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It’s not uncommon to dine at a buffet dinner in Cancun. But on my recent visit, one dinner, in particular, was very different. Along with hundreds of other foodies, I sampled signature dishes from some of the world’s most renowned chefs — including Ferran Adria, Jacques Pepin and Daniel Ovadia — at a tribute to Mexican gastronomy. Set up in separate stations on the oceanfront pool terrace of Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort & Spa, 24 star chefs from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Europe, Mexico and the U.S. kicked off the inaugural Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival. The event aims to become an iconic festival in the region and attract more travelers to Cancun with the growth of a distinctive culinary scene.
“Cancun has been evolving into a more sophisticated travel experience with important events such as music performances by world-renowned artists, golf tournaments with sports legends and celebrity participants and, now, a successful and well-defined culinary festival,” said Jesus Almaguer, CEO of the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau. “All are designed to appeal to people with varied areas of interest.”
From March 15-18, visitors and locals alike celebrated international talents and honored Mexico’s gastronomy with 30 events, including a tribute to Adria, the chef behind the highly touted elBulli restaurant in Spain. In addition to being honored at a gala reception, Adria was active throughout the festival, where he presented a “Beyond elBulli: The Future of Cuisine” panel at University de Caribe, which offers one of the best culinary programs in the region.
Other festival highlights included celebrity chef cooking demonstrations and wine tastings at Sandos Resort. Daily interactive demonstrations by star chefs, such as Paulina Abascal and Benito Molino, captivated foodies, and the wine tastings proved to be just as popular. Notable winemakers and sommeliers offered presentations and comprehensive classes on their wines and vineyards, including Paul Hobbs Wines out of Sonoma Valley, Calif., Benjamin Romeo of Contador from Rioja, Spain, and Robert Mondavi from California.
While international innovators in the culinary world brought their distinctive flavors to the festival, local chefs representing their restaurants in the region promoted their best dishes, primarily at the American Express Gourmet Tasting Village at Iberostar Cancun. Foodies sampled nearly two dozen vendors, from popular restaurants such as Crab House and John Gray’s to buzz-worthy hotel restaurants such as ME Cancun’s Silk and Salt. Trendy lifestyle resort ME Cancun closed the festival with celebrity mixologist Junior Merino serving up his innovative cocktails at the resort’s Rose Bar.
More than 47 sponsors participated in CRMFest and helped it come to fruition, including Cancun, Riviera Maya and Mexico’s convention and visitors bureaus, American Express, Nestle, Live Aqua and Fiesta Americana.
Considering that UNESCO has declared traditional Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Heritage and the region has the fourth-most AAA Five-Diamond restaurants in the U.S. and Mexico, the food and wine festival was long overdue. But significant changes to the region’s culinary scene are relatively recent. Two years ago, El Dorado Royale, A Spa Resort by Karisma built a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse that provides hydroponic produce for all eight properties in its collection. The greenhouse is the first and only hotel-operated greenhouse in the region. Azul Sensatori Hotel in Playa Del Carmen opened the region’s first molecular gastronomy restaurant — Le Chique — by chef Jonatan Gomez Luna, a disciple of Adria. The second molecular gastronomy restaurant, Seasons, opened in March of this year at the new Sandos Resort. Furthermore, the recently opened Paradisus Playa Del Carmen features Passion by Martin Berasategui, a seven-star Michelin chef. Popular Argentine chef Cristian Morales opened one of the first gourmet restaurants outside the hotel zone, Cocina de Autor, which serves Mexican-Argentine fusion cuisine. Fairmont Mayakoba recently started serving local and sustainable spiny lobster in all three of its on-property restaurants. Lastly, opening in Tulum this October, is Gardenias Inn Tulum, a boutique property that will be food-centric.
“Gastronomy has seen a surge in popularity throughout Mexico for several years now and so, naturally, hotels and private entrepreneurs pushed to put together an event to demonstrate what this region of the Americas brings to the table,” said Mitzunaga.
The culinary scene is seeing major growth not only as a trend but as a lifestyle, and the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival is destined to put the region on the map for its unique gastronomy.