca Paila lagoons and the Caribbean.
On stage at Mesamerica he spoke about his philosophy and work with a zeal that really captured the attention of the audience. Macduff Everton’s The Modern Maya has been a profound influence on his method of working and he read excerpts from the book onstage. It was an interesting insight into the intimate, profound, and yet very complex structure of Mayan societies which were self-sufficient and sustainable, a model that we could emulate by following their system of growing sustainably and using local resources.
Werner spoke knowledgeably about the Mayan agricultural practices, their close knit societies, their knowledge of herbs , traditional foods and cooking techniques which were handed down to each subsequent generation. According to him the zero carbon footprint restaurant he has established in the Yucatan with his wife and partner Mya is simply his attempt to live and work the Mayan way by being self-sustainable and utilizing the resources from the water, forests and land in the vicinity. Hartwood Tulum is a proud participant in the DIF Program, working to alleviate hunger in Mexico’s rural areas.
There were some eye catching visuals that brought his Hartwood restaurant and project to life for the audience. The location is spectacular and not totally off the beaten path for visitors coming to Tulum which is becoming the hub of fashionable Eco tourist traffic with chic hotels, spas and restaurants operated by other expats. Listening to Werner recount his story it had not been an easy task to develop the project and there had been many pitfalls with him playing the part of contractor, construction worker, designer, power technician, waste management expert combined. The couple obviously triumphed in the end, bringing his ideas into a practical version serving his modernistic take on ancient practices and cuisine to over a 100 people every night.
Backstage we sat down for a conversation and I had some questions for him:
What prompted you to turn your passion for sustainable cuisine into a business venture so far from home?
I am a very big believer in being of service, being with people from different parts of the world. I also believe in being happy with what you do in life.
You are an anomaly in our present food culture to give up the opportunity to do well financially in the US and deciding to move to Mexico? Why this choice?
What I am doing is not to promote myself or my ego. That is not my motivation in what I am doing. It’s important for me to believe in my cause and do everything possible to make it successful. If what we are doing is bringing people to our restaurant because they believe in this cause of sustainable food or if we are making them aware of it then we are successful.
For so many years now I have been going to the local markets and getting to know the farmers and producers. Prior to that for many years I never understood why chefs were buying directly from the stores than purchasing from producers and farmers. Being in this very real setting actually prompted me to do something different and understand the reality and significance of this connection.
Did setting out on this unusual path require a lot of determination?
Yes and initially a lot of people said I was crazy for doing this and it hadn’t been done before. Of course it takes a lot of perseverance , passion and hard work.
Were you confident about this venture at the outset, and what kept you going?
Not at all and I was not sure how it would go. In the beginning it was a little scary and I was nervous. It took a few years of perseverance to achieve a comfortable situation. What kept me going everyday was the same thing that keeps us all moving ahead. When you have a family to feed , have to make a living and other responsibilities you have to persist in your endeavor. I knew that I could not go back to New York and show my face there as a failure. So there was a lot of peer pressure to prove myself. At the end of the day when you see the look on a fisherman’s face when you buy his catch that happiness and sharing also keeps you going. That good energy and emotion makes you want to keep working this way.
As a person, what is your most challenging trait?
I have to say I am OCD! I am also a very big believer in being connected to people and running a restaurant requires that. I live to experience new and different things. I am a big believer in trying to be happy in all circumstances.
You were at the Cook it Raw in Charleston and which other events have how participated in and who is the most interesting chef you have come across?
Rene Redzepi of course, who has also been to the restaurant. Jeremy Charles from Newfoundland in Canada who does a lot of fishing and has an interesting way of working at his Raymond restaurant. A lot of chefs also come to visit us at Hartford on their family vacations and since I live in a warm place we visit other chefs in cooler climates on our vacations. Of course Albert Adria who was at Charleston is a very cool guy, genuine and good to talk to. He doesn’t go around doing self-promotion and it’s great to see that.
Do you like to be at all these events?
I do, but I don’t do too many since I need to be in the kitchen and working. I love being in my kitchen and being part of my business and take care of our guests. I am on the road a lot going to markets, visiting farms and my young daughter and my wife need me to be with them. My daughter is only three years old and my time with her is precious to me and I cannot leave my wife to manage everything alone.
Any thoughts on people from your generation in the industry and the history of cuisine?
People of our generation need to learn from our seniors and peers and what wisdom they have acquired through their life experiences. This sharing of ideas widens your horizons and you learn to look at things from different perspectives.
Is the new generation more open to the concept of sharing ideas and information?
I think that we understand that nothing can go any further if we withhold information. Almost as if there was a wall because of the secrecy of the old days regarding the techniques or ingredients. For example if I find a farm with the most beautiful produce and don’t share the information and then nobody goes there and it cannot sustain itself and ceases to exist. Why would you not tell chefs about this source. Then you can help sustain the farmer and the local economy.
Is a chef’s ego to blame when that happens?
It depends on the individual or chef and what they believe in. Our culture is changing and more time chefs spend in understanding their communities and being a part of them it will create better relationships and understanding. That is what we can learn from the Mayan or Aztec communities. The more we understand these cultures the more we will learn about sharing and how to sustain our environment so it can keep regenerating itself. My food is 100% wild caught and organic and everything is from the local area.
What do you aim for when you cook?
Simply create something that is delicious and try to get inside the mind of the diner to give them what they will appreciate. Where I am situated people come in after a day at the beach they want something delicious and memorable and I try to put all that on a plate for them. At the end of the day that is my job and what gives me satisfaction.
Do you like feedback from guests and accommodate their requests?
I do as I believe when you walk into my restaurant I work for you. I am a firm believer in service and true hospitality. A chef is an artisan just like a carpenter, iron worker etc. I am allowed to use my creativity to make others happy and that works for me.