Mexican Wave

A couple of years ago, a Bolivian chef told me he wanted to reclaim the chili for his country. The argument, that hot peppers were first cultivated in the Andean high plains and spread north from there, is supported by food archaeologists.


If the message could only get out, it might actually do Mexico a favor. Because the concept many people have – that Mexican food is mainly about heat – is totally outdated. “Mexico has the most misunderstood cuisine in the world,” says Edgar Núñez, chef and co-owner of Mexico City’s Sud 777, a regular fixture on the annual S. Pellegrino Top 50 Latin American Restaurants list. “It’s extremely complicated and sophisticated, with avocado, vanilla and chocolate, and dozens of other flavors at least as important as hot spices, which we may or may not provide as a side dish at the end. Mexican chefs rely on a lot of produce only available here, which is one of the reasons why great Mexican cuisine is not always available globally. We have more than 60 distinct cultures in the country – many with their own language – and all influence our cuisine.”


The menu at Sud 777, in the upscale El Pedregal district, entices with dishes like smoked watermelon, guajolote (turkey) with mole negro and beef tongue with local beans. “When I cook, I’m aware of deep connections with the soil, our farming traditions and my own memory. But our clients are well-traveled foodies, and they’re increasingly looking for more than traditional food.”


The epicenter of culinary experimentation is Mexico City – the nation’s inland food hub. At Quintonil in the leafy Polanco embassy district, Jorge Vallejo crafts edgy – and extraordinarily beautiful – concoctions from cactus, heritage corn and escamoles (ant larvae, also known as “Mexican caviar”). At Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, the tasting menu includes wonders such as octopus with habanero ink, salt made from toasted maguey worms and a juiced white corn that goes by the evocative Náhuatl name of “cacahuazintle”.


In some respects, “mole” – which simply means “sauce” – is the essence of Mexican cooking. Olvera’s “Mole Madre” – Mother Mole – evolved from the standard seven-day process of reheating fruit, nuts, bitter chocolate, tomato and peppers and other ingredients in a comal, a heavy cast-iron griddle – into an ongoing experiment. “We continued heating it indefinitely,” he says. “We found that the mole never stopped evolving.” At the new Pujol, which opened last year – modeled on Olvera’s New York restaurant Cosme – you can try moles slowly heated for well in excess of 1,000 days. “Mole is a universe in itself, so we present it only with tortillas,” says Olvera. In this he’s emulating the Mexican capital’s superb street-food vendors; when a busy office worker needs a fast fix of good food, simplicity and flavor rule over image or presentation.


Mexico is larger than Indonesia, more topographically diverse than Canada – and it has an odd shape. To go overland from Cabo San Lucas in Baja California to Cancun, without catching a ferry, would involve driving 3,730 miles. It’s unsurprising then, that regionality remains a powerful force. Oaxaca does its own type of mozzarella. The chile poblano – a mild green pepper used in chiles en nogada, the de facto national dish – takes its name from Puebla. Tequila was a place before it was a drink. From Yucatán comes the pit-oven technique known in Mayan as p’ib – and responsible for the al fresco fiesta classic that is cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pig seasoned with annatto seeds).


To simplify things, chefs and guide-writers, have grouped produce and techniques into seven main regions. But for visitors, every state, every city, every beach-stop, signifies an opportunity to savor something different. That said, Mexicans of the past – Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs or Spanish Conquistadors – were tireless travelers, and it’s notable that you can usually obtain fish dishes even when deep inland, eat steak in the desert, and, along the Pacific coast at, say, Punta Mita, enjoy suckling pig as well as ceviche. Beyond Mexico, several globalizing trends are afoot, from the ubiquitous burrito bar to the ever-replicating chains with vaguely Latino names and logos featuring cacti, sombreros and lizards. But, thanks to chefs such as the aforementioned Mexico City superstars, Val Cantu in San Francisco and Copenhagen-based Rosio Sánchez, a meal of “Modern Mexican” has become a highly desirable night out in all the world’s coolest cities.


You cannot, of course, have great cuisine without a proper drink. Baja’s wines have long been held in high esteem, not least in the “other” California north of the border, which seems to import more bottles of Valle de Guadalupe vintages than does the rest of Mexico. But the real revolution right now is taking place in the realm of stronger, more spirited beverages.


Tequila and mezcal are distillates made with agaves; the key difference is that tequila is made exclusively from the agave tequilana (blue agave), and can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in small areas of four other states. Some 30 agaves can be used to make a mezcal. Once a farmers’ drink, new artisanal varieties of mezcal have started to appear on bar menus around the world. Smoky notes, deep bodies and complex aftertastes characterize the experience of slowly sipping a premium mezcal – with neither a worm nor a long mustache in sight.


Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City; The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort



Elotestiernos PUJOL

Smoke without fire

Modern Mexican cuisine is “complex and sophisticated”, like this dish, Baby corn with chicatana ant, coffee and costeño chili mayonnaise, from Pujol

Kitchen Confidential

Hailing from Toulon in the South of France, chef Sébastien Giannini has spent the last 20 years honing his craft under some of the world’s best chefs, reaching the final of the prestigious Bocuse D’Or Culinary Competition in 2010. Last year he was appointed executive chef at The St. Regis Washington, D.C., heading up its new Mediterranean restaurant, Alhambra.


