There’s no shortage of stories about how dangerous Mexico has become. Cartel killings, kidnappings and other forms of anarchy are ripping the ENTIRE country apart.
Well… not all of it.
As part of my ongoing Book Tour for A FORK ON THE ROAD: 400 CITIES 1 STOMACH, I traveled to Playa del Carmen [40 minutes south of crazy Cancun] to host TASTE of PLAYA on Nov 21, a food festival celebrating Mayan and Mexican recipes and culture. Earlier in the week, I did a cooking demo and book signing at the luxurious Iberostar Gran Paraiso Resort.
The turnout was great, and the recipes for ceviche and guacamole I made with Chef Juan Carlos and Chef Olivia were ridiculously good. You can see that video in a previous post.
I’d been looking forward to the Mexican trip for a while, especially after a few “freezing” weeks here in Los Angeles where temperatures dipped into the 60’s! By then I was ready for some sunshine and guacamole. But I wasn’t ready for the reaction from family and friends to my trip.
“You’ll be killed,” said my mother, acclaimed travel writer Angela Rocco DeCarlo. “They’ll kill you then kidnap you.”
Hyperbolic caution from my mom was not unexpected, but what did surprise were similar admonitions coming from friends and associates. Everyone believed I was crazy to head down into ‘the war zone’. I explained that I was going to the Mayan Riviera, but they didn’t understand.
True, border towns in Mexico are currently very dangerous, but Mexico is a HUGE country. Its important to understand that Juarez and Tijuana are a thousands of miles from the Yucatan. As Jordi Sole, Operations Manager of Iberostar Resorts in Mexico explained, “When a person gets shot in Detroit, the news does not scream, MURDER in AMERICA.” But because Mexico does most of its national tourism marketing as “Mexico” rather than as distinct tourist regions [West Coast, Central, Yucatan] most Americans don’t discriminate between Cancun and TJ and wrongly assume that the entire country is a no-fly zone. But the truth is, there is a world of difference. Which is one of the main reasons TASTE of PLAYA was born.
Michele Kinnon and a staff of local ex-Pats worked 12 months to stage ToP #2, filling Founders Square in downtown Playa del Carmen with food, music and happy people.
The event drew over 5,000 people, featured 40 restaurants and bars and several live cooking demos. In the days leading up to the Festival, our hosts squired us all over town, all night long, walking up and down 5th Avenue, visiting shops and restaurants and enduring the endless THUMPING of the house music in the club district. Everyone we met was hospitable and nice. The food was excellent, and the locals could not be happier to have us around. Tourism is the main industry in this part of Mexico. Because of that, as well as the fact the President has a home in the area, the town prides itself on its safety. Police regularly cruise the streets and highways, making sure to be seen. They generally preside over a peaceful resort town. One Tourist note: JEEP DRIVERS BEWARE. Though the town is safe, its still Mexico, which means the odds of a tourist driving a Jeep being pulled over for… something are very high. When that happens – and it will – a civilized and respectful 20-30 Pesos should do the job.
I learned that trick, along with where to find the best margaritas downtown – Bad Boys, where JJ and his band of gringos rock the beach every Wednesday and Saturday night, from the locals. By the time the Festival rolled around on Sunday, I felt like one myself.
My main duty as celeb host of the Festival was to sign books, raffle off a $8000 all inclusive week long resort stay from Yucatan Holidays, [http://www.yucatan-holidays.com/] and host three cooking demos with local chefs, preparing regional dishes that took advantage of all the fresh, savory seafood available in this comfortable town off the coast of the Caribbean Sea. Playa del Carmen sits on the Caribbean coast, so most of their signature dishes are filled with fresh mariscos, and spiced with tangy lime juice, onions and peppers.
The first demo featured Chef Hector Escobedo from Riviera Maya Chef Association and his delicious ceviche. Using local fish and shrimp from the West Cost of Mexico, he whipped up three different takes on the Mexican seafood salad stalwart.
The stage was packed with foodies – and people taking a break from circling the well placed food tables – all watching Chef XXX turn lime juice fish, cilantro, tomatoes, onions and spices into three different light, zesty salads. All the chefs in the area seem to share a great sense of fun and frivolity, traits they happily shared with the throngs crowded around us on the stage.
Later, Chef John Gray from John Gray’s Place did up an incredible Lobster Guacamole… that he swears he just improvised the night before the festival. Regardless, after the reaction from the crowd, expect it to become a staple of his menu.
Chef Pablo Espinosa from The Little Mexican Cooking School in Porto Morelos put together a very fresh and flavorful Tuna salad, using a juicy mix of local fruits, avocado and perfectly seared tuna. The combination of the soft, sweet avocado and the buttery tuna and fruit was delicious in the warm, humid evening air.
To wrap up the night, Chef Pepe Barrientos from Wicki’s Restaurant and Beach Club made his seemingly famous Beef Tartare. It must have been famous, because at the end of the prep, all the other chefs from the event were circling the demo stage to grab a taste of the raw meat delight.
Chef Pepe has cooked all over the world, and was as hilarious as he is talented. Starting with a slab of USDA Choice filet migon, he chopped and diced and mixed in a dazzling array of flavors to end the Taste of Playa with a big BANG!
As the Nine O’Clock curtain fell, the revelers refused to leave. They milled around, spent their remaining tickets for desserts like cookies or chocolate infused with chili, and just hung out with their neighbors. The night was dark, the streets were full and and was right in my stomach.
Taste was a big, Latin Party… see for yourself!
Taste of Playa #3 is currently being planned for November 2011. You can keep up with the events in Playa del Carmen by tuning into their Facebook page here:
All photos in this post courtesy of Taste of Playa/ and photograper: Rafael Lizarraga