Chef Juan Escalona Meléndez interviewed by philosopher Aaron Meskin.
This interview took place during January and February, 2020.
Juan Escalona Meléndez is a Mexican-born chef currently working in Mexico City. He studied Genomic Sciences as an undergraduate at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and did an MA in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds. He has collaborated with various philosophers on food projects and presented at the recent American Society for Aesthetics-sponsored Conference on Food, Art and Philosophy at UNAM. (He also created the conference meal.) He has worked at Noma (Copenhagen), Pujol (Mexico City) and Máximo Bistrot (Mexico City).
Aaron Meskin is head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Georgia. He works on aesthetics, philosophical psychology and, recently, the philosophy of food. He is co-editing a special issue of the online philosophy journal Crítica devoted to food, art and philosophy. Before Georgia, he worked at the University of Leeds for 14 years, and that is where his conversations with Juan about food and art began.
Tell me about what you are doing these days.
I am part of an interdisciplinary project with the purpose to explore beauty and knowledge through food. It is called Sexto Colectivo, inspired by Brillat-Savarin’s notion of a sixth sense involved in eating. We pursue our objective by performing public and private dinners, running workshops, and by organizing free (or almost free) lectures at UNAM. In each of the events, we want our guests to learn or explore something about nature by taking food as the main tool. We encourage them to eat with their minds.
Tell us little more about Sexto. How does the collective work? Can you give us an example of how your dinners get people to eat with their minds?
One of Sexto’s main tools for achieving its purpose is knowledge. We try to use knowledge as a vehicle to deliver emotions. We engage in extensive research on what is really behind what we’re serving or telling. We run three types of events:
- Dinners: We serve dinners related to specific themes. Right now, we’re serving the Marine Diversity Season (the next ones are Fermented Foods and Fungi). We aim to make food the central element of what we do, but we also develop an informative discourse to go alongside it and add a few other elements such as the text in the menu or music. By the end of the dinner, guests should have a richer understanding of, for example, the diversity of our seas, or the complexity of the microbial communities in fermented foods, or even links between anthropology and cooking.
- Workshops: We do hands-on activities related to the seasonal topic with our guests. They learn basic cooking techniques, with the purpose of reaching a deep understanding of products and techniques. We also have a series of workshops called “The Science of Food” (“La Ciencia de los Alimentos”), where we aim to teach the very basic principles behind cooking, like how water’s nature is involved in preparing a stew and how can you take advantage of that.
- Lectures: Guided by an expert in a specific discipline, we offer public lectures on multiple topics and their relationships with food. We call them “Lectures on Gastronomy” a name inspired by Feynman’s “Lectures on Physics”. Our guest lecturers have included the philosopher Paloma Atencia-Linares, the mushroom expert Nanae Watabe, and the marine biologist Francisco A. Solís-Marin.
How did you learn to cook?
I am basically self-taught. However, I’ve had some training highlights throughout my life. When I was a kid, from age 4 to 12, I used to live at my grandma’s farm. She grew some livestock (chickens, pigs, sheep, and turkeys) and milpa (a prehispanic agricultural system that grows corn, ayocote bean, and pumpkin). Almost every day we had some food-related activity—from shelling corn, dehydrating chiles in the sun for the mole, setting up the nixcome (the pot where corn is cooked with limestone to prepare tortillas), to feeding the animals. I think these experiences set the foundations of what inspired me to work with food (and also with biology) for the rest of my life. A second highlight happened when I turned 18. I was already studying genomic sciences at UNAM, but decided to pause my studies in order to work at a restaurant called Pujol, in Mexico City. There, I learned about the basics of working at a very high level in a professional kitchen while at the same time learning about Mexican gastronomy.
Finally, when I was 23, I went to stage at Noma. [Interviewer’s note: To stage is to do a short unpaid internship at a restaurant.] It was quite an enriching experience in the sense that they were working with something that was really new, something truly innovative. Specifically, they invented what we know as New Nordic Cuisine, which is focused on taking full advantage of the land that surrounds them. They gave a strong identity to their flavors by developing a well-balanced mixture of modern and ancient techniques, e.g. by developing ferments out of local grains, supporting their job with actual microbiological research, using multiple wild edible species (from land and sea), etc. There, I learned that research and cooking can be done at the same time and under the same roof.
We had a disappointing meal together at one of those extremely famous restaurants that you worked at. Do you have an idea of what went wrong that evening?
