Restaurare (Tulum’s vegan restaurant serving traditional Mexican dishes) was a food highlight for me during my time in Mexico, but owner Robbie Terrazas stopped me as I talked about the local restaurant scene. ‘You know, maybe it’s just a language thing between Spanish and English, but here we always talk about the food, not the restaurants.” And that is one of the reasons that his restaurant is so great. Wooden tables are tucked away in a jungle of chit palms. Hanging lanterns provide the lighting and the air is filled with the smoke from copal, a tree resin long used by the Maya for its cleansing properties. Restaurare’s setting feels mysterious, other-worldy, but the food is entirely grounded in Tulum — plant-based, organic and local produce. In this interview I talk to Robbie about creating a traditional Mexican menu without meat, and Tulum, the town where people live from love.
Taste Transfixed: What are your food memories from childhood?
Robbie Terrazas: I grew up between Tijuana and San Diego. Back then the border was more laid back, my mom could forget my visa and we could still cross. My mom is more gourmet, more health oriented. That conventional mom health with less fat but still a lot of carbs. My grandma would make old school things, like sun drying her own chiles and using a molcajete. So I liked my mom’s food, but my grandmother’s food was authentic Mexican and full of flavour, and of course with more fats, so I really loved it. They always made mole for my birthday. My grandmother would do it three weeks in advance to start sun drying the chile, so it was really special. It’s not really common for a kid to like mole, but I always loved it. I was pretty Mexican actually when I was a kid.
“My friends started watching these videos about where food came from, before that I would think about good food in terms of flavours and taste, but never about the quality of life behind everything.”
TT: When did you become interested in vegetarian cuisine?
RT: I come from the north of Mexico which is pretty meat based. The way you describe something you ate is always ‘chicken with something’ or ‘beef with something.’ So I never imagined that I would become vegetarian. I moved to London when I was 18 and it was so expensive. I was trying to save every peso that I had and on Sundays there was a free Hari Krishna buffet. I enjoyed the food, but I was surprised that it didn’t have meat. Now I would tease somebody that was surprised if a dish didn’t have meat, but twelve years ago I was that person. I didn’t become vegetarian, but I started incorporating more vegetables in my diet. I came back to Mexico and I realised that when I didn’t eat meat I had more energy. My friends started watching these videos about where food came from, before that I would think about good food in terms of flavours and taste, but never about the quality of life behind everything. My friend sent me a video about animal cruelty, ‘If Slaughterhouses Had Glass Walls.’ I saw it and I cried. I stopped smoking at that time, and I thought if I could stop smoking, I could cut out animal products too. And I felt great.
TT: Mexican food is traditionally very meat based, how do you transform your menu?
RT: Well, everything that gives the taste in the Mexican dishes is the chile! The difficulty is how to make the texture. We want to do Pancita. The original dish is called Menudo, it’s a type of soup and it has the tummy of the cow in it. I used to love it, but now I couldn’t eat a cow’s stomach. We’ve tried oyster mushrooms and they kind of do it, but then we’ve been using oyster mushrooms for everything lately so there must be something else. In the states you can find seitan, tempeh, all these things which make it easier, but personally I like to not use as much processed food because if you do it from scratch it adds a lot of flavour. People are always asking which vegan cookbooks to buy, but I always say just buy any cookbook and use all the spices and the flavours, but instead of using meat use vegetables. Just google ‘vegetable substitution for…’ and there’s a lot out there.
“Everything with food is how you season it… focus on the spices and the food will taste great.”
The thing that I knew I would miss the most, since I’m from the coast of Mexico, was seafood when I was hungover. If you’re hungover, you go for fresh seafood the next day. So I came up with oyster mushroom ceviche. It totally makes sense, and that’s because of the texture. In ceviche, when you let the fresh fish marinate in lime, it cooks. The coriander, the tomato, and the onion adds all the taste. We add the grilled oyster mushroom with the traditional way of adding the lime, and it totally tastes the same.
Everything with food is how you season it. The only difference between Italian food and Mexican food is the spices, that’s how it tastes so different, the veal there and the veal here. It’s the same animal, but here it’s made in tacos with a spicy flavour, and Italians are going to use more rosemary, but if you focus on the spices than the food will taste great.
“Chile is like salt, it raises the flavours, it makes the magic happen.”
TT: What is an ingredient that you love using and why?
RT: Ohhh, chile. [Laughs] I dunno, you get so addicted to it. I really love the habanero chile from here, the way it hits you, it’s sort of like wasabi. In Restaurare I have to cook for international taste buds so I lower the amount of chile I would normally use, but its so hard to cook without chile. We have a waitress in the restaurant that’s allergic to capsicum, its a particle in chile, so she can’t taste any of the food. I have to make it specially for her because I realised that all of the dishes, every dressing, everything, like even if we can give it to European children and its not hot at all — it still has a little bit of chile. Because chile is like salt, it raises the flavours, it makes the magic happen.
TT: Why did you choose Tulum, and what is special about this place?
