Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Monthly farm-to-table outdoor event brings Campeche diners to their food

Stooped over an open fire, chef Enrique Ortiz turns cobs of blue corn until they are cooked to perfection. There is a low level of bustle as plates of food are delivered from fireside to tabletop and cocktails are shaken in a corner opposite the makeshift outdoor kitchen. Beyond the hum of diners’ conversation, the only noises to be heard are the songs of the birds and the crackling of embers.

Walk through the stone archway of this courtyard on the outskirts of Campeche city and you’ll find yourself in the El Refugio Xaman Ek cultural center as well as the El Campanario sustainable growing space — where the produce currently sizzling under Ortiz’s watchful eye was planted, nourished, and harvested.

This is Farm to Table, a monthly event grown as organically as the vegetables on offer that was established at the beginning of 2021. The concept took root through a partnership between Ortiz’s regionally renowned restaurant in Campeche city, La María Cocina Peninsular, and El Campanario.

At Farm to Table, there is personal, human investment in every stage of the production process. Ingredients are grown organically with no chemical fertilizers, and organic waste produced at Ortiz’s restaurant during the week is composted to nourish the soil.

The day before the event, Ortiz and the invited chefs for the month visit El Campanario to take a look at the season’s offerings. Dishes are then innovated and flavors harnessed based on the produce available.

Farm to Table event, Campeche city
Corn cooking on the open-air grill during Farm to Table’s maize and mezcal dining event in August.

The meals they create are rendered more unique by being entirely vegetarian and vegan, a breath of fresh air in a local cuisine otherwise saturated by meat dishes.

“It can be difficult in Campeche to find vegan and vegetarian food,” Ortiz remarks. “People ask us, ‘How do you manage to present with just vegetables?’ But they’re always amazed by the experience. We used to think that you couldn’t make really full, nice meals with just vegetables, but we’ve proven that we can go down that line.”

And it is certainly not just the food that is different. What distinguishes Farm to Table from other sustainable restauranteering is the experience itself; diners do not merely know the journey of the food from origin to plate, they also make the journey to the food’s origins.

Farm to Table is a model example of a growing movement in Mexico that pushes for food autonomy as more consumers begin to question what they consume and the origins of their food. Knowing the quality of one’s food and the values of the producers is taking a front seat in sustainable food debates. Amplifying individual values to a business scale allows La María to responsibly coexist with the local society and environment while delivering high-quality experimental dishes grounded in local cuisine and techniques.

The team at La María has always held fast to these values, buying from local producers, supporting small-scale local businesses rather than large supermarkets where possible and aiming to source plastic- and chemical-free food where possible. Farm to Table simply gives Ortiz and his team the opportunity to bring these values to a pinnacle. The material conditions might differ from those inside the restaurant, but methodologically, the values remain the same.

Of course, cooking outdoors for an audience requires constant attentiveness to the idiosyncrasies of your environment. Halfway through the August event, the heavens open. Tables, chairs and dishes with half-eaten meals are hurriedly moved into a sheltered overhang.

Food from Farm to Table event in Campeche city
Ortiz’s experimental style for the monthly event is committed to creating sustainable vegetarian haute cuisine using local in-season ingredients.

Reflecting on this rainy interlude, Ortiz laughs: “The way I live is a bit chaotic. I like to live without complete control, and this was a manifestation of that, with the rain and everything, trying to change the whole setup in a minute.”

But if the rainy season throws its share of challenges at outdoor events, so, too, does it bring its rewards. Once the rain has stopped, diners fan out across the field to finish their meals with a renewed appreciation for the air and for the motley crew of rescued animals that live on the premises and have reemerged after the storm to wander among the diners — from horses to goats and enthusiastic piggies. Some sporadically attempt to sneak fireside to sample the cuisine.

Imagination-capturing moments like this are a joyful consequence of Farm to Table’s concept and provide the perfect opportunity for Ortiz to have tableside conversations with diners about the dishes and the values that inspire them.

“I try to say to everyone: look at what we’re doing. As Mexicans and as local people, we need to start to look for projects that are actually doing something for the environment. I think that as a restaurant, we can be the bridge to these ideas and values.”

What Farm to Table offers through Ortiz’s avant-garde culinary creations is a fully immersive opportunity to see that ethical consumption can be as appetizing as it is environmentally conscious. By journeying back to the origin of the food it uses, the monthly event disrupts existing systems that offer no point of contact between consumers and the meals they eat.

It might require a little extra quick-thinking and preparation, but the rewards are ultimately greater for all parties involved. It makes for a one-of-a-kind event.

“For me,” Ortiz says, “and for the chefs who are invited, we want to see if we can do it. It’s a challenge — not just on the culinary side, but on the values side. We feel as though we are cooking in the future, a place in which all of society has rethought their food values and where everything comes right back to the simple, beautiful relationship between the farm and the table.”

• The next Farm to Table event in Campeche will take place on Tuesday, September 21 with a Mexican Independence Day theme. For more information, follow them on La María Cocina Peninsular’s Instagram page.

Shannon Collins is an environment correspondent at Ninth Wave Global, an environmental organization and think tank. She writes from Campeche.

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