Q&A: Chef Daniel Noguera on flair, flavour and the future of cooking in Mexico

The creaminess of locally grown avocados in Mexico lingers in your mouth. 

Photograph by Getty Images
By Helen Warwick
Published 17 Aug 2022, 12:00 BST

Daniel Noguera helms the kitchen of the Fairmont Mayakoba.

Photograph by Fairmont Mayakoba

Strung along the northeast coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the Riviera Maya is an easy introduction to Mexico — a place where vast swathes of rainforest give way to turquoise seas that nurture indigenous ingredients that gives the region its distinctive culinary repertoire. And it’s here that chef Daniel Noguera helms the kitchen of Fairmont Mayakoba. Hailing from Venezuela, and having previously worked in kitchens in Niagara, in New York state, and Alberta, Canada, he now delves into Mexico’s spectacular natural larder and scours rural food markets for inspiration. Here he gives us the inside track on Mexican food.

How would you describe your cooking style?
My cooking style is something that constantly evolves, although I think I’ve always swayed towards simplicity, working with great products to produce incredible flavour profiles. It’s so important for chefs to focus on the ingredients and let them shine for themselves. It’s a brilliant time to be a chef — we have to be innovators, we have to be dynamic to keep up with trends, the competition and switching to a more sustainable way of cooking.  

Tell us about your menu at the Fairmont and what inspires you.
At our Mexican restaurant, La Laguna, the menu has been developed to showcase the entire country. There’s nothing too complicated about the dishes. I’ve tried to focus on authentic Mexican cuisine — something that’s misunderstood across the world. It’s not just fajitas and enchiladas — and it’s not greasy and laden with fat. It’s light, with simple, distinguished recipes balancing acid and fat.

 What is it about Mexican ingredients that you love? Do you have an all-time favourite ingredient?
Here, it’s farm country and we’re spoilt with fresh produce. Soils are rich and produce is nutrient-dense. I love going to local markets in tiny villages and towns where you can watch cooks prepare moles, charring the peppers just right so they don’t turn bitter and mixing with old-school ingredients so the result is sweet and salty. I love using quelites in my dishes (edible wild greens) and I discovered the citrusy herb, verdolaga. Try an avocado over here and you’ll notice the difference straight away from those bought in supermarkets overseas. The creaminess lingers in your mouth.

How important is sustainable sourcing to you? Who are some of your favourite local producers?
Very. Finally it’s shifted into our lives — it’s the future. Take seafood; we gather a lot of our seafood from sustainable suppliers in Baja California, (the Mexican state that forks into the Gulf of California close to the US border) and you can literally see the quality. The taste and the content of fat — you can always spot it over a farmed fish. And close to the hotel, there are sustainable farms we work with specialising in Mayan octopus, caught in the waters around the Yucatán.

When you're not working, where do you like to eat locally?
I’m on a mission to eat at every small taco shop I can find around Playa del Carmen. Not the touristy ones — the hidden ones. There’s one in particular, Taqueria Mendez, with melt-in-the-mouth sirloin and slow-cooked tripe. I pile on all the salsas — it’s so good. 

What are your favourite regions for food in Mexico?
This is tricky; it’s so unique, so diverse, and I haven’t had the chance to visit every corner. But I’m going to say Oaxaca — home of the seven moles. There’s diversity between each town and the markets are fascinating. I found vast smoke halls, filled with hauls of sizzling meat, and on other stalls, bowls of insects to nibble.  

What advice would you give to travellers keen to make the most of Mexico’s epic food scene?
Travel every inch. Every region, every state has a different feel, a different approach. You’ll always find tortillas, but from north to south you’ll come across different flavours. Go the to the markets and try everything — you’ll always find what is true and authentic to the region at local stalls.

What makes Cancun such a unique destination for visitors? And what makes the province so special to you?
My wife is Mexican and originally from the Yucatan, and having spent years travelling here before settling on the Riviera Maya, I’d already fallen for the culture and the cuisine. You’re in the middle of the Mayan civilisation and on the edge of the Caribbean that’s a beautiful turquoise. A few decades ago, this was all just forest. It’s an incredible place to live.

The menu at Fairmont Mayakoba has been developed to showcase the entire country.

Photograph by Fairmont Mayakoba

How to do it

Stay at the Fairmont Heritage Place Mayakoba, pitched between tangles of jungle and the serene shores of the Caribbean, where guests bed down in cavernous villas, wake to sunrise swims, explore the region’s dramatic Mayan ruins and fall for its exceptional foodie scene. 

For more, go to fairmont.com

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