Food and Wine From the Heart
Posted: Feb 5, 2007 10:59am ET
John Gray is one of my favorite chefs, and you have probably never heard of him. I originally met him while he was working at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun, Mexico, as the head chef, in the early 1990s. I remember the first time I tasted his food at a dinner with friends and it blew me away. It was a combination of classic French techniques and exciting Mexican flavors with an array of wild ingredients, from smoked chiles to local funky mushrooms. We talked about food, wine and life the rest of the night, and found we had a lot in common, being two guys from Southern California.
After living and working as a chef in New York for a short while, the 40-year-old found that he didn’t like the big-city life. He and his Mexican wife, Dora, ended up in a small fishing village called Puerto Morelos, about a 40-minute drive out of Cancun, where he began his own restaurant, John Gray’s Kitchen. He now has a second John Gray’s Kitchen in Playa del Carmen.
I thought it was a bit crazy to forsake the glamour and fame of a big city for the outback of Mexico. It was sort of like David Beckham deciding to play soccer for the local club in Cancun instead of the Los Angeles Galaxy. This might be an overstatement but you get the idea ...
John’s cooking is as good as ever: scallops on a bed of mash with Brussels sprouts in a coconut curry broth; roasted chicken breasts topped with a cilantro pistachio pesto; roasted duck breast in a chipotle chili, honey and tequila sauce; grilled wahoo chop on spinach, garnished with a local smoked beef sausage called longaniza; and grilled beef rib eyes rubbed with smoked paprika, toasted garlic and balsamic reduction. All of it is absolutely delicious and keeps your taste buds perked to the maximum. I ate John's food over the weekend with some hearty Mexican wine.
His business is picking up. The whole beach area from Cancun to Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula seems to be on fire at the moment. Sure, Cancun seems like a wannabe Miami, and I find a large part of it to be cheesy, but the area is quickly going upscale with Fairmont, Rosewood, the Mandarin Oriental, Aman and others building resorts, spas and fractional ownership projects on the Mayan Riviera. John seems to be in the right place at the right time.
But he doesn’t care. “I am just happy here,” he said. “I am just making the food that I like and living with my family and friends where I want to be.” I thought to myself yesterday when I was drinking a Tecate beer with him on the beach and eating some grilled prawns, how different he is compared to many of the jet-set superstar chefs that seem to be everywhere imaginable but in their kitchen. He’s almost cooking for himself, in the same way that some painters or writers create mostly for themselves.
Whatever the reason, John cooks from the heart. It’s passion that makes great food, as well as great wine for that matter, and not always fame and fortune ...