Casa Malca in Tulum: a restaurant in the jungle

Sustainability and plenty of guests among mangroves and tropical sea. The story of two successful Italians in Mexico

14-09-2017

Milanese Simone Merati is chef at restaurants Filosofia and Ambrosia, inside hotel Casa Malca in Tulum, a popular destination in Yucatan, Mexico (photos by Tokyo Cervigni)

This year there’s been much talking about Tulum. The spring pop up Noma in Mexico, after closing the historic restaurant in 93 Standgrade in Copenhagen, placed this city on the map of many people across the world.

Located on the Maya Coast of Yucatan, one hour south of the much more touristic Playa del Carmen, Tulum is a coastal town where an elitist tourism has grown, like in Ibiza and Bali, in a triangle of eternal summer. Except this jungle location by the sea has attracted the attention of many very talented chefs over the past few years. Starting from Eric Werner and Mya Henry, who opened Hartwood in 2010. According to Redzepi this is the “perfect restaurant”, a pioneer for a special type of restaurant offer.

Simone Merati, left Italy over 10 years ago and arrived in the old home of narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar in 2014, after working in starred restaurants in England, Australia and Spain. He was initially hired as cook when Casa Malca, luxury hotel of New Yorker art collector Lio Malca, opened. Simone soon established a unique format of restaurant on Costa Maya, focusing not just on flavours and techniques, but on sustainability too, given Tulum has a fragile ecosystem enclosed among mangroves, jungle and natural reserves.

Beetroot salad in different textures

Beetroot salad in different textures

photo casamalca.com

photo casamalca.com

«Having a restaurant offer that has the lowest impact on the environment is not so easy. It means increasing work force. In order for this to happen, you first of all need enlightened owners with a long term vision». In just 3 years Simone made the restaurant offer grow at Casa Malca with high end Filosofia, which can serve up to 160 people per service. Soon this will be joined by Ambrosia, offering a simpler cuisine.

«We’ve had to overcome many barriers so far. Running a restaurant on the beach has completely different parameters compared to a city restaurant. Starting from things that are strongly connected with cooking, like managing humidity, and organizational, like hiring local staff whom you must also teach a delicate topic like waste management». A chat with Simone makes you realise how much work they’ve done over so little time and how a hospitality business working this way is essential to preserve the place.

«When I arrived here, riding my motorbike on the road that joins the city to the beach, I was startled. The mangrove forest was completely covered in waste paper. The fault is only ours: we cannot introduce plastic and aluminium in a culture that was always linked to eating fruit. For locals, tossing things on the ground is natural, except fruit peel is biodegradable».

The first who realised something had to be done was the owner of the hotel himself. He created a slogan, Conscious Tulum, that appears on the t-shirts of all the staff at Casa Malca. A simple message reminding everyone, clients and staff, that the jungle is important in order to preserve the beauty of Tulum. Simone continues: «We’re trying to eliminate plastic as much as possible. For instance, we no longer use straws. It’s not so banal for a restaurant by the beach and by the swimming pool, where we pay extra attention with the cocktails we serve. The goal is educating those who work at Casa Malca so they adopt the same idea of sustainability at home».

Roman pastry chef Fabrizio Pellegrini

Roman pastry chef Fabrizio Pellegrini

Taco with prawns
 

Taco with prawns
 

And in this sense, Simone has a noble wish: working only with local staff. «Over 3 years we’ve had some 100 guys in the kitchen. It’s a large number but then it’s not easy to explain what a brunoise is to someone who had no catering training. You need to be patient, teach the foundations, like the perfect cut, and remain calm in the kitchen. It’s a short step to losing the attention and respect of the guys». Not easy for someone who during his early career has always worked with important restaurants, where tension was high at every service.

After a year in Tulum, Simone called an old colleague of his, whom he met in London. Fabrizio Pellegrini is a Roman pastry chef who’s also been abroad for the past 10 years. In London he worked for a long time at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze when Jason Atherton, a previous speaker at Identità Milano, was running the kitchen. Having a classic training, and getting along perfectly with Simone, Fabrizio created a line of desserts that allows him to prepare Viennese style cakes and 14 types of bread every day, using two types of mother yeast.

«It’s a lot of work but I also get the chance to do extensive research – on top of our desire to open a school for locals and train them so they can learn a job, we’re first of all a restaurant with a healthy budget which allows us to grow». It took Fabrizio 4 months to develop the recipe for his sweet taco, in the menu at restaurant Filosofia. The ice cream is mixed with a Carpigiani machine, which he uses with Ali, an ice cream maker from Tulum with whom he’ll participate in the world ice cream cup at Sigep in Rimini, this September, presenting a milk-less coconut ice cream that took him months to develop. This shows how even in Tulum, in the restaurant of an hotel with international guests you can have fun creating and innovating.

Crème brûlée with red fruits coulis

Crème brûlée with red fruits coulis

The menu at Filosofia is varied and Mexican-inspired: almost every product comes from local fishermen or from farmers or breeders who are a within a 2 hours drive from the restaurant. There’s very fresh Ceviche, with leche de tigre made with fish bones and mixed with avocado so as to give it a creamy texture. The de-boned chicken, filled with ricotta and almonds, first cooked in a wood oven and then in a conventional oven, is served with a Chapaneco mole, home made and starting from scratch, twice a week.

Simone reveals nothing at Casa Malca could be the way it is if it wasn’t for the work of everyone in Tulum. As he often repeats, behind the success of a single format there is in fact a system made of chefs, producers and entrepreneurs who look at a place not in terms of potential, but in terms of the features that make it unique. Worth travelling across the entire world just to spend a few days there.