What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Bouillabaisse. I grew up in the South of France and my grandmother taught me how to make it. Now it reminds me of home.


What do you eat when you’re home alone?
Seasonal fruit – I like to eat directly with my pocket knife. Every Saturday, I go to Potomac Farm Market with my wife and daughter. It reminds me of the markets I grew up with in the South of France.


Which dish that you’ve created are you most proud of?
Salmon stuffed with langoustine and turmeric potatoes. This was the dish I created at Bocuse D’Or in 2010. To perfect the final dish, you need to have practiced it 40-50 times, trying different iterations each time.


Are there any foods you think are overrated?
I feel like burgers in hotels are generally overrated. There is often too much playing around with the toppings, and the original concept is lost. There is a chain of hamburger restaurants originally from Arlington, VA, where I am proud to be a regular guest. They make a classic American burger.


What’s the best thing to eat in D.C.?
It’s not exactly D.C., but you can’t beat Maryland crabcake. The crab feast is a longstanding tradition. Whether it’s in a seafood restaurant on the Eastern shore or in the backyard with paper-wrapped picnic tables, the residents of the Chesapeake region can be found cracking crab legs all summer.


If you could revisit a meal you’ve eaten in the past, what would it be and why?
One of my best memories from when I was young is eating cantaloupe. In the South of France there’s a region called Cavaillon that has incredible melons. Try this once and you’ll never think of cantaloupe in the same way. We eat them with a crisp glass of rosé, and gressin (breadsticks), relaxing by the sea with friends. There’s simply nothing better!


What was your favorite food as a child and do you still eat it now?
Pieds et paquets (“feet and packages”) is a Marseille specialty, one that’s certainly not for everyone. It’s a stew with sheep’s feet and sheep’s tripe. My grandmother would make it for me and I still love it, especially in the winter.


Can you remember the first thing your mother taught you to cook?
Banana tart. I don’t make it any more because I want to keep the memory of the tart and the taste clear in my mind. I do not wish to alter it in any way, either intentionally or otherwise.


What is your guilty pleasure food?
Strawberries and whipped cream with Grand Marnier.


How long does it take you to create new recipes?
It can take up to a month – you need the feedback from your guests and your team. Sometimes we do up to 20 tastings before we perfect a recipe.


Is there a culinary trend you detest?
Molecular cuisine. It’s too cold and far removed from the product. For instance, if you receive a perfect strawberry, picked at the perfect time, perfectly ripe and juicy, but you blend it and make it into the form of a tomato, the product is wasted.


Who is your greatest inspiration?
Alain Ducasse. He lets young chefs grow, while teaching them to respect the products, the season and the region where the products come from. He also has a clear vision of where his team is going and how to mentor his protégés.


Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.


St Regis DC 33274-grey

 Sébastien Giannini

Losing It

For some of us, vacations are an opportunity to indulge in bacchanalian delights. Others view them as a chance to kick-start a healthy routine, with advice from spa experts and access to fresh, healthy menus. We might think of this focus on weight and body shape as a fairly modern concern, yet there’s nothing new about dieting. The ancient Greeks understood that the secret to losing weight was time and moderation (though also, unfortunately, avoiding sex, running naked and post-lunch vomiting). For early Christians, gluttony, displayed on the body in the form of excess flesh, was one of the seven deadly sins – and you could say we’ve been feeling guilty ever since. The rise of mass media in the 19th century brought us a nascent celebrity culture, diet ads and seductive before-and-after images, and it fed and bred the shame and anxiety that still drives our weight-loss mania. It remains big business.


In 1829, William Wadd, one of many new diet gurus, advised chewing tobacco, horseback riding, reading aloud, sweating, sprinkling your body with hot sand and eating a bar of soap a day to “reduce exuberant fat”. He also recommended a low-carb/high-protein diet – sound familiar? He was one of the first in a long chain of diet-mongers, leading up to the likes of Robert Atkins and Pierre Dukan, selling regimes that are ostensibly revolutionary, but many of which are not new, and not necessarily harmless.


Quick-fix fad diets first took off in the Victorian period. The Victorians took weight-loss pills too, just as many dieters do today. Preparations such as Dr Gordon’s Elegant Pills contained either deadly or useless ingredients including arsenic, strychnine, lard, soap, Epsom Salts and dessicated thyroid extract. Tape-worm pills speak for themselves. A century ago, tens of thousands were taking the deadly Dinitrophenol – a carcinogenic dying agent also used in First World War explosives – to speed up their metabolism, and fatalities still occur. Today’s costly over-the-counter slimming pills suggest you’ll lose a few pounds over recommended periods, measly amounts you could manage by ditching biscuits. In the early 20th century, you might have swallowed Bile Beans or Figuroids, or masticated laxative-laced chewing gums such as Silph or Elfin Fat Reducing Gum Drops. Dieters could bathe in Every Woman’s Flesh Reducer or the Lesser Slim-Figure-Bath – with the useless ingredients of table salt, alum, camphor, baking soda, citric acid, cornstarch, and borax – or scrub away fat with a Slenmar Reducing Brush and La-Mar Reducing Soap. Melting your fat was popular, too, with a luminous light or hydro-electric iodized bath (which sounded scientific but had no discernible effect). Skin-macerating rubber knickers enjoyed a vogue, as did fat-bashing trunk rollers, stomach beaters, vibrating chairs and electric shocks. Now you can buy cellulite-reducing crystal-infused tights or a Slendertone for “electrical muscle stimulation”. There really is nothing new in the unpleasant business of “fat cures”.


