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Mexico City’s Elena Reygadas, ‘best female chef’ in the world, has plans for so much more

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Elena Reygadas did not want to eat at the omakase restaurant run by a world renowned chef from Japan. The Mexico City chef, named the World’s Best female chef in 2023, passed on the French tasting menus and the numerous dining rooms that boast connections to celebrity chefs from around the world.

During her recent five-day trip to Las Vegas for this year’s event, the place she coveted most, was a small tea shop in a strip mall that shares real estate with a store selling “exotic shoes” and another called Sweet Seduction Bikinis.

I recently met up with Reygadas before she took part in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony and festivities at Wynn Resort Las Vegas. Her five restaurants in Mexico City are integral to the destination being one of the most unique, alluring and utterly delicious food cities in the world. This year, Rosetta jumped from No. 49 to 34 on the list.

And despite a persistent debate about whether a separate “best female chef” category is needed at all, Reygadas said she sees the title as an acknowledgment that women “are the ones that have preserved the food culture for generations and generations.”

The afternoon before the ceremony, we drove off the Strip for a short crawl that started at Grand Yunnan Tea, a shop that sources dozens of teas from a single factory in China’s Yunnan province. Her many fans might not know it, but Reygadas is a lover of tea. While the teas are normally just available for retail, owners Selina and Stacy Yano agreed to let us sample a few of their favorites during our visit.

Selina Yano of Grand Yunnan Tea prepares a pu'erh tea, an aged tea from 2015, at Grand Yunnan Tea.

Selina Yano of Grand Yunnan Tea prepares a pu’erh tea, an aged tea from 2015, at Grand Yunnan Tea.

3: 15 p.m. Grand Yunnan Tea

We sat in front of Selina as she poured hot water over a small heap of dark, curled leaves. She scooped them from a wooden parcel filled with Bainian gu shu shu cha, a variety of pu’ƒer tea plucked from centuries old trees. This particular stash had been aging since 2015.

“I am very fond of tea and whenever I see there is a place to try, I go,” Reygadas said. “This place caught my attention because they specialize in Chinese teas.”

Reygadas remembers her mother treating her sore throats with bugambilia and her stomach aches with toronjil as a child. The first tea that gripped her was lapsang souchong. During a trip to Japan, she discovered the wonders of hojicha. When she leaves her restaurants to return home in the afternoon to see her daughters, the first thing she does is make tea.

“I think I associate teas with love and also I just love the act of having tea and how it feels,” she said.

We sipped the pu’er tea from cups the size of shot glasses. It was deep brown in color with an aroma that brought to mind toasted nuts, damp dirt and cocoa.

Selina Yano of Grand Yunnan Tea prepares a raw pu'erh tea at Grand Yunnan Tea.

Selina Yano of Grand Yunnan Tea prepares a raw pu’erh tea at Grand Yunnan Tea.

Elena Reygadas takes in the scent of pu'er tea, an aged tea, at Grand Yunnan Tea.

Elena Reygadas takes in the scent of pu’er tea, an aged tea from 2015, at Grand Yunnan Tea with L.A. Times columnist Jenn Harris.

“For me, pu’er is like earth,” Reygadas said, her nose in her cup. “Beets remind me of this flavor. If I paired this with food, it would be charcoal beets. It has this earthy note, but it’s also a little sweet and could balance very well.”

The night before, Reygadas cooked a seven-course dinner with chef Sarah Thompson at Casa Playa restaurant at Encore. She paired a wobbly round of blue shrimp gelee with Dungeness crab and avocado with a wine glass full of cold, cloudy 100% Asatsuyu cultivar sencha tea from New York City’s Kettl.

“Unfortunately, not many people in Mexico associate drinking tea with food,” she said. “But I really want to try more teas with food because sometimes tea can be even more complex than wine. In terms of terroir and culture, there is a lot to consider with tea and food.”

Reygadas perused the shop as if it were a museum. She asked the provenance of the clay tea pots in one case and inquired about the paper-wrapped tea cakes on the shelves.

Chef Elena Reygadas looks at packages of pu'er tea at Grand Yunnan Tea in Las Vegas.

Chef Elena Reygadas takes in the packages of pu’er tea cakes at Grand Yunnan Tea in Las Vegas.

A unique tea cake studded with Chinese flowers at Grand Yunnan Tea.

A unique tea cake studded with Chinese flowers at Grand Yunnan Tea.

Selina used the same heap of leaves to pour four more servings of tea, each one slightly different in flavor but just as potent as the first.