I had the chance to chat for a bit with a server friend about this situation on that same night. She told me that they were still adapting to the new place and, additionally, that the head chef was not there. For a restaurant of that level of prestige it cannot be an excuse, simply because of the effort it takes for some the diners to get there and who deserve to have an amazing experience. It is an enormous responsibility! At the same time, it’s understandable, I think. I haven’t been back since that day. I’m definitely giving them a second chance—it used to be a cherished place for me.
You studied chemistry and history of science. We’ve heard about molecular gastronomy, which aims to understand the chemical and physical processes involved in food preparation, so I can see the relevance of your study of chemistry to what you do now, but I wonder how, if at all, your work in the history of science has informed your cooking.
Definitely. It provided me with the tools and the method to critically analyze the context in which I’m embedded. Actually, Sexto Colectivo is partially a consequence of a history-philosophy project encouraged and promoted by you! I am also planning to start a PhD where I can couple history and anthropology with a fermentation project I have in mind.
You also mention informatics as important to your current work. Can you tell us about that?
A central part of my project is to keep track of every bit of information we produce. We are building the proper internal structures so we can do so. Also, the fermentation project I mentioned above involves metagenomic DNA sequencing and analysis, which takes a great deal of information processing.
How do Mexico and Mexican cuisine inform your cooking? What distinguishes Mexican cuisine from other cuisines?
I grew up eating Mexican food and I try to eat Mexican food every day. I like to think that my cooking is Mexican (with some influences from the places I’ve lived, worked, and dreamed about, like the Middle East). However, what drives my passion for Mexican food is to explore its origins at all different levels, which is related to my fermentation project, but also to some explorations like the origins of nixtamalization. We are researching and experimenting, almost counterfactually, some of the possibilities that might have brought this ancient process into light, some thousands of years ago. Mexican food is distinctive in the sense that it is very local but at the same time it is from everywhere. We have had a very vibrant history, full of contacts of all kinds with almost every corner of the world! Including the Philippines, Japan, Lebanon, India, Ecuador, of course Spain, the USA, and many more that I am missing for sure. This has greatly enriched our culture and gastronomy in an almost symbiotic way. Most of the times you can’t tell you’re eating something that has been brought by another culture because it becomes properly Mexican. An obvious one is Tacos al pastor (from Lebanon) , one not so obvious is mole (from Medieval Islam).
You lived, and cooked, in Britain for a couple of years. Mexican cuisine is often considered to be a world treasure. (In 2010 traditional Mexican cuisine was placed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.) Most people would not say that about British cuisine. What do you think? Are there treasures in British cuisine?
That is for sure! Britain has beautiful traditions of dairy and cider. I still have to keep exploring because there is much more to see and taste there, but I can say that I was really impressed by the quality of the seafood and the vegetables. As a highlight, I tried a kind of algae that tasted properly like truffle when fried… that truly blew my mind. I’d also like to recognize the commitment that the UK has put into the exploration of the food for the future. There is a project run by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), in which a very good friend of mine (Elliot Kett) is involved. They’re on the quest to explore which kind of products and ingredients will be better to grow and consume in a global warming situation: rather than sticking to the ones we are used to, it might be better to familiarize ourselves with the ones that will be a better fit with the weather to come, which will be more sustainable and less harmful for the planet. I think they will start to discover new things that will amaze the entire world.
There’s been a lot of attention by aestheticians to the relationship between food and art over the last decade or so. And I saw, in a recent article that your new collective is committed to the idea that “food ought to be considered an art form with the same legitimacy as music or painting.” Can you tell me more about why you think that?
In Sexto Colectivo we take a biologically driven position on this. Our senses are instruments or tools that have evolved to allow us to interact with the world. In a very basic sense, all of them help us to survive; we perceive the world through them, and could not individually survive if one or more of them failed. At the end, all of the information that is received from these instruments, is ultimately processed by one same organ: the brain. So we think that all of the senses are valid providers of feelings and sensations, and should be given equal consideration in the art world.Some philosophers are skeptical about food’s representational capacities. What do you think? Do you think food can say something significant? Can it tell us something important about our lives and our world?
I think it is possible. Not every piece of food can say something significant about the world, or any chef, but it is true that it can become a powerful vehicle for knowledge and emotion. At this point in my cooking, I have to rely on additional resources to reinforce messages (e.g., the display of the menu, the dialogue being said to the diners, or even music), but the food is always the star. The team and I are trying to take an intellectual drive to deliver emotions, so by informing and educating with food, diners get emotional about the experience.
People often seem to think about the art of food in terms of great chefs, but one thing I appreciate about your cooking is the way you collaborate with others to put together memorable dining experiences; that is, by developing and executing ideas for meals and events in dialogue with others. This is especially clear in your current project, Sexto Colectivo, but I also saw a collaborative element in your pop-ups in Leeds where you were able to put together remarkable teams of cooks and servers who each contributed something significant to those one-off events. Can you talk to me about collaborating in the kitchen?