One of the oddest diet gurus of the era was Horace Fletcher, the “Great Masticator”. Fletcherism involved chewing every mouthful hundreds of times – even Henry James and Franz Kafka were devotees – and its creator was hailed as a medical icon. Today, some diet businesses still follow his basic tenets. Massage, too, remains popular – in the 1930s, Sylvia of Hollywood massaged stars, including Jean Harlow and Gloria Swanson, so that fat came out through their pores “like mashed potato through a colander”. The group approach, including Weight Watchers (founded in 1963), has been shown to be relatively successful and effective, much more so than the plethora of mad fad diets we’ve been sold, from the Baby Food Diet to the Russian Air Force Diet, the Zone, Paleo, Blood Type, Better Sex Diet, ad infinitum.


In February this year, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that those who ate vegetables and whole foods while cutting back on sugar and highly processed foods, lost significant amounts of weight over 12 months. This without counting calories or limiting portions. Our reliance on calorie-counting, with us for some 120 years, has been sidelined. There was no significant difference in weight loss between those on a healthy low-fat diet and those sticking to a healthy low-carbohydrate one. Success didn’t seem to be influenced by genetics or insulin-response to carbs, meaning that the increasingly popular idea that different diets should be recommended based on one’s DNA makeup is also now in doubt. Rather, if we want to lose weight we should concentrate on sustaining a diet of minimally processed whole and fresh foods. In fact, why not simply follow the ancient Greeks, and eat moderately, healthily and regularly over a long period of time. A lifetime, in fact.


Louise Foxcroft’s Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years is out now, published by Profile Books



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The Spice of Life

The celebrated Egyptian food writer Claudia Roden remembers clearly the meals she had in post-war London, having fled Cairo during the Suez Crisis. “False cream, false meat, false everything,” she says with a shudder. “It was a shock.”


In a bid to comfort her daughter in their new home, Roden’s mother would cook familiar Egyptian dishes and invite fellow émigrés to share them. As the chef puts it: “We might have lost our homes, our possessions, our livelihoods, but we had the dfeena, the kibbeh, the kunafa: dishes that embodied the glories and warmth of Cairo, and all that we were homesick for.”


More than half a century after Roden collated these recipes into her international best-selling A Book of Middle Eastern Food, the cuisine that she championed has become celebrated among food lovers all over the globe. It’s thanks to her, supermarket bosses admit, that on our shelves today you are as likely to find hummus as you are ham, and baba ganoush as you are butter.


Roden might have told us about these flavors half a century ago, but it has taken a while for us to embrace them, she says. First, a few western shops, she says, started to stock basics such as couscous, bulgur, halloumi, chickpeas and filo pastry. “Then, in the Nineties, supermarkets started to use my recipes for things like baba ganoush. And now, at last, things like pomegranate molasses, tahini, harissa, za’atar and dukkah, which I’ve used all my life, are being championed as part of the new ‘modern’ cuisine.”


Thankfully for those who appreciate the exotic but earthy tastes of Middle Eastern food – a generic term that encompasses flavors from the souks of North Africa to the mountains of Iran – Roden’s once-solitary crusade has now been joined by chefs all over the globe, including Israeli-British, vegetable-loving Yotam Ottolenghi and Persian-inspired Sabrina Ghayour.


When Ottolenghi opened his first café in London’s Notting Hill in 2002, it was an experiment to see if the neighborhood would buy into his inventive repertoire of primarily vegetarian dishes. Sixteen years on, so great is his following that he has opened five more restaurants, writes food columns for The Guardian and The New York Times, and has sold hundreds of thousands of books that have changed the way families eat across the world.


In the US, meanwhile, market research firm Datassential reports that the appearance of falafel on restaurant menus has risen by 40 per cent in four years. New York City is particularly enamored with Middle Eastern cuisine, a passion further ignited by the arrival last year of celebrated Tel Aviv-based chef Meir Adoni. The menu at his acclaimed Flatiron restaurant, Nur, includes dishes from Morocco and Libya as well as Israel, Yemen and Syria.


So why the sudden popularity in the west of Persian, Moorish and Ottoman cuisines that have been enjoyed in their homelands for centuries? Not only have we been traveling more, says food writer Bee Wilson, and learning to love relaxed, meze-style sharing platters, but we are also exchanging recipes like never before.


In 2016, at the Diálogos de Cocina food symposium in San Sebastián, she reports, the hottest topic was not a new technique, or a star chef, but the explosion of recipes on social media. It is a revolution, she says, that has not only allowed anyone, anywhere, to watch cookery demonstrations, but for recipes to travel around the globe – from a traditional café in Amman to a hip food truck in Brooklyn or a St. Regis restaurant in the Maldives.