“You can make tea with these same leaves 22 to 28 times because of the quality,” she said.

We listened as Selina explained how to assign a specific pot to a specific tea. The clay is porous, and eventually, plain water in the pot will pick up notes from the leaves.

Reygadas finished her fifth cup, then bought one of the tea cakes to bring back to Mexico City.

“It settles my stomach,” she said, then sniffed her new treasure. “But it also settles my mind.”

Elena Reygadas at Fuku Burger with desserts from pop-up bakery Milkfish Bakeshop.

Reygadas at Fuku Burger with desserts from the pop-up bakery MilkFish Bakeshop.

The pandan tres leches cake from Milkfish Bakeshop.

MilkFish’s pandan tres leches, a pandan sponge cake soaked in coconut milk with pandan whipped cream and blueberries.

4:38 p.m. Fuku Burger

Despite the in-between hour, the dining room at Fuku Burger was buzzing. Unlike many of the diners who feasted on burgers, we were there for pastries. It’s one of the pick-up locations for MilkFish bakeshop, a pop-up Filipino bakery run by Kimmie and Josh Mcintosh.

Reygadas is endlessly fascinated with baking. Two years after opening Rosetta in 2010, she opened Panadería Rosetta down the street, showcasing her cakes, breads and pastries. No trip to Mexico City is complete without one of Reygadas’ guava rolls, perfect specimens of pastry that merry guava jam cooked in a copper pot for hours, and crisp, buttery pastry.

The taste just screams “Colonia Roma.”

While we waited for our pastries to arrive, she wondered aloud about the culture around bread in the Philippines, and if it’s as central to life there as it is in Mexico, with conchas, pan de Muerto and other bakes she considers truly Mexican.

“Milkfish caught my mind because I know there is a lot of connections between the Philippines and Mexico,” she said. “Something I always find surprising, in terms of baking for example, is tres leches in the Philippines, something for me that is very Latin.”

The Karioka, coconut mochi fritters from Milkfish Bakeshop.

The karioka — coconut mochi fritters with coco jam toffee sauce, latik (caramelized coconut curds) and Philippine sea salt — from Milkfish Bakeshop.

The Sans Rival from Milkfish Bakeshop.

Milkfish Bakeshop’s sans rival is layers of toasted cashew meringues and white chocolate cremeux with poached pineapple.

Reygadas studied literature before becoming a chef, sort of falling into the profession after her filmmaker brother asked her to help cater his first movie. She went to culinary school for eight months in New York City, then started working in restaurants. But years before culinary school, Reygadas was comfortable in the kitchen. Her mother is one of 12 siblings, and she frequently hosted gatherings centered around food. And her father, still a food enthusiast in his 80s, encouraged her to be endlessly curious.

“His rule if you go to a restaurant is you cannot have a green salad, you need to try something that you could not eat anywhere else or at home,” Reygadas said. “If we were traveling, he would say you need to eat the local food because you will be able to understand more bout the culture and this place. I like that I was brought up like that.”

Josh handed us a paper bag with plastic containers of pandan tres leches in a stark lime green color, karioka coconut mochi fritters and Sans Rival, a layered cake with cashew meringue, white chocolate cremeux and poached pineapple.

“This colors is crazy,” Reygadas said, her mouth full of tres leches. The cake was cold and completely saturated with sweet milk.

We savored the bits of pineapple stuck to the Sans Rival and marveled at the chew and crunch of the cashew meringue. The karioka were bite-sized balls of dense coconut, chewy and wonderfully salty with flakes of Philippine sea salt and crumbles of latik, coconut milk that’s been simmered until the curds separate, solidify and turn crunchy.

“The texture is really special because it’s not like a doughnut, it’s really compact, dense but not dry,” Reygadas said, already on her second. “It made me think of cocada, a cake all made of fresh coconut together with sugar and eggs.”

En route to our final stop, I asked Reygadas how valuable it is to be on a list like the World’s 50 Best. Rosetta is a regular fixture on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, reaching as high as No. 9 in 2020.

“I appreciate that through World’s 50 Best, I have been able to know many other cooks from around the world and it’s opened me to know much more about other cultures and cooking,” she said.

During a trip to Seoul, she connected with chef Kang Min-goo from Mingles, the No. 13 restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list. After she messaged him about rice cookers, he sent her one. Min-goo traveled to Mexico City and cooked with Reygadas at Rosetta, and sent her a cook to stage at the restaurant.

