ALEJANDRO RUIZ

Mexico 2020 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

By providing meals with fresh and local ingredients, Casa Oaxaca has almost single handedly made a name for Oaxacan cuisine in the world.

Alejandro Ruiz
BIOGRAPHY

Alejandro Ruiz grew up in a small town in the state of Oaxaca. As a child, he learned how to cultivate tomatoes, chilies, and local vegetables. This taught him about the value and taste of locally sourced ingredients. As a chef, he doesn't strive to change traditional recipes but pair it with selective ingredients such as deer and duck to present the recipes artistically. In 1997, he created and developed the gastronomic concept of Casa Oaxaca, a restaurant recognized as one of the best in Mexico.

At what point in your career did you become internationally famous as a representative of Oaxacan cuisine?
I am glad to hear that people consider me an ambassador of Oaxacan cuisine; I never thought that this would happen. I started cooking by accident as a teenager in junior high school; however, I fell in love with food service and loved taking care of people in hospitality. After a year of working in a restaurant, I wanted a diploma as a waiter. I moved to Puerto Escondido to take a three-month course and ended up staying there for 10 years working in a hotel called Santa Fe, where I met my mentor. Subsequently, I moved to Oaxaca and met three amazing individuals who had chosen to retire in Oaxaca City. When I met them, they invited me to their home, which was called Casa Oaxaca. There were no boutique hotels in Oaxaca in 1997. They had a house where they wanted to represent Oaxacan culture—art, food, decorations, and so on. When I saw this house, I had two ideas: open a Spanish school for English speakers or open a restaurant, although I had never gone to a culinary school. And they allowed me to bring my concept to fruition and eventually grow the international reputation of Oaxacan cuisine by providing meals with fresh and local ingredients.

What was the main added value of Casa Oaxaca at that time?
Our restaurant did not have a menu. We would see what we had in the kitchen, create a new menu for the day with the ingredients available, and close when the food ran out. When we decided to work together, the deal was that I would open my restaurant in Casa Oaxaca and help take care of the hotel. Since then, Casa Oaxaca Hotel has been my second home for 24 years. There were only three people working there when I arrived. We realized that our only chance to survive in the market was to make it deeply personal. I would go to the market to buy fresh vegetables and fruit at 6am, and at 8am I would offer three or four choices. I would often buy fruits that were rare or weren't used in other parts of Mexico, such as zapote negro or mamey, and create an experience for customers with that local produce. For lunch, I would buy the best fish, vegetables, and beans I could find and make an appetizer, a salad, a soup, a main dish, and dessert. Another thing was that if I had customers leaving early, breakfast would be prepared earlier for them. Our guests would insist that I not wake up that early to send them breakfast, but we would prepare it for them no matter if it was 5am or 8am. That's what has given us this special feeling for 24 years and why our occupancy rate is 94%.

What is behind popularity of Mexican food around the world?
We are extremely proud of who we are and where we come from. We are also proud of our culture. We have an identity, and it is top quality. Oaxaca is not a cheap destination. Chiapas and Yucatán are not exotic, but we are not folkloric either. The most important thing about it is that we have a core identity that is top quality, and with everything becoming smaller with globalization, it is important to know that there are undiscovered locations in Mexico.

In what ways will COVID-19 affect the hospitality industry?
We are using technology to keep in touch with our friends, families, and clients. One can preserve their traditions and identity, but there is no way they can stay separate from technology in today's world. We are still preserving our roots, tastes, and flavors. Technology is something I use, but people offer a special charm.