People’s obsession with their health may also have contributed to the cuisine’s rising popularity, says chef Sabrina Ghayour, whose 2014 cookbook Persiana sold 150,00 copies in the first year and has been printed in 12 countries worldwide. “Unlike European food, with its dairy, butter, cheese, meat and oil,” she points out, “Middle Eastern food is full of fresh herbs, nuts, fruit and seasonings that are known to be good for you. Even our pizza, or musakhan, has toasted almonds and citrusy sumac on it. And because there are so many delicious spices, you can turn even a basic carrot into something appealing, just by adding harissa and cumin.”


The simplicity of many dishes has also encouraged relatively inexperienced cooks to try new recipes, she adds. “You don’t have to be incredibly skillful to make slow-cooked lamb, and serve it with cumin salt,” she says. “And just a sprinkling of Persian spice, or a handful of aromatic herbs, can transform a boring dish into something quite exciting.”


The expansion of delis selling fresh ingredients has contributed to people’s familiarity with these once-exotic foods, too. Ottolenghi now sells online a “desert island hamper” of “essential ingredients”, from crushed freekeh and dried barberries to preserved lemons, so that chefs anywhere can join the growing tabbouleh-making throng. “These days cooks everywhere are as likely to need pomegranate molasses and date syrup to make dinner as they are olive oil and lemon,” he says.


If he’s right, our store cupboards will never be the same again. Salt and za’atar, anyone?


Middle Eastern cuisine can be sampled at St. Regis hotels throughout the world, from the newly opened The St. Regis Amman to the casual beach restaurant at The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort


Image courtesy of Liz & Max Haarla Hamilton. Persiana is published by Mitchell Beazley (octopus



Sabrina Day 2 meatballs0045@0,3x


Orient express

Lamb and sour cherry meatballs, from Sabrina Ghayour’s
bestselling Middle Eastern cookery book, Persiana




Kitchen Confidential

Chef Ayyoub Salameh has a passion for creating contemporary, elegant new dishes, and has cooked everywhere from Milan and Florence to The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort. Today, he oversees the island’s four restaurants, serving up delicious Mediterranean and Asian cuisine – as well as some of his Jordanian mother’s tried and tested secret recipes.


Who taught you to cook?
I definitely got my palate from my mother. She’s an incredible chef, who makes everything from scratch. Our basement in Jordan is full of homemade preserves. Every couple of months she’d bring out something different to surprise us. In the restaurant today I do the same, from pickling green beans and cauliflower to making chili sauce and fresh Japanese mayonnaise.


What food did you grow up on?
We’d start every day with a halloumi omelet, a plate of arugula and tomato, and some freshly baked saffron bread. Our parents would make my brothers and me have salty olives, too, to remind us to stay hydrated, and we’d have spicy extra-virgin olive oil, made from the olives in our garden.


Can you remember the first thing your mother taught you to cook?
Saffron rice. I didn’t want to learn how to make it because I thought it was so basic. But she told me that if you can cook incredible rice, then you’ll always be able to cook everything perfectly, because that’s the hardest thing to do.


Where’s home for you when you’re not in the Maldives?
Melbourne – there’s no foodie destination like it. As soon as my plane lands I’ll head straight to South Melbourne Market, and buy all my vegetables, fish, cheese. Then I’ll head to Gazi, a great Greek restaurant, or Corda, an amazing Thai place, both run by old friends.


What do you do when you’re not cooking?
I never miss the gym. I’ve lost over 42 lbs since May, but I don’t go for health reasons – I just like to start my day energized. If I don’t get there by 2.30pm then I feel like a zombie.


What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Steak. If I’m good, I’ll have 300g of lean, grass-fed rib-eye. If I’m feeling naughty, I’ll get a lovely piece of grain-fed Australian beef that’s a lot fattier.


How long does it take you to create new recipes?
It depends. I come up with something new each morning, often after chatting to guests at dinner the night before, but other dishes take much longer. It took us two-and-a-half months to develop the perfect pastrami. I have one rule: if it doesn’t satisfy me, then it’ll never go out to my customers.


Who is your greatest inspiration?
Sergio Mei, a wonderful Milanese chef. He was more than 70 years old when I worked with him, and I learned so much. The most important thing he taught me was how to train people. It’s not enough to be a great chef; you have to develop a team of equally good cooks in your kitchen, too.


What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had?
A guest once asked for a saffron and black truffle risotto, but without the rice, – so it was basically just a bowl of truffles. I did it, and he was very happy. In fact he asked for truffles for breakfast the next day, too.


What’s on your kitchen playlist?
Every morning in the kitchen we sing All The Way Up by Fat Joe and Remy Ma after our meeting. It makes the team happy, which makes me happy. Sometimes I even unleash my dancing talents.


Is there a culinary trend you detest?
I find it sad when people try to turn very simple dishes into haute cuisine, but end up sacrificing flavor. I had a tom yum soup recently where the essence was cubes of jelly, broth was poured over the top, there was some dry ice, and the chicken was powdered. It might seem “wow”, but the flavors were completely lost, and that’s what cooking is all about: flavor.


Your address: The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort

Ayyoub Salameh

The White Stuff

Under a high, fierce sun, the Tuareg trader’s face is in shadow beneath his black turban. In one hand he carries a femur-like stick, with the other he leads a roped line of 15 laden dromedaries stretching back across the sand dune. “The source of all life,” he says, “is t-èsm-en… salt. It runs in our people’s blood.”

