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Elena Reygadas, named world's best female chef, cooks in rhythm with nature

Mexico's biodiversity and bounty of vegetables and ingredients is what makes for the "exceptional flavors," says the acclaimed chef, author and manager of four restaurants.
Elena Reygadas.
Mexico's biodiversity, with its varied herbs and vegetables, is Elena Reygadas' inspiration at her internationally recognized flagship restaurant, Rosetta.Maureen Evans

MEXICO CITY — Elena Reygadas' days start early, which explains why she laughs remembering that everything was "dark" when she found out she'd been named best female chef in the world in the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 awards.

“I did not expect it and it has been a very nice surprise; it is very exciting to obtain recognition like this. I want to share it with my entire team; there are many of us in the kitchen and it is always a collective act," Reygadas, 46, said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo at Rosetta, her first and signature restaurant, which she opened in 2010 in an old mansion in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.

Over a decade later, the world-renowned restaurant is where Reygadas has dedicated herself to reconfiguring the vast culinary wealth of her country, menu by menu.

“The menu is based on the timeline and the ingredients that nature gives us. Right now, for example, we have a dish with Manila mango that only lasts a little while. We are also using a lot of muscatel plum, which is a moment and when it’s over, it’s over,” said Reygadas, who was named Latin America’s best female chef in the 2014 awards. “It makes us sad because we became very attached to the ingredients, but that also allows us to continue our creativity and move into a new moment.”

On Wednesday morning, before Rosetta opened to the public, the aromas of Mexican herbs and vegetables such as hoja santa, romeritos and avocados mingled with powerful hints of spices and, of course, chiles, which are at the heart of many of Reygadas' signature dishes.

Tomates verdes, melaza, berenjenas y queso de Ocosingo, uno de los platos preferidos en Rosetta.
A dish at Rosetta has green tomatoes, eggplant, molasses and Ocosingo cheese. Maureen Evans

When asked the secret of Rosetta’s success, she credits that emphasis on "biodiversity."

“It’s a factor that also has its challenges, because sometimes people who visit us are already in love with a dish but, when they arrive, it is gone and they don’t like that,” Reygadas said. “So changing the menu to respect nature’s times is also a challenge at the diners’ level."

Vegetables play a leading role in many of Reygadas' signature dishes, such as beetroot tartare al pastor, smoked cheese tortelloni with hoja santa — a Mexican herb — and the famous kale with pistachio pipián, or mole sauce, and romeritos (wild herbs) tacos. 

“I am convinced that the vegetable side of the kitchen and the ingredients of Mexico are wonderful; they are exceptional flavors and there are many to explore. That is why we are increasingly focusing more on the vegetable," she said.

Mixing Mexico and the Mediterranean

Despite her university degree in English literature, the Mexican-born Reygadas gravitated to cooking, studying at the French Culinary Institute in New York and then working for four years at one of London's top restaurants, the Michelin-rated Locanda Locatelli.

A sample of the notable influence of Mediterranean food in her work are signature dishes such as potato gnocchi, which she prepares with Mexican huitlacoche, or corn mushroom.

“I still have a lot of love for Italian cuisine because of its simplicity, its purity, and the use of ingredients in a respectful way. But, today, Rosetta’s kitchen is 100% focused on ingredients and products from Mexico,” the chef said.

Tortelloni de hoja santa y quesillo ahumado, platillo de Elena Reygadas.
Reygadas blends Italian and Mexican influences in her tortelloni with hoja santa herbs and smoked cheese.Restaurante Rosetta

“I’m working on an epazote paste. Let’s see how it turns out,” she said playfully, referring to an herb widely used in traditional Mexican cooking.

When asked why she thinks that Mexico's food is so fashionable right now, Reygadas credits the country's culinary history and its evolution.

"It's not just that we live from pre-Hispanic cuisine," said Reygadas, referring to the region's Indigenous foods before Spanish colonization, "but there is also the contemporary cuisine of other chefs and cooks, perhaps the best in the city, who have traveled, who have been influenced by other cultures, other techniques and other ingredients. I feel that our past and present come together, and that makes us unique."

Tamal de zarzamora con garambullos, platillo creado por Elena Reygadas.
Reygadas' take on a tamal — with garambullo (cactus) and blackberry.Maureen Evans

Reygadas has been recognized for advancing the work of female chefs. When asked how "macho" the culinary world is, she said there's "a lot to do."

"When I was trained, the truth is that many times I was the only woman in the kitchen and the women were almost always in the desserts," she said. "However, for example, here in Rosetta we have a lot of women and I see more and more."

Reygadas tries “to avoid the kitchen being so hierarchical, where sometimes there is a bad vibe,” she said. “I don’t like that stereotype of the typical chef who yells. I’m not like that.”

Apart from Rosetta, Reygadas operates other establishments in Mexico City: the popular Rosetta Bakery, which also sells bread to other restaurants; Lardo, a casual Mexican restaurant; and Café Nin, a bistro.

Tacos de col rizada, pipián de pistache y romeritos, en Rosetta.
Kale tacos with pistachio pipián sauce and romeritos, or herbs at Rosetta.Maureen Evans

Despite the intense work managing four restaurants employing over 400 people, she’s also written a series of short notebooks or essays on food, health and the environment.

Food, she wrote, should be seen “as a vital act in which the biological, the social, the economic, the political and the cultural come together.”

One of the topics she is vocal about is sustainability, and the recognition of climate change and its impacts.

“The truth is very clear in the kitchen,” she said. “Sometimes you have everything very organized with the idea of ​​natural cycles, but suddenly you see that those cycles no longer happen in the normal order. For example, last year we had very few wild mushrooms because rainfall was scarce due to climate change. And that is very sad and serious.”

Reygadas credits her family with her early love of cooking; she said with a smile that she was the type of girl who baked cakes to take to friend’s houses.

“My two grandmothers were very good cooks, I even have beautiful handwritten recipes for them,” she said. “I think I saw that cooking is a way of giving love, affection and expressing ourselves. I understood that from a very young age.”

An earlier version of this story was published in Noticias Telemundo.