When you’re trying to say something more than just a delicious meal, you can often get stuck when doing it alone. I’ve experienced it myself. However, if from the beginning of the conception of your meal you enable an active and deliberate conversation with a group of valuable people, the message starts to turn into a collective idea, something that will be able to speak to more and more people. For me, collaboration is essential. In Sexto, I’ve brought what I think is a collaborative attitude from academia: we have internal and public seminars, we share what we read, we discuss our concerns and ideas, and most importantly, we share our knowledge with the community. We’ve engaged in a very serious program of collaborations. For example, in 2019, we performed at least seven collaborative projects, and only five by ourselves; some of these turned into longer collaborations. We like to think that we’re fostering a community rather than a single project.
Thi Nguyen has suggested that cooking is, at least in part, what he calls a “process art.” That is, an important part of the art of cooking is the aesthetic aspect of the process of cooking; for example, the gracefulness or elegance of the cooking process. Does that sound right to you?
I couldn’t agree more. One of the main reasons I’m so in love with this art/craft is that I have the chance to directly interact with ingredients. Some of them include plants, large animals, seafood (some of them alive), insects, fungus, or even bacteria! For a biologist like me, this is profoundly exciting. Besides the firsthand appreciation, working with them is as challenging as it is beautiful. While working at Máximo Bistrot (one of my favorite restaurants in the world), I remember I was asked to organize the cooling chamber (walk-in fridge). To do that, you have to check every container so you can be sure everything is OK, then discard what is not good enough, and finally deep clean the floor. While cleaning the seafood section, I found a large flat container with a mysterious piece of fish. So I opened it up and found a whole tuna collar; it looked like it was made out of silver, it was shiny and lustrous, shaped like a blade, emanating a clean and profound sea smell. You could see the marbling of the meat when turned around; I felt I was handling a precious and delicate work of art… I stared at it for a few minutes. This moment is something I will never forget. Of course, it happens really often to me when I see a truly remarkable ingredient, or when I discover new ways to cook them. For example, the mere action of cooking with fire (coal and wood fire) is so satisfying: the smell of the wood, the taste of the smoke, the shape of the flames. I could go on and on naming aesthetic experiences one, as a cook, has the chance to live.
I’ve argued that the imagination may play an important role in our experience of eating and drinking. Do you think about engaging the eater’s imagination with your food?
All the time. This is one of our most powerful resources: imagination. When planning a dinner, we try to think what will foster the imagination of the diners and get what we intended. For this season, we will be cooking with marine diversity; our main goal is that every diner will learn that the sea is so immense, diverse, beautiful, but at the same time, in trouble. We have to rely on strategies like the information provided on the menu, the amount of species we will be cooking, the number of techniques, the diversity of materials, and of course of flavors and textures. All of this is intended to nurture imagination further than what just a single dish could do.
We’ve talked in the past about your having to deal with unexpected events in the kitchen (e.g., a stolen bag of chiles in England). Is there an improvisatory aspect to your cooking?
I actually like that! When I lost my bag full of chiles at Luton Airport (for a recent English-xican menu) I felt panic at the beginning, but at the same time I was kind of strangely happy. Of course I was really upset about the situation itself (somebody confused my bag with theirs), but I felt that it was a really great opportunity to explore my expertise with Mexican techniques. In the end, everything went really cool and nobody noticed I used a small fraction of the chiles I originally intended. I have many more stories like this, some of them with fantastic outcomes and others with awful ones, but I always link improvisation with common sense and intuition. We have to recognize that all processes have a contingent dimension and that it is really hard to stick to tight plans; we should always leave room for chance, and of course, be ready. How to be ready? Nurture your intuition with knowledge and practical experience.
You’ve collaborated with philosophers in putting on philosophically informed meals. What was that like?
The origin of the project I’m involved in now has a deep philosophical side. It started from the necessity to build the proper intellectual infrastructure for cooks to be free to express themselves in artistic ways. Discussing it with philosophers like you, or Paloma Atencia-Linares (from UNAM), has brought important issues to light in this respect. First, cooking is encased in a far too Kantian framework. I mean that cooking is often thought not to count properly as art. And second, we need to build projects that provide a counterargument against that. Engaging in an active conversation with philosophers has given Sexto a strong intellectual drive to try to solve these issues and, at the same time, has worked as playground for our fellow philosophers. It is a win-win.
A recent meal by Sexto Colectivo focused on fungi—every course had some sort of fungi in it. (For pictures, see here.) Especially memorable for me was the cuitlacoche dessert and the koji-cooked risotto. Can you tell me what interests you about fungi and how you thought about that meal?
