At the end of 2014 and I happened to be in Mexico. Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, to be exact. At one of the best adult-only hotels on the island that offer an all-inclusive plan. All of the food has been wonderful so far. It is Mexico and it has a twist of Mexico in all of its dishes, but also a twist of the chef behind the dishes because el chef has some great global experience under his belt. by Karena Wu
Chef Jose Ramon Diaz is the Executive Chef at Isla Mujeres Palace (IMP) with 20 years of experience. Armando Cauich is his sous chef with 14 years of experience. I sat with both chefs on New Year’s Eve to find out a little about the life of an all-inclusive hotel chef.
This is a smaller scale resort with 62 rooms, 2 per room. There are 14 cooks in total working 8 hour shifts, 6 days a week in a facility that offers 24-hour dining. Continental breakfast, breakfast and lunch buffets, dinner service, snack service and 24-hour room service. In the high season (which is this last week of December) they can work up 12 hours. That’s a lot of eating! All day!
Being that we are in Mexico, there is Mexican on the menu. Duh. But for the international clientele at this high end resort, there are international dishes that must be offered in order to please everyone’s palate, or at least the large majority. Isla Mujeres Palace is part of a very large company in Mexico that owns and operates 7 resorts (9 in 2016). They have standards that must be maintained. And they must stay up to date with the ‘fashionable’ diet of the masses. For example, I was pleasantly surprised to find gluten-free bread the very first morning I arrived. Gluten free in Mexico?!? I was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up with Baja style cooking but never did I dream of seeing gluten free options in a Mexican restaurant, let alone on a tiny island in Mexico!
This is what I mean by the large corporation standard. Gluten free and sugar free are their standards. They are now going to offer vegetarian only dishes and all will be marked on the menu (just like in the states). International dishes are decided upon by Executive chef Jose Ramon who offers the creative side, the corporate chef and the manager. When Chef Jose Ramon started, the resort offered only Mexican and Italian. Because of the Chef’s experience, he changed it to 10 different menus. His menus incorporate Spanish, South American, French, Caribbean, Mediterranean and Hungarian flavors. He offers traditional versions, if the client so requests, but also offers his twist, being a Mexican chef.
My boyfriend and I took the most advantage of the buffets, as the food was easily accessible and immediate. I questioned the chef about how they manage to proportion the amount of food available and he answered that they always tried to make the least amount possible because the food can dry out or overcook sitting out and being on the warmers for self-service. If the dish was still viable, it would go for staff meal but most oftentimes it went into the trash…and they tried to avoid that as much as possible. Salad would always carry over to staff meal. Staff meals were about 2 main dishes whereas the guests at the resort had 4-5 main dishes available.
Being that IMP is on an island 5 miles long by ½ a mile at the widest point, most of the food comes from restaurant industry companies located in Cancun, Cedis for meats and Adisa for vegetables. Seafood that is not indigenous to the area comes from Cancun but Chef Jose Ramon utilizes the local fisherman for any local catches.
Chef Jose Ramon and Chef Armando answered enthusiastically about their love and passion of being a chef and of being a chef at an all-inclusive resort. Is it easier, the same amount of work, or harder than being in a solitary restaurant? The answer: it’s just different. In some cases, it is easier. Chef Jose Ramon can do whatever he wants as there is no set menu. This resort also offers a weekly Chef’s Dinner, a Romantic Beach Dinner, a Honeymoon Dinner and tonight, a New Year’s Dinner so he can play around with a set menu as well. He does admit that being part of a corporation means that he has to watch the budget big time, maintain standards and maintain a certificate of ‘manipulation’. His goal: the end product. Compared to free-standing restaurants or hotels with individual restaurants, you never know how many tables will be booked. Which means you really have to estimate what you think you might have to serve and hopefully don’t waste that much. In an all-inclusive hotel, he states that he can change the menu at a whim if they don’t have a specific product and he doesn’t have to control the menu as strenuously. Sounds easier, and it can be, but it’s just different.
Chef Jose Ramon was born in Mexico and his first career was in business administration. His second career as a chef started at Cessa in Mexico City. He then went on for 6 years to Spain where he studied at La Escuela Hoteleria de Sant Pol Mar and received his Masters of Mediterranean Cuisine. He then worked at the 2 star Michelin hotel restaurant Abac as a line chef and then at La Borda Lobato, another famous restaurant in Bacqueira Beret, a ski station in Spain. He then moved on to Galicia, Spain where he worked at one of the best seafood restaurants in the world in this region, Moana, Pontevedra La Bufona. He added to his experience in Acapulco in a solitary restaurant and in wedding catering. He returned to Mexico City where he became an instructor at Cessa and now ultimately is at IMP as Executive Chef.
Sous Chef Armando hails from Chenche de las Torres in the Yucatan and has 6 years of experience working at Casa Rolandi, an award-winning restaurant at Hotel Villa Rolandi in Isla Mujeres. There, he worked under the direction of Chef Daniele Sandro Muller, with notable experience in France at the Institut Paul Bocuse. Chef Armando now adds to his resume with another 8 years at IMP for a total of 14 years.
I, of course asked what injuries these chefs might have. According to Chef Armando, the cooks do not complain of any injuries. Maybe that is because in this type of setting, they work normal hours (8 hour shifts). But it could also be because the entire staff are younger, ranging from 18 years to 46 years. But that seems to be the norm in restaurant settings world-wide, no? Perhaps, it can also be Mexican culture where they do not admit to injuries so readily…oh wait, that is a norm too! Either way, when asked, both chefs informed me that there were no injuries! Lucky IMP staff!