“That doesn’t happen with every list,” she said. “That’s special about 50 Best.”

Elena Reygadas digs into the Khao Soi at Lotus of Siam.

Elena Reygadas digs into the Khao Soi at Lotus of Siam.

5:31 p.m. Lotus of Siam

The parking lot was full when we arrived at the Lotus of Siam location just East of the Strip on Flamingo Road. We sat at a large round table in the back and ordered some of the Lotus of Siam staples, including the crispy prawns, khao soi with crispy duck and an off-menu special of crispy pork with a grilled chile dipping sauce.

“I didn’t really want to go to a restaurant of a big name chef from another part of the country,” Reygadas said. “I don’t really like those types of restaurants. This one seemed from here, even though it’s Thai. It seemed a thing of Las Vegas.”

Lotus of Siam is very much a thing of Las Vegas. Saipin Chutima and her family took over the original restaurant on Sahara Avenue in the late 90s. It’s scheduled to re-open later this year. They are also behind the Flamingo Road restaurant and the newest location at the Red Rock Casino.

“I read about how the chef here took recipes from her mother and the mother of her partner,” Reygadas said. “I like this idea of women passing generations through recipes.”

Northern-style fried pork with grilled peppers from Lotus of Siam.

Northern-style fried pork with grilled peppers from Lotus of Siam.

That idea of celebrating women in the kitchen helped Reygadas appreciate being named the best female chef in the world last year. For some, the award has served to further highlight the gender divide in the industry.

When San San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn was named the best female chef in 2016, she famously called the award “stupid,” noting that “a chef is a chef.”

“I think in an ideal world, of course it shouldn’t be this division, but I do feel that the fact of having it, it’s a way to encourage more leadership of female chefs, at least in Mexico,” Reygadas said.

Helping women become leaders and preserve Mexican food culture is a responsibility Reygadas feels deeply.

In 2022, Reygadas formed a small committee of women to start a culinary scholarship in Mexico. Though there are many free cooking schools all over the country, housing and living expenses prove too much for many families. What began as three scholarships in its first year, has grown to 20, with women from all over the country now able to support themselves while they attend culinary school or fund a trip to stage elsewhere.

Elena Reygadas at Lotus of Siam.

Elena Reygadas at Lotus of Siam.

The Garlic Prawns from Lotus of Siam.

The Garlic Prawns from Lotus of Siam.

When our food arrived, we both reached for the prawns first. They were piled into a glistening mountain of puffy shells in the bowl. The shells, lacquered in a sweet garlic glaze, shattered under our teeth.

“I love the idea of eating the whole thing,” Reygadas said. “You really can’t stop eating them. I never tasted anything like this before.”

She twirled egg noodles slick with khao soi curry broth around her fork and added a bit of pickle to her bite.

“I have tasted curries because I love curries but never with pickle like this,” she said.

She dunked a strip of pork into the chile sauce, chunky and smoky with charred green chiles. “It’s caramelized but not dry,” she said. “And not too spicy. Very good.”

With decades of leading kitchens and the luxury of perspective, Reygadas has shifted her priorities beyond filling the seats in her restaurants and making people happy. She released a series of notebooks intended to help educate people on broader ideas around food culture and biodiversity. They are on display at Rosetta and available for purchase at various bookstores and online.

“I think a chefs purpose is beyond making delicious plates and we should be like transmitters of many things that go through food,” Reygadas said.

The Khao Soi with crispy duck from Lotus of Siam.

The Khao Soi with crispy duck from Lotus of Siam.

After collecting some of the world’s top culinary accolades, she said she’s ready to slow down, focus on her scholarships, spend more time with her two daughters and travel around Mexico. She also plans to write a book about bread.

On the drive back to our hotel, we pass digital marquees advertising casino restaurants opened by chefs from all over the world. Though Reygadas has received offers, she said she doesn’t plan to open a restaurant in the United States.

There’s an initial ping of disappointment, but it passes quickly.Her guava roll, which I like to enjoy while strolling the tree-lined streets of Roma Norte, wouldn’t have nearly the same effect under neon lights.

“I really want to think about how I want to live,” she said. “And what I want with what I’ve done.”

How to replicate our Las Vegas crawl with Elena Reygadas

Grand Yunnan Tea, 4211A W Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, NV, (702) 246-2858, www.grandyunnantea.com

Milkfish Bakeshop, more information and pickup locations at milkfishbakeshop.com

Lotus of Siam, 620 E. Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas, NV, (702) 735-3033, www.lotusofsiamlv.com

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