Since the sixth century, the Tuareg have walked the 500-mile Azalai caravan route from Timbuktu through Taoudenni to the salt mines of Taghaza, packing their beasts with “white gold” to return to the Malian market city. Those caravans were once 10,000 camels strong, and such was its value, the salt they carried was traded weight-for-weight for gold.


Until the mid-20th century, sodium chloride was the most sought-after currency in the Saharan interior, the salt route extending from Mauritania to Ethiopia – where salt slabs were used as coins and the mineral is still traded in bricks – and on to Djibouti. But then, salt runs deep in the veins of all humanity. From Africa to Europe, the Middle East and China, those cubic crystals of sodium chloride were the building blocks of ancient civilizations.


Salt is essential for human life, with sodium playing a vital role in the regulation of many bodily functions, maintaining our fluid balance and enabling the transmission of nerve impulses around the body. But it was this ionic compound’s power to purify and preserve food that was a key catalyst for the progression of Neolithic societies. On the back of salt, whether mined or evaporated from sea or brine waters, cities were founded, religious rituals devised, roads built, gold amassed, old wounds healed in ancient baths, and new lands discovered (after all, Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas was funded by Spanish salt fortunes).


But just as sodium chloride bestowed life and wealth, it also took it away. For the sake of salt, wars were fought, cities and empires destroyed. With handfuls of these white crystals, agreements were made in the Middle East, temple sacrifices consecrated by ancient Hebrews, evil spirits warded off by Buddhists, and sumo rings ritually purified in front of the Emperors of Japan.


The chemical and political potency of salt also imbued it with connotations of spiritual power. In ancient Egypt, natron – a naturally occurring salt found in the soda lakes of the Wadi El Natrun or Natron Valley – was used in mummification and added to castor oil to make Egyptian Blue paint, which adorned tombs, aiding the dead’s safe passage to the afterlife.


Above all, salt was the earth’s natural healer. The Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, a 2700 BC Chinese treatise on pharmacology, was partly devoted to the curative powers of salts. While the Greek physician Hippocrates immersed his patients in seawater to treat arthritis and the Ancient Greeks pioneered thalassotherapy, the Romans turned bathing into a grand, ceremonial affair. Herod the Great built his own winter palace at the oasis of Jericho by the Dead Sea in Israel, and floated on waters where Cleopatra had once bathed.


Utah’s Great Salt Lake has been a magnet for visitors since the 1940s


Rock salt is an integral part of many spa treatments


Margarita time

The Dead Sea – in fact a hyper-saline lake – was developed as a spa destination in the 1960s. Today, its chloride-, bromide- and magnesium-rich salt is used worldwide: at The Iridium Spa at The St. Regis Dubai, Al Habtoor Polo Resort & Club, for instance, where it’s mixed with eucalyptus, menthol and lavender oils to hydrate skin; at The St. Regis Cairo, where saltis mixed with an infusion of tomatoes in the foot ritual and with foaming fruit mousse in Glow scrubs; and at The St. Regis Amman, opening this winter, which will be a perfect base from which to take a salt-bathing trip.


While over-salinity prevented natural life from flourishing in terminal lakes such as the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake of Utah and the evaporated salt plains of Salar de Uyuni in the Bolivian Altiplano, these barren landscapes were restorative to the human eye. Their calming effect on the mind and womb-like release from gravity have been replicated by modern flotation-tank therapy. At The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in Mexico, a 30 per cent concentration of Epsom salts is used to achieve high water buoyancy in the flotation pod. “The deep state of meditation is very close to that achieved in Mexican shaman purification rituals,” says executive spa director Alejandro Ortiz, “while regular skin exposure to Epsom salts improves the mineral content in the bloodstream; magnesium helps to regulate hundreds of enzymatic systems; and sulphates help to flush toxins out of the body.”


Today, with a renewed interest in artisanal salts for their trace-mineral benefits, salt micro-dosing has become an alchemical art-form, with salts delivered in crystals or slabs, smoked or flavored, absorbed or ingested. Fleur du Sel, harvested by hand in France for food, is highly sought-after, with a price tag to match, and Hawaiian salt much prized for a volcanic baked clay component called Alaea, which is rich in iron oxide, and its activated charcoal ions with detoxifying properties. According to Stephanie Kaluahine Reid, from The St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kauai Island, the making of Pa’akai salt, used in Hawaiian ceremonies, is one the islands’ oldest traditions. “It means ‘to solidify the sea’,” she explains, “and Kauai is the only place in the Hawaiian Islands to make salt according to ancient principles.” (Exfoliating vanilla salt polish and Kauai clay are used in Hanalei Bay Ritual at The St. Regis Princeville Resort’s spa and guava wood-smoked sea-salt gives a local twist to an Aloha Bloody Mary afterwards at the bar.)


The newly touted panacea of Himalayan salt comes in pink and black as well. While the latter, also known as kala namak, has a high sulfur content prized in strong foods, the low-sodium Himalayan Pink contains 84 beneficial minerals, much prized by nutritionists. “Slabs are cut from crystallized sea salt beds millions of years old, deep within the Himalayas,” says David Mulin, director of food and beverage of The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, where the salt is used to line platters of sushi. “The lava is thought to have protected the salt from modern-day pollution, leading to the belief that Himalayan Pink is the purest salt to be found on earth.”


