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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A chat with Micaela Mar y Leña’s well-traveled chef

Chef Vidal Elias tells us about himself, as well as the story of the 19th century woman the restaurant was named for

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our top headlines will appear in your inbox each Monday and Thursday.
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Merida, Yucatan — On the Restaurant Row emerging on Calle 47, one newcomer has stood out.

Micaela Mar y Leña, which occupies a previously nondescript corner at the end of the row, is like an exclamation point at the end of a long sentence.

It possibly has the most spacious single-restaurant dining rooms on the block, or close to it. Several whimsically designed spaces and a very cool cocktail bar welcome visitors. And it has gotten consistently enthusiastic raves on social media since opening last fall.

Micaela does what most restaurants have resisted for decades: Bring a seafood menu to the Centro. It also has steak and chicken, but true to its name (which translates literally into “sea and firewood”) it makes the most of its wood-fired oven. Courses are preceded by “Vuelve a la Vida” (“Come Back to Life”), a hot cup of seafood broth seasoned with chipotle and herbs.

The chef and co-owner, Vidal Elias Murillo, took time to chat.

Tell us about yourself. You had a restaurant in Tabasco. Is that where you are from originally?

Well, yes and no, I was born in Mexico City, but I grew up in Comalcalco, Tabasco (my mom’s family is from there, and my father is from Progreso Yucatan), but I haven’t lived more than five years in one place, so you can say that I’m a little bit from everywhere.

You’ve worked at other restaurants in Merida, and also Madrid and Monaco. Tell us about that.

Well, as I told you I have been a little bit of a nomad, I love knowing new places, new cultures, and new people, it challenges me! And I’ve always enjoy challenges!

I first studied in the Culinary Institute of Mexico, and when I finished I worked with Ira Lee (a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef) for a year. He taught me all the fundamentals. Then I earned a scholarship to go to Monaco in 2005 for a whole year and work in several of the top restaurants and hotels there. I was able to work with chefs like Joel Garault (1 Michelin star and best chef in France 2007), Alain Ducasse (3 Michelin stars) and study in the Lycée Hotelier de Monte Carlo.

When I finished the year I wanted to complete my education, so I decided to study Service and Protocol, so I earned another scholarship to study in Madrid and work with Mariano Castellanos (president of the Spanish Maitre D Asociation (AMyCE) for another year. By the way, I was the first non-Spanish-born student to have received this scholarship.

After this I wanted to learn more about the way restaurants work in Europe, so I traveled for a year working in any restaurant that gave me a chance, learning and traveling as much as possible.

I understand that in 2016, at the age of 33, you were named executive chef at La Fisheria in Houston, Texas. What was that like? Were you there during Hurricane Harvey?

When I came back to Mexico, I worked my way up until I open my own restaurant in Tabasco (a little trattoria for 30 people) and a food truck. After two years a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to be the executive chef of La Fisheria in Houston, and being a nomad of course I said yes!

I sold my restaurant and my food truck and went to the States for two beautiful years.

It was very different from Europe, much more standardized, more “franchised,” but they still gave me the opportunity to put my stamp in the kitchen and create my own menu, so I loved it! The best of two worlds, creativity and standards!

Unfortunately, the restaurant flooded during the hurricane and closed for almost a year, so I returned to Mexico (but I’m still advising La Fisheria and I go every three months in order to preserve what we did there).

“In Micaela everything is homemade, from the bread, to the pickles, to the ice cream, to the hot sauce we use for our oysters.”

Chef Vidal Eilas, Micaela

How did you like living in Texas? Was it a good experience?

I LOVED IT!!! I lived in The Woodlands community, not in Houston, and it was wonderful. I have family there and it was a magnificent place to raise my kids so I loved it! And Texas embraced me a lot! Just after two weeks being there I was already on TV and in the Houston Chronicle, so yes, I loved it!

So what brought you to Merida and Micaela?

First thing, with the hurricane, I had to come back to Mexico because the restaurant was closed and we didn’t know when it was going to open again.

Second, my wife and kids are from Merida, where I lived from 2008 to 2013.

When my partner and I were looking for a place in Mexico to open Micaela, Merida came naturally to us (my partner worked 11 years as GM of a well-known restaurant group in Merida) so we both knew the city and knew the customers and the growth that the city has experienced the last 10 years, so we decided to come back.

Talk to us about the farm where you grew up and how it prepared you to be a chef.

I just love it! It’s a cacao plantation, but generally in Tabasco every plantation is not a monoculture, normally it’s called traspatio (meaning backyard), and what that means is that you plant everything that can fit in your backyard.

We have mango, zapote, avocado, star fruit, guava, breadfruit, chicozapote, banana, plantain, marañon, caimito, every citrus you can think of, black pepper, allspice (in Mexico we actually call it Pimienta de Tabasco), of course chiles, cinnamon, vanilla, herbs, etc. We have our own chickens, pigs, cows and of course with the cacao plantation we make our own chocolate. So, whenever I think of breakfast on the farm, it is two beautiful eggs from my chickens, fried plantains from the backyard and chocolate milk from our chocolate and our cows, so you can see why it had so much influence on me becoming a chef, and how much it influenced my approach to food!

I make everything from scratch. In Micaela everything is homemade, from the bread, to the pickles, to the ice cream, to the hot sauce we use for our oysters. And of course the chocolate we use in the cacao dessert is the one from my family. I love to work with the seasons, because first of all the ingredients are at their best, and second that’s the way I used to have fruits as a kid.

Why did you focus on fish, octopus and shellfish?

Because living on the coast as a kid, every family meal had seafood, and when I worked in Monaco, the restaurant I spent most of the time was The Vistamar (a seafood-focus restaurant) so I learned a lot. It added to the usual flavors of my childhood, that’s why I focus mainly on seafood but, I love cooking in general, and duck is one of my favorite ingredients, so I had to have it on my menu.

I think people should be happy in what they do, whatever it is! And seafood in general makes me happy, and it’s one of my many passions in the kitchen.

You also do a lot with smoke. What led you to that decision?

That is Micaela’s story!

Then who is Micaela?

Micaela is a lady born in Mexico in the 1840s. Her father was a former slave who escaped from Whitney Plantation in New Orleans and arrived at a small town in the Veracruz coast, got married and had nine children (the youngest was Micaela). When she was 13 years old her father died and her mother tried to married her off to an older man (as it used to be). She didn’t want to marry him, so she escaped and arrived in a small town in southern Mexico, where she became a nanny and cook for a wealthy family. When she was older, the smallest daughter of this family taught Micaela how to write! We found her diary in an antique store in Mexico City, and fell in love with her story and her food, so I tried to make a humble homage to her with my cooking.

So that’s why I use a lot of wood fire and smoke (that’s how she cooked, and in her diary she thinks of wood as another ingredient). Also, this is the main reason the food is served family style.

What’s the most popular dish in Micaela? And is there a dish you think people today are overlooking, but would like if they gave it a chance?

Octopus by far is the most popular dish! And with the part of overlooking are the raw bar. The American public is more open to this, but Mexicans in general prefer their oysters cooked.

Micaela Mar y Leña is on Calle 47 and 52, Merida, Centro. Visit facebook.com/Micaelamarylena and call
999-518-1702 to reserve a table. Menus are printed separately in both Spanish and English.

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