In Latin America, food is nearly synonymous with culture. Mexican Chef Francisco Ocaña brings storytelling and creativity to make dining just as much about the production as it is about the cuisine. During the Strategy World Tour Mexico City, participants will meet with Ocaña over a special meal and learn how his process brings together crossdisciplinary teams to create unforgettable experiences.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how your career in culinary arts has evolved.
Well, I’m a self-taught cook. I studied hotel management and took a couple of cooking classes at that time. My passion for the kitchen began when I was a little kid and I approached my father and the cook of my house to learn how they made the different dishes. They were definitely my first cooking teachers.
Later on, when I was 20 years old, I set up my first restaurant Suave la Vida. It was a small place and I hired a couple of cooks. I designed the menu, but I was not in charge of the kitchen. I opened my restaurant with the promise that I would get my alcohol permit soon, but this was not so. As the place was focused on eating and drinking, I had no money. I did not have money to pay my cooks, so I said goodbye to them and I took care of the kitchen. It was there that for the first time I had to handle a kitchen by myself. Soon I discovered that what I really loved was cooking. I did not hire another chef and I kept charge of the kitchen. Then to make more money, we started to make fun theme parties and I started to get more creative.
Three years later I sold my restaurant and went to work at the best restaurant at that time in Mexico called Tezca. I wanted to learn more about food and creativity. After working a year there, I went to work with some friends in their catering company called Studio Kitchen. There I learned how to plan events. After a year there I decided to open my own catering company, Laboratorio Culinario México (Mexico Culinary Lab). For more than six years we did all kinds of events. We specialized in corporate events and weddings. Laboratorio Culinario México was a premiere caterer in performing, creative, and avant-garde events.
Two years ago I decided to close the lab and go to live in Barcelona with the purpose of awakening my creativity. There I had the opportunity to do a stage with what I consider to be the best cook in the world and one of the most creative and innovative people of all time: Ferran Adria of elBullifoudation.
Two months ago I returned to Mexico and I am about to open my new project called Mole Blanco.
Identity and storytelling are intricately related to food, especially in Mexico. Can you share your point of view on how culinary experiences facilitate exploration or expression?
I think that cooking is always telling a story. Whether a mama cooks something very simple or a great chef a banquet. It’s a story of who you are. In Mexico, cooking is an intrinsic part of who we are.
Now when you try to make a culinary experience as a chef, it’s a bit different because there is an intention to tell a story through the food. This story can be very simple or very complex. There are times that you have to read between the lines to understand the story and there are times that the story is part of the experience and is very literal.
When I make a culinary experience, I like to work with artists, designers, and producers of different disciplines and together we create a script that defines the narrative. To me in particular, work with other disciplines helps me to be more creative. When you are honest with yourself and what you want to tell, it is easier to create stories.
Do you have a favorite event or experience that you orchestrated?
Yes, I especially like to create culinary experiences that go out of the ordinary. Together with a Catalan friend who is a great creative mind and a Mexican photographer, produced a series of events where we brought together an artist and a cook (me in this case) to perform extraordinary exercises. These events we call Cofradia 19 because there were nineteen people invited to dine.
On the first occasion we invited our guests to a dinner on the moon and asked them to please bring three objects they would like to take to the moon. Additionally we made their lunar passport. All this created a great atmosphere and a very interesting conversation. The artists were two photographers who had made an exhibition based on a book by Victor Hugo The Promontory and each dish was inspired by a phrase in the book.
But the event that I liked most was a Cofradia 19 that we did at the opening of a polo field in San Pancho. A nice town close to Puerto Vallarta. The event was divided into several stages. The first course was in the stables where we had a cocktail together with the horses. At the beginning we gave them a small box containing three snacks with a very similar aesthetic. Two were for the guests and one more to feed the horse.
The second course was in the dining room of the polo club that is in front of the main field. There we gave a dinner inspired by the game and in particular in the vision of the horses since this was the idea of our invited artist. At the end of the dinner, we asked the participants to close their eyes and eat their dessert. When they opened their eyes they realized that we had turned off the lights of the whole Club and that there were baskets and a lamp on their table. In the baskets they had, artisan beers, homemade jams, cheese of the region, a wine key, and a tablecloth. We ask them please set us up for a picnic.
The picnic was a very fun time since the event was for the owners of the polo field and a picnic at the end of a formal dinner was the last thing they were expecting.
Previously we had asked them to bring an object that they wouldn’t mind parting with. So at the end of the evening we picked up the objects and buried a time capsule that we would open in 25 years. When we did that we lit a big lamp in a tree that was above.
From there they went to the last course that was a party with a DJ and the photos of the guest artist.
What’s next for you and food in Mexico City?
Mole Blanco is my new project. It is an integral gastronomic project that arises from the research of the products, techniques, tools, elaborations, and history of the Mexican culture. A catering company where the avant-garde coexists with tradition.
We use tools and culinary research to create cutting-edge cuisine. Our style is modern with flavors, presentations, and unique concepts that are designed to captivate our diners.
All this is done under the umbrella of the “Sapiens” methodology created by Ferrán Adrià and his team of collaborators in the elBulllilab.
Photos by Daniela Edburg