The inspiring story of Yerba Santa and its head chef, Nidia Sánchez

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
Chef Nidia Sánchez blends the techniques she learned from her mother in Chiapas with a sophisticated flare to create truly unique dishes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Originally from the tiny community of Copainalá in Chiapas, Chef Nidia Sánchez is today head of one of Mérida’s most luxurious restaurants, Yerba Santa. 

Chef Nidia’s journey began when she was just a little girl, helping her mother cook traditional food in their humble kitchen.

Chef Sánchez takes pride in Yerba Santa’s busy kitchen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“My mother is the inspiration for everything I do. She was such an amazing cook, but that was not the end of it. She even made her own cookware from clay by hand that she would collect and then bake herself,” Chef Sánchez says with a nostalgic smile.

After completing her culinary studies in Tuxtla Gutierez, Chef Sánchez worked and traveled far afield within Mexico, slowly making a stellar reputation for herself. 

Chef Sánchez at work in Yerba Santa’s kitchen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

While working in Mexico City, she was offered to partner with a group of well-established restauranteurs to develop their most ambitious project yet.

Yerba Santa Mérida, which follows another Yerba Santa in Mexico City, is in the heart of Paseo de Montejo, in one of Mérida’s most iconic mansions, El Minaret. 

Built in 1904, El Minaret’s stunning French-inspired architecture has long been an important landmark in Mérida and one of its most photographed landmarks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But despite the luxury of its architecture and furnishing, Chef Sánchez harkens back to the home cooking of her childhood — albeit in a more sophisticated manner today.

“We could not wish for a better home for Yerba Santa, but luxury can get you so far. At the end of the day, it is all about the food,” says Chef Sánchez.

One of the restaurant’s signature dishes, El Atarderdecer, or “sunset,” is a delicious and refreshing take on ceviche, prepared with local ingredients and camaron seco from Chiapas. 

El Atardecer, or “sunset,” is one of Yerba Santa’s most popular dishes and pairs especially well with a light artisanal brew. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“The atardercer came to be before the restaurant even opened when my restaurant partners and I observed the colors of Mérida’s sunset. I felt a creative rush and knew I wanted to create a dish channeling this beauty on a plate,” says Chef Sánchez. 

When asked about the restaurant’s name, Chef Sánchez tells the tale of her mother, who cultivated the edible yerba santa in her backyard, which quickly grew out of control. After deciding to cut it back, the aromatic “holy weed” grew back stronger than ever.

The yerba santa grows wild and is a bright green color. Like Yucatán’s chaya, it is used for both cooking as well as traditional medicine. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Chef Sánchez’s mother said that from now on, they would no longer cut back the yerba santa, as you had to respect anything that, when cut down, grew back even stronger.

“During the unpleasantness of 2020, I think we all felt a little defeated, but my mother and that yerba santa gave me the strength to push on and follow my dreams. That is why I chose this name, to honor my mother, her resilience, and everything she taught me.”

Yerba Santa is at the Paseo de Montejo’s Minaret mansion, between calles 35 and 37, closed Mondays.

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