And if you’re looking for colorful ways to ingest trace minerals with your recommended 5mg a day of sodium chloride, here’s another one: sipping a Margarita made by Jorge Carillo, head mixologist at The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, who encrusts the glasses’ rims with salt ground with chicatana flying ants. This protein-rich delicacy of pre-Columbian Oaxaca adds piquancy: a hint of air, a hint of earth and a strong hit of fire-water.


Your address: The St. Regis Amman; The St. Regis Cairo; The St. Regis Dubai, Al Habtoor Polo Resort & Club; The St. Regis Princeville Resort; The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort


(All photos: ©Getty Images)

Salt formations in the southern Dead Sea


Salt is used as a luxurious back scrub in spas around the globe


A Bolivian salt crystal


Kitchen Confidential

With over 30 years’ gastronomic experience, Indian-born chef Samir Roonwal has cooked around the globe, from Dubai to Canada. Now, he’s heading up food and drink at The St. Regis Aspen Resort and preparing to launch an exciting new restaurant there this autumn, bringing his passion for outstanding local produce to the menu. Oh, and perfect gnocchi...


What was the first dish you cooked as a child?
Pancakes with chocolate chips. I remember I kept on adding more and more chocolate chips until they were basically all chocolate and no batter! From then on I had them for breakfast every day.


Did you cook a lot growing up?
Never. I was kept away from the kitchen as much as possible, but I used to peek in. Once a year I’d be allowed in to bake cakes and make a mess, but when mom had guests over she’d stay in the kitchen for days at a time preparing everything. She was awesome – I think I got my sense of taste from her.


Do you let your sons (aged 6 and 8) in the kitchen now?
Yes, but mostly I cook for them. They have traveled the world with me and their demands are crazy – takoyaki, Oreo shakes… We hardly spend any time together as a family, but whenever I’m home we have dinner. I’ll make something simple – usually ramen with greens and a nice broth – and we’ll discuss what they’re doing at school, who’s studying what, who has been in trouble… I think it’s crucial.


Do you often cook Asian food?
Absolutely – I think it’s the most intelligent cuisine. In Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine particularly, they use so few ingredients, and yet the flavors of the dishes are so intense. I’m a huge fan of Middle Eastern cooking as well. When I moved to Dubai I was amazed to discover how much variety there is there. I found a new love for spices: sumac, ras el hanout and raw za’atar leaves, which give a completely different taste from the powdered form.


Where do you find inspiration for new recipes?
If you’d asked me 20 years ago I would have named another chef, but experience has taught me that inspiration is in your backyard. It’s all about going out and meeting local vendors and producers – after all, what’s the point in making incredible menus with ingredients you can’t get locally?


How would you describe the food at your new restaurant?
It’s going to be “Modern Mountain” cuisine, so a lot of game and roasted dishes, with cured and smoked meats too. Menus will use Colorado’s finest ingredients. For example, we have brilliant venison and elk here, and the delicious Colorado bass. There will also be a great new bar, stocking regional whiskeys and bourbons, and we have a coffee bar opening as well.


How will it be different from your usual style?
People tend to think that because I’m Indian I cook Indian cuisine, but actually I steer away from it – although a love of spice will always be in my blood. I like my menus to take you on a journey around the world, including the greatest hits from the Mediterranean, Asia and the Middle East.


What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own career?
Two years ago a sheikh from Abu Dhabi came to me one afternoon and told me he wanted to host a Ramadan feast for 10,000 people... that evening. We had every waiter, every purchasing guy, every single member of staff running around town trying to find lamb and rice. To this day I’m still amazed we managed to pull that one off.


And the hardest thing to cook?
Gnocchi. If you don’t beat the dough properly or poach them right, they become very glutinous. Our chefs train for days until they can do it brilliantly. Octopus is also something I used to really struggle with as a young chef, but I’ve finally perfected it – it’s my absolute favorite bar snack at The St. Regis Aspen Resort, and a personal triumph for me.


Your address: The St. Regis Aspen Resort


Samir Roonwal

Food Goes Pop

In the fall of 2016, the food world was set ablaze with the news that Noma, the restaurant in Copenhagen that had topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for four years, would be closing at the end of the year. Essays and memorials were penned. Food obsessives booked flights to Copenhagen to pay homage to chef René Redzepi’s particular type of cooking – a genre that can now be described as “new Nordic cuisine” – for the final time. Fans watched over social media as the restaurant plated its final dishes, finished its last service, and ceremoniously took down the sign outside its doors.


But in the spring of 2017, Noma started appearing again in geotags and social-media feeds, in essays and reviews. It wasn’t the Noma that had closed in Copenhagen, but Noma Mexico, a pop-up in Tulum where the staff were adapting its particular brand of local, experimental cooking to their new region. They had swapped their sea buckthorns and elderflowers for jackfruit and guanábana fruit, and for the next three months, they would create a new kind of Noma experience, halfway across the world and in a completely different environment.