RT: It wasn’t me who chose it, Tulum chose me. The same way that I never thought I would become vegan, I never thought I would have a restaurant in Tulum. I used to work in advertising and I really loved my team, but the projects we were working with, they would suck. All of our creative energies spent making this product look like something that you really need to live when it’s not. I felt so empty, I just couldn’t believe that this was my life, that I studied in college for this. But then a friend told me about this meditation retreat, and after that, I was on my way home and I saw myself riding a bike and I knew it was Tulum.
So I came here with my previous job, working in design it was easy to work abroad in the beginning. When I first got here I ended up in a party and I met the landlords of the place I now have. In the beginning they didn’t charge me rent, Tulum really welcomed me. I came and the magic happened and now I don’t have to work in advertising anymore.
“[People in Tulum] are doing what they want and not putting too much weight into things that society would say, like oh you didn’t study that, or what are you going to live from, or what do you mean there’s no meat? All of those pressures come from fear, but people here live from love.”
In Tulum I love the community, and of course the ocean, and the land. Here you ride your bike for ten minutes or your car for another ten minutes and you’re by yourself in a cenote or a virgin beach. For me that’s just a day off, for some people they just get that once a year or once in their lifetime. I really like the people that are living here. They are doing what they want and really believing in it, not putting too much weight into things that society would say, like oh you didn’t study that, or what are you going to live from, or what do you mean there’s no meat? All of those pressures, they come from fear, but people here live from love and I really like to be surrounded by those crazy hippies.
“Every ingredient comes from a someone who specialises in it. You’re eating clean, and what you’re eating comes from a really good vibration, and you’re helping people do what they’re passionate in doing.”
TT: You use a lot of local ingredients, can you tell me something about the source?
RT: It would be so much more complicated to have the magic that happens in Restaurare happen somewhere else. Before we opened the restaurant we started selling tamales and vegan burgers at local markets. We became friends with the guys that produce our sprouts and the guy that produces our greens, and then they introduced us to their friends who were growing the oyster mushrooms, and the friends who were growing organic pumpkins. Little by little we became a part of the organic community. And I really love that I know who grows every ingredient on the menu, that I know chaya is from Maria and this pumpkin is from Julian. People ask me at the restaurant why it tastes so good and I say it’s because a friend grows it for us, organically, you can really taste the love. Every ingredient comes from a someone who specialises in it. Of course it’s more expensive, but it’s worth it. You’re eating clean, and what you’re eating comes from a really good vibration, and you’re helping people do what they’re passionate in doing.
TT: Can you talk to me about creativity and self-expression in food?
RT: Well, I’m not really a chef, and I would say I don’t know how to cook properly. But I’m lucky enough to work with people that have that background. They know how to use the cuchillo, the knife, as a pro, and we work as a team. I think creativity comes from using and matching things that are already there. I mean it’s 2016, nobody really creates something out of the blue.
“Creativity comes from creating, it is not something that only a genius can do. It doesn’t matter if its right or wrong, better to be wrong than to be boring.”
I like taking a recipe that’s traditional Mexican, whether its for a birthday or a hangover or that my grandma used to cook for me, but then adapting it. Like how can we do it vegan. Then how can we do it more conscious, with fair trade, with local things.
Creativity comes from creating, if you just don’t stop you will be creative in every step that you do. Even just serving a glass of water, you can put a slice of lime or a piece of ginger, or some type of flower that you have growing around you. Creativity is not something that only a genius can do. It doesn’t matter if its right or wrong, better to be wrong than to be boring.
TT: What does it mean to push the boundaries in food?
RT: I’ve started getting more interested in the raw food movement. Restaurare is based in authentic Mexican cuisine so it doesn’t make sense to make it raw, but in my home and in my lifestyle I’m adding more raw stuff and more nutrients. I’m lucky enough that they hire me as a private chef for a lot of yoga and meditation retreats. They allow me to play with food. I tell them I’m going to do an experiment and make a mole out of raw everything. That’s pushing boundaries for me, trying to adapt Mexican cuisine to a more nutrient dense thing, keep it more alkaline, more easy to digest and all of that. I think if you feed your body properly you’ll be able to play more, you’ll be dancing until you’re older.
“If you feed your body properly you’ll be able to play more, you’ll be dancing until you’re older.”
TT: Anything else you’d like to talk about?
RT: In order to set an example, you can’t be judging others. You can’t tell people what not to do, but you can show them how to do things differently and they’ll hear you a bit more. Whenever I teach a recipe and say ‘I used oyster mushrooms but if you really want to you could do it with turkey,’ they will stick to the oyster mushrooms. If you start judging people they will be more closed.
It makes me sad when I see TV commercials saying that cereal is the best thing for your children, and you’re like no, that’s just wheat and sugar. There should be laws around processed food, because it’s just toxic. And incentives to make healthy snacks that are not boring. If you put an apple through a dehydrator and it becomes a fruit roll, that’s going to be way more interesting to the kids. Maybe we should be selling more dehydrators instead of the packaged fruit roll that doesn’t have any nutrients.
“In order to set an example, you can’t be judging others. You can show them how to do things differently and they’ll hear you a bit more.”
Right now it’s easier to buy coca cola and chips than to buy apples and almonds. You can’t judge people for buying it when its cheaper, its more available, the TV says its super good. I wish information was more available so people were not blindfolded. It would be my dream to have it more accessible to buy healthy food, real food.