Sometimes fungi are enclosed into a very tight stereotype, despite the fact they represent an entire kingdom! When thinking about plants or animals, myriad species immediately come to mind. And even though fungi are just as diverse, most people can only think of very few species when asked. A few months ago, we were invited to a fungi hunt organized by wild mushroom expert Nanae Watabe. She’s a devoted explorer of the edible fungi kingdom. There (in a forest outside México City) we had the opportunity to walk around the woods looking for hidden treasures. We were really impressed by finding much more than we expected. Nanae told us: “Once you find your first one, something changes in your brain. You’ll suddenly start to look at nature with a different view. You’ll find more; there is no way back.” And so it happened, there is no way back; we committed to devoting at least an entire season for fungi exploration in Sexto, with the possibility of making it permanent. Last season, we wanted to share with diners the excitement of discovery and diversity you’ll find when exploring them. Fungi season was pivotal in finding our way to share knowledge and emotions through food. For instance, it inspired us to develop a concept we called the “edible abstract”. In our diversity-related menus, we start with a dish that contains almost all of the starring ingredients you’ll find for the rest of the meal. It works as a first encounter or display of diversity, which has happened to be really useful and engaging for the guest diners. In the fungi menu, we displayed a dozen species! All kinds of them: mushrooms, molds, and yeasts.
Mole, an incredibly complex sauce which typically combines fruit, nuts, chiles, spices and a myriad of other ingredients, is one of the most important dishes in Mexican cuisine. Talk to me about mole.
For this question I’ll cite Jeff Gordinier: “[Mole is] an infinitude of blended juxtapositions”. Gordinier’s phrase is like a poem, communicating meaning and beauty at the same time, it is simultaneously as useful as it is non-useful. Mole could be everything; it has conceptual and physical room for anything. Of course it has some basic rules: it must contain chile, dried or fresh, in combination with multiple other ingredients. How many? I don’t know, and I don’t think there is a limit or a rule for that. Where is the line between a regular salsa and mole? I’m not sure, but you know when you have a mole in front of you, even though mole is so diverse. You can find mole in multiple textures, from liquid to a thick paste, also in an infinitude of colors, ranging from white to black, and still, you know it is mole. It can’t be confused with salsa, never.
Mole has been part of my life since the day I was born. Of course I didn’t try it back then, but I am almost sure my grandmother prepared mole to celebrate my birth. Since I was very young, I remember getting super excited about mole preparation. It was fascinating all the techniques and time devoted to prepare it. As I mentioned above, we used to sun-dry chiles and some of the other ingredients for days, then we took all of them to the mill. Then we prepared the mole with chicken or guajolote (turkey) stock. For many years, I had only my grandmother’s mole as a reference, a red mole. However, everything changed when I became professionally involved in cooking. I learned about the myriad possibilities and started to explore them. Today, at Sexto, we try to use mole as a tool for delivering messages. For example, when I collaborated in the UK for this English-xican menu, I really wanted to prepare black mole. I brought chile chilhuacle (essential for black mole), chile mulato, chile pasilla, dried plums from Oaxaca, and some more Oaxacan ingredients. I lost them all at the airport and my plans took a complete turn. I thought it was a good opportunity to prepare mole with mostly English ingredients. I used chestnuts, apples, whiskey, wild mushrooms, game (venison, partridge, pheasant, duck) stock, tomatoes and of course (very few) chile pasilla and chile mulato that I bought in a Mexican store in London. All of them were roasted and cooked in the middle of nowhere over the woodfire in a beautiful barn (from a fantastic project called Hunter Gather Cook). Surprisingly, the resemblance to my grandmother’s mole was uncanny—it has become part of me, I think.
One last reference to mole I’d like to bring here is Enrique Olvera’s mole. It has become a signature for modern Mexican cuisine because of its simplicity (and it looks like a Josef Albers painting). It is just a scoop each of two moles in the middle of a platter—one is thousands of days old and the other, in the middle, is just one day old. Traditionally, mole is served with a piece of protein (like chicken or turkey), and sometimes it is eaten with tortilla, but almost never served by itself. When you try it alone (Olvera’s mole or any good mole), you soon realize there is nothing missing, perhaps you could use a tortilla to scoop it, but nothing else. It is a true aesthetic experience.
This blog is named after the famous Barnett Newman quote “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” So, I have one last request for you. Please fill in the blanks as you see fit: “Aesthetics is for the chef as ____ is for the ___.”
Aesthetics is for the chef as microbiology is for the ferment.