This wasn’t Noma’s first pop-up; in 2015, its chefs pulled up stakes and relocated to Tokyo for three months, and in 2016, to Australia. Other high-profile chefs, too, have started popping up across the world. Ludo Lefebvre, now of Trois Mec, Petit Trois and Trois Familia in Los Angeles, hosted the LudoBites pop-ups back in 2010. The famed New York City restaurant Le Cirque went on tour in 2012, popping up in private spaces in Orlando, Chicago, Houston, and more. The St. Regis San Francisco hosted an eight-week pop-up called The Grill in March 2016, before it was eventually made a permanent fixture at the hotel. And events like the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle put an international machine behind the pop-up concept, flying top chefs from all corners of the globe across the world to host dinners in their counterparts’ kitchens for one night only.


How did we get here? Why do these Michelin-starred chefs leave the comforts of their gleaming kitchens and devoted clientele to pop up somewhere entirely new? Undercover eating and drinking clubs are hardly new; the first ones appeared in London in 1899, in response to a new law that forced pubs and restaurants to close just after midnight. The opening of private clubs allowed restaurateurs to keep plying their patrons with food and drink all night, in the same way that, when Prohibition began in the United States, supper clubs were an under-the-radar way to serve alcohol. These clubs were, by nature, transitory and elusive, gathering people together for fun and consumption in defiance of societal norms.


The modern pop-up restaurant held on to its whiff of counterculture and the underground for years, with chefs popping up in abandoned warehouses, art galleries, even wine cellars. It was only in 2008, when the financial crisis resulted in darkened storefronts, that landlords became more willing to let chefs use their spaces in exchange for buzz and foot traffic. And so the formalized pop-up was born.


There were benefits for everyone. For chefs, doing a pop-up was a lot less expensive than starting a restaurant from scratch. Social media made it easier than ever to speak directly to consumers, and selling tickets in advance generated hype and eliminated the need for an up-front investment in ingredients and labor. And the audience seemed to love it, too. Having already bought into the food-truck trend – sampling high-quality food from the roadside – they had already developed a palate for the hot and the new, for enjoying food outside places with which it had traditionally been associated.


As the restaurant environments became ever more innovative, so too did the cooking. The ability to share quickly, online, around the world has created a milieu that is ripe for the exchange of ideas. Instead of having to go to a restaurant to see a new dish, or technique, or even what’s on the menu, chefs can read about it, share photos, direct-message each other, FaceTime each other. And the diners are right there alongside them, gazing at a certain restaurant’s famed dishes half a world away, writing about everything from the cutlery to the dessert cart on Yelp, reading lists and rankings of the hottest new trends, put out by mainstream publications, food blogs, and everything in between. All of a sudden, a chef in Melbourne has an audience in New York, and a chef friend itching to start a collaboration. A flight across the world and a few dinners in a friend’s kitchen is an opportunity for learning, for growth, and, in many instances, for profit.


This wave of pop-ups has resulted in even more innovation, more exploration, more experimentation in the culinary arena. And in an era when a younger generation of global foodies is actively seeking out new and unique dining experiences, we can be fully confident that it won’t be stopping any time soon.


The Heat is On

Sous vide – the culinary technique that sees vacuum-packed items submerged in a water bath at precisely controlled temperatures – helped define the food of the Noughties. Many of the world’s leading chefs, from Heston Blumenthal to Thomas Keller, employed it behind the scenes. Alongside the much-vaunted rise of “molecular gastronomy”, it allowed science to play a more prominent role in high-end cuisine, guaranteeing accuracy, consistency and even perfection.


But it’s not exactly mouth-wateringly sexy, is it? So just as every movement prompts a counter-insurgency, the past few years have witnessed the more populist re-emergence of cooking and smoking over fire and charcoal. From London to Singapore, the Maldives to Mauritius, barbecue is back. What’s more, the dishes emerging from the parillas and kilns of today’s kitchens and outdoor cooking stations feed not only our appetites, but our raw primal instincts.


At his Singapore restaurant Burnt Ends, chef Dave Pynt smokes pretty much everything. “Pineapple, leeks, quail’s eggs, fish – you name it, we can get smoke into it,” he says. Pynt, originally from Perth in Western Australia, opened a pop-up in East London in 2013 under the title Burnt Enz. It proved such a roaring success that the chef was whisked off to Singapore with his four-ton dual-cavity oven to open the fully fledged version (replacing the questionable “z” with a respectable “ds” in the process).


While the restaurant is built around a big beast of an oven, with counter seating and three customized charcoal grills, the sophistication of the cooking and depth of flavor drawn from simple ingredients is astounding. There is superb, succulent meat on offer – harissa lamb, pulled pork, Jacob’s Ladder short rib, even Hida wagyu from Japan – but there are also surprising delights, such as charred fennel imbued with almond-wood smoke and served with orange and burrata.


Such has been the big-bearded Aussie’s success in tuning into the food zeitgeist in restaurant-mad Singapore that Burnt Ends is now ranked in the top ten of the well-respected Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pynt’s inspiration and mentor, however, is a man frequently cited as the current king of “grill cooking”: the hermit-like Spaniard, Victor Arguinzoniz.


Arguinzoniz grew up and still works in the remote countryside south of Spain’s Basque Country. Over the past two decades, his restaurant Asador Etxebarri (asador being Spanish for barbecue) has built its reputation to the point where intrepid diners and international chefs will make the pilgrimage from all corners of the world to experience his food.


