An evening at Hacienda Sisal restaurant next to The Royal Sands in the Hotel Zone is a must if you want to dine on Mexican cuisine during your Cancun vacation. Hacienda Sisal is one of Cancun’s top Mexican restaurants and Chef Oscar Ortega is the man behind the traditional dishes on the menu. He tells us about his inspiration.
Originally from Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos, Oscar’s passion for preparing Mexican cuisine began when he was a child. “I have an aunt from Veracruz who always cooked Christmas dinner in my grandparents’ house when I was little,” he says. “I liked to help her, she was a really good cook and she taught me the secret of flavorings and the need to go back to our roots and use time-honored recipes passed down through the generations. I got my first job in a restaurant when I was 17 and still in Senior High School and I never looked back.
“I combined work with studying for a degree in Gastronomy and Restaurant Management at the UNILA University in Cuernavaca,” Oscar explains. “With my wages I was able to put myself through college and then take specialist courses at the Corbuse Gastronomic Institute in Mexican Cuisine, Cooking with Chocolate and Molecular Cuisine.
“I worked in Los Cabos for two years in hotels and a contemporary Mexican restaurant. I then returned to Cuernavaca with the idea of starting my own business but it didn’t happen and I decided to come to Cancun. I was working at a hotel in the Riviera Maya when I met Enrique Garcia, the former Royal Resorts Executive Chef. He convinced me to interview and I was hired to work in La Veranda restaurant at The Royal Sands.
“One of my college teachers was Juancho Sanchez, now one of Mexico’s top chefs, and I also worked with him in Cuernavaca. He invited me to join his team for the opening of a new restaurant in Polanco, Mexico City. In terms of professional development it was an amazing opportunity for a young chef and I was there for eight months before returning to Cancun. By that time I had fallen in love with the beaches of the Mexican Caribbean and decided that I wanted to make my home here.
“In December 2016, our Executive Sous Chef Juan Manuel Orozco invited me to return to Royal Resorts as the Chef at Hacienda Sisal and I jumped at the chance. My first love is Mexican cuisine and I felt as though I was coming home.
“My first project when I started at Hacienda Sisal was to change the dinner menu; we kept some of the favorites but added many new dishes from different parts of the country. The lunch menu came next and I am always introducing new dishes, sometimes as chef’s specials. We received great feedback about the menu, which is immensely satisfying. I often get called out by diners wanting to congratulate me. I recall one couple on a gourmet tour of Cancun, they told me that they couldn’t believe that someone so young could produce the delicious flavors and recipes that they remembered their grandmothers preparing when they were children. It feels really special and is a tremendous honor. I work hard every day, looking for new ways to improve and I want my team to feel as passionate as I do about our cuisine and dishes. I have nine staff working with me, five of who are women. It is the first time I have worked with so many women in the kitchen and they are fantastic, very hard working and conscientious with great attention to detail. I think we have a good team.
“I try to remember the recipes of my aunt and grandmother and try to incorporate their flavors and seasoning into my dishes,” Oscar explains, “I am from a village near Cuernavaca and I remember the smell and taste of tender corn cobs that are freshly harvested, fruit that you gather from the orchard and vegetables that still have the dew on them when you cut them. That’s what we should strive for.
“Mexican cuisine is one of the richest and most complex cuisines in the world and it didn’t surprise me when UNESCO included it on the World Heritage list for its sheer diversity,” Oscar says. “It comes from the days of our ancestors and has evolved incorporating new flavors and spices brought by settlers from Europe and the Middle East. Wherever you go in Mexico there are different native fruits, vegetables and herbs to try, for example, here in the Yucatan, there are tropical fruit I had never seen before like the huaya and nance. I like to experiment with them.
“What are my favorite dishes? Well the humble taco can actually be a masterpiece; you can be really inventive with the fillings and salsas and they will all be delicious. And I love cooking with pork, every joint tastes different and look at all the ways in which you can prepare it, everything from tacos al pastor to the Yucatan classic Cochinita Pibil, tender pork leg or suckling pig marinated in achiote and Seville orange juice and slow cooked in a pit. I recently did a special of duck carnitas, which proved very popular; grilled octopus, fish tacos and of course our most famous Independence dish, Chiles en Nogada from Puebla are others.
