The daughter of a formerly enslaved man inspired one of Mérida’s most popular restaurants

Micaela Mar y Leña owes its name to a fascinating but obscure woman whose story was nearly lost

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Lee Steele
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 best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
Micaela Mar y Lena in Merida, Yucatan.

Micaela Mar y Leña, which this fall will celebrate five years on a previously nondescript corner in Mérida’s historic center, is not named for a famous woman or a powerful figure in history.

The daughter of an escaped slave and his Mexican wife, Micaela was a 19th-century woman whom Chef Vidal Elias has plucked from obscurity. He explains in an interview we’ve condensed from a longer conversation we published in 2019.

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, Yucatán), but I haven’t lived more than five years in one place, so you can say that I’m a little bit from everywhere.

The bar at Micaela welcomes guests. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

I first studied at 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 and Alain Ducasse and study at the Lycée Hotelier de Monte Carlo.

I earned another scholarship to study in Madrid … 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.

Smoke is a key component in Chef Vidal Elias’s kitchen at Micaela Mar y Lena in Merida, Yucatán.

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, a plantation is normally called a traspatio (backyard), and what that means is that you plant everything that can fit in your backyard.

Grilled Pulpo a la Leña is served with a knife at Micaela in Mérida. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

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, and 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!

Smoke is a key component in Chef Vidal Elias’s kitchen at Micaela Mar y Lena in Mérida, Yucatan. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

Why did you focus on fish, octopus, and shellfish?

I think people should be happy with 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 on 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 marry 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.

The real Micaela was a former slave’s daughter. Photo: Courtesy

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, Calle 47 and 52, Mérida Centro;

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