What’s so special as to draw such discerning crowds, as well as critical plaudits? Well, every element on the substantial menu is cooked on hand-crafted, adjustable-height grills: juicy Palamós prawns, anchovies on toast, fresh buffalo mozzarella (from the chef’s own herd grazing next door), eel, enormous Tomahawk steaks, even smoked-milk ice cream.


The influence of restaurants such as Etxebarri and Burnt Ends is reflected across the globe. More and more chefs cite Arguinzoniz and the legendary Argentinian chef, author and restaurateur Francis Mallmann as guiding forces. Mallmann wrote the book on the philosophy and craft of cooking over flames and embers – Siete Fuegos: Mi Cocina Argentina (Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way) – following a Damascene conversion after years of preparing haute cuisine in the classic French style. A maverick and raconteur, he has become a cult figure, in part due to his regular appearances on food shows across American TV networks.


In the States, barbecuing traditions run very deep, especially in the South. Danny Meyer is the doyen of the New York restaurant scene, with Union Square Café, The Modern and Gramercy Tavern to his name, but he originally hails from St. Louis. He brought southern barbecue into the city in the form of Blue Smoke in Manhattan’s Flatiron district – a format so successful, it has spawned offshoots at ballparks and even at JFK airport.


Head west to The St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, and you’ll see a whole hog being spit-roasted every Sunday in the summer on The Mountain Terrace. Chef de cuisine Rachel Wiener sources pigs locally, alongside finest American wagyu from Idaho and seasonal vegetables from local farmers, all of which might find their way on to the Traeger Grill.


In the Maldives, St. Regis guests can take things a step further by enjoying a mobile barbecue station with a bespoke menu anywhere from rooftop to the terrace – and even on the beach itself. Expect to feast on rib-eye steaks and the freshest grilled seafood. The Royal Villa at The St. Regis Mauritius offers a similarly luxe take on this al fresco classic.


Our appetite for this natural form of cooking shows little sign of abating, with built-in charcoal barbecues, wood-fired ovens, and even smoking sheds de rigueur in the homes of fashionable food lovers. This fire is not ready to be put out, so let’s throw another steak on the grill.

Your address: The St. Regis Deer Valley; The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort; The St. Regis Mauritius; The St. Regis Singapore


Flame reaction

Chicken char-grilled to perfection. The sophistication of today’s grilling methods means almost any food can be thrown on the griddle... even ice cream

(Photo: Gallery stock)


Kitchen Confidential

Oscar Portal is the innovative head chef at The St. Regis Mexico City, where he oversees six restaurants, from the King Cole Bar to private dining. Prior to moving to Mexico, he was pivotal in transforming the gastronomy scene in Madrid, while one of his first projects at St. Regis was creating a refined fish-and-chips pop-up called Krug & Chips.


What do you eat when you’re home alone? Because I cook so much at work, when I’m at home I often eat takeaways: pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, sushi, and Chinese dishes like vegetable spring rolls, rice soup and dumplings. If I cook, it’s only because my two-and-a-half-year-old son has to eat well. What I eat is not good for my health!


What would you order from your own menu? Clarified chicken broth or fish broth, then short-rib glaze [roasted short ribs] followed by Parmesan ice cream.


What is your favorite dish to cook? Anything with fish or seafood. These dishes are a real challenge to cook, because their taste – particularly turbot – is so delicate.


Any local food that particularly inspires you? There’s a really spicy dish I love from the coast of Mexico called aguachile – thinly sliced shrimps, lime and vegetables, which can be cooked in different sauces. I also like mole, an ancient Mexican sauce that’s really complicated to make; some recipes use over 100 ingredients.


The proudest moment in your career? The first was when I was working in a restaurant called Pinera in Madrid and the newspaper El Mundo voted us Restaurant of the Year in 2010. Considering how many restaurants there are in Madrid, this was a huge achievement. The second was moving to Mexico City and becoming executive chef at St. Regis.


Which dish are you most proud of? Smoked eel salad with tomato gel, watermelon and prunes. It’s molecular cuisine; I created it at Pinera in Madrid and it’s as beautiful as it is tasty.


The most delicious thing to eat in Mexico City? Taco al pastor. You can find it in local taquerias, but it’s best bought as street food. You should buy it the minute you arrive. For simple, tasty food, there’s nothing better. I particularly like the corn tortillas filled with marinated pork, curry sauce, onion, pineapple and coriander.


Which meal would you have again, if you could? One I had with my wife when she was pregnant with our first son. We’d been apart – I was working in Mexico while she was at home in Madrid – and we reunited in San Sebastian during Holy Week at [our friend] Martin Berasategui’s restaurant. We ate lobster salad, hake in green sauce and chocolate mousse. It was one of the best meals of my life.


The secret to running a restaurant? There’s no magic formula, but you do need to make sacrifices: you work long hours and you give up holidays. If you don’t love it, there’s no future.


What was your favorite food as a child? A soup my mother used to cook, cocido madrileño, and my grandmother’s meatballs. I could eat these foods every week and never get tired of them.


What reminds you of home? Every Saturday, my whole family gathers around my mother’s table. I go home twice a year and we still do it. Sitting around that table makes me feel like a boy again, and brings back memories of helping my grandmother in the kitchen when I was little.


Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City


Oscar Portal