“When I was growing up there was a certain stigma attached to food preparation in Mexico. I’m happy to say that this is no longer the case, there is a lot more appreciation of how complex our traditional recipes are, the time-consuming techniques used and the ceremony and artistry that goes into their preparation. There is always something to learn.
“We Mexicans are a happy people and we transmit this to everything we do, including our cuisine,” Oscar adds. “We have a vast selection of fruit and vegetables to work with from temperate and tropical climes, seafood, poultry, beef, pork and lamb, cheeses, herbs and spices, all produced here. We have a sense of mischief, always trying things and experimenting with flavor combinations. Look at all the different varieties of mole sauces that exist; they are the result of mixing different spices, chili, chocolate and other ingredients and seeing what tasted the best. Our cuisine is not as formal as French cuisine, you can let your imagination run free. I am always smiling and joking in the kitchen and constantly trying new dishes, giving them to my team to sample, asking their opinion on the seasoning and whether they think there is anything missing.
“Just like our Oscar-winning film directors, a number of Mexican chefs now have their place on the world stage and are taking our cuisine to new heights.They include Patricia Quintana, Marta Chapa, Enrique Olvera, Aquiles Chavez and Benito Molina, among others,” explains Oscar. “I particularly admire Enrique Olvera, he has gone back to our roots and his dishes have the ancestral flavors I remember from childhood visits to see relatives in a Guerrero community where everything was cooked over a wood fire. Olvera sources all his ingredients locally and this is good for farmers, artisanal producers and for the rural economy. He makes his own tortillas from blue corn and his own mole spice mixes. He is passionate about our cuisine and Mexico.
“Here in Hacienda Sisal we make our own sauces and by popular request, we are now producing two of them for sale in The Royal Market. If you want to try some of my dishes at Hacienda Sisal, they include Chicharron de Res, Tortilla Soup, Marquesa-style Quesadilla, Pork Steak with Guajillo and Tamarind Sauce and Pescado a la Talla with rice. For dessert, don’t miss the Crème Brûlée with Mexican chocolate or the deconstructed Tres Leches Cake.
“Where do I find inspiration?” muses Oscar, “I find it in our flavors and also in the spectacular landscapes of Mexico. For example, here in the Mexican Caribbean, just look at the shades of blue and turquoise in the sea and when in central Mexico, the beauty of our mountains takes your breath away. I love visiting villages wherever I go, meeting the inhabitants and getting them to talk about the olden days. You learn so much and they will share family recipes with that special touch of flavor. It’s my passion and I put it into everything I do.
“We have many more projects here in Hacienda Sisal, for example we would like to start wine tasting dinners to showcase Mexican wines, tequilas and mezcals. The menus will continue to change, we’ll have more chef’s specials and we are making different artisanal ice creams with tropical fruit in season, spices and other ingredients. We also have our Pozole Thursday and a very popular Sunday Brunch buffet, both showcasing popular Mexican dishes.
“Do I have a message for our guests?” says Oscar, “Yes, I hope that they visit Hacienda Sisal and try our cuisine. To visitors who might think that Mexican cuisine is too spicy for them, I would tell them that it isn’t and that they should try it. There are many dishes that have smooth, sophisticated sauces that aren’t hot at all. Our chili sauces are served on the side and they can add as little or as much of them as they wish. We want them to leave Hacienda Sisal after having had an excellent meal and for them to return, over and over again.”
Book your table at Hacienda Sisal In the mood for Mexican cuisine now? Book your table at Hacienda Sisal, one of Cancun’s top Mexican restaurants and a TripAdvisor Hall of Fame member. Open daily for lunch and dinner 2 p.m. – 11 p.m. Sunday Brunch from 8 a.m., Pozole Thursday for lunch and dinner.
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