“I Almost Killed Latin America’s Best Chef”. Excerpted from the upcoming book: Food Blogger Confidential by W. Scott Koenig, A Gringo in Mexico
As a writer and blogger covering Mexican culture and cuisine, I’ve traveled throughout Mexico and wider Latin America for the past decade. From my time on the road, there are many stories which I’m proud to tell. And others, not so much. This is one falls squarely into the latter category. Here’s a cautionary tale — always be aware of your surroundings. And the location of your drink.
“The job doesn’t pay,” my friend, food writer and editor Nicholas Gilman of the blog Good Food Mexico told me when he recruited me as Baja California Food Expert for the London-based culinary website FoodieHub in 2013, “But the benefits are great!” Nick then went on to recount no less than a half dozen all-expense paid trips he’d taken to London, Peru and other points around the globe on FoodieHub’s dime.
FoodieHub (which began as Chowzter and later morphed into Xtremefoodies.com) is CEO Jeffrey Merrihue’s quest to find the world’s greatest dishes — and he invited and generously paid for all of his smart food-loving friends to come along for the ride. Indeed, when I joined the global restaurant review website and mobile app that year, there were approximately 50 food writers worldwide that had been invited into the FoodieHub flock, later expanding to 250 regular contributors.
The experience and domain of these writers ranged from a couple of schoolteacher friends in Seattle who eat and report on restaurants in their hometown, to lauded journalists like Nicholas Gil – often hilariously confused with Nick Gilman—the two couldn’t be any more different—who writes lengthy culinary “thought pieces” for such distinguished venues as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Roads & Kingdoms.
Jeffrey and his brother, co-founder David Bullit, had divided their recruits into several regional zones: North America – which included Canada and the US – Europe and Latin America, which encompassed my beat in Baja California as well as the rest of Mexico and Central and South America.
In addition to recognizing the “World’s Tastiest Feasts”–including my nominee and winner for “World’s Tastiest Breakfast”, the Valle de Guadalupe‘s La Cocina de Doña Esthela in 2015–Jeffrey and David also staged award ceremonies for each region. They flew, lodged, and fed all of us in gastronomically rich destinations around the globe. Promising and delivering on a week of culinary debauchery.
Jeffrey’s career included working as CMO and Marketing Director for a number of national food brands and highbrow global marketing agencies. I think he did very well in stock options back in the heady dot com days and saved and spent wisely. Jeffrey parlayed those gains into his own startup, MoFilm — an agency specializing in the crowdsourcing of promotional videos for global brands. He funneled profits from this venture into his passion project, FoodieHub. Jeffrey once shared with me, “I make money during the day with MoFilm, then spend it at night on FoodieHub!”
Jeffrey’s pastime fed his passion as well as his appetite for the world’s best dishes. Subsequently, he was named, alongside Vancouver food writer and fellow Vancouver FoodieHub expert Mijune Pak – one of the “World’s Most Extreme Foodies” in 2017 by the Times of London. As he’d eaten at all 50 of San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2012, he was enlisted as an official judge for the organization.
When Jeffrey planned a global or regional FoodieHub event, it was typically in a city where San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants was holding a global or regional awards ceremony the same week. This ensured that he’d be in good foodie company during the event, essentially the Oscars of the culinary world, and that the 50 Best would enjoy coverage by some of the world’s top food writers.
LatAm’s 50 Best, Lima, Peru, 2014
This is how I found myself at the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants celebration in Lima, Peru in 2014. where I almost killed the culinary rockstar who had been inducted “Latin America’s Best Chef”—just two days prior to that fateful and nearly fatal night.
I’d gotten to know Nick Gilman of Good Food Mexico well during my first trip to London for the global awards earlier in the year; we had roamed the Burroughs Market in London’s east end and enjoyed fish and chips and cold jellied eels together — a uniquely British delicacy. We bonded over our love of Mexican cuisine and a shared gift of gab and sense of humor. We were now “thick as thieves”, as a Scottish girlfriend used to say, and enjoyed our week as a posse, of sorts, in Peru.
While in Lima, we joked, laughed loudly and bumbled our way through the city’s markets, street food stalls, top restaurants, and Mistura—the largest Latin food festival in the world. We didn’t get to bed until the wee hours of the morning, only to snap awake too damn early the next day, blurry eyed from a plethora of pisco sours the night before and ready to do it all over again.
The week culminated with the Latin American FoodieHub Awards, held two days after Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in the same venue, restaurant Astrid y Gastón — where that organization would hold a raucous farewell party for the chefs, media and invited guests later that evening.
Astrid y Gastón is housed in a sprawling 17th century mansion in Lima’s tony San Isidro neighborhood. Peruvian culinary evangelist Gastón Acurio and his wife, pastry chef Astrid Gutsche, inaugurated the restaurant in 2013 and it quickly became a temple for dishes inspired by Peru’s various culinary regions. Here, Gastón prepares cuy (guinea pig), pollo amarillo, suckling pig, and cebiche in a modern method, introducing visiting diners from around the world to a highly refined, white-tablecloth version of his country’s cuisine.
The FoodieHub Awards
After yet another fabulous dinner, the dozen assorted Latin American Food Experts assembled in an adjoining conference room to announce that year’s regional award recipients and present the trophies to be taken home to the winners. I was honored that my first nomination, birria de chivo (goat stew) at restaurant El Rincon del Oso in Tijuana, won the award for “Best Regional Specialty”. Fernando, El Rincon’s owner, still keeps his glass trophy near the cash register at his restaurant at Mercado Hidalgo.
After receiving the award on Fernando’s behalf, I effused about his wonderful birria and gushingly thanked Jeffrey for making this amazing trip possible. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see food photographer Greg Villiers move his hand back and forth in front of his mouth, as he formed the shape of a penetrating penis with his tongue against the inside of his cheek, much to Nick Gil’s amusement. Jerks!
I was miffed, but all wounds healed later that night after I, Greg, Nick and several others shared much wine and many chilcanos (a Peruvian cocktail of pisco and lemon juice) at the Latin America’s 50 Best after party. It was at that party that I was almost responsible for the undoing of Latin America’s newly coronated Best Chef, Virgilio Martinez of Lima’s acclaimed Central.
The Scene of the Crime
The front of Astrid y Gaston’s dining and bar complex is accentuated by two concrete staircases with elegantly carved bannisters that lead twenty feet up to a large patio, where the awards after party was held. We’d had plenty of libation, and everyone was feeling loose—perhaps too loose and too early, as it wasn’t quite sunset when the chefs began arriving, some in chauffeured limos.
One by one, Latin America’s top chefs, accompanied by a partner or solo, made their way up the stairwell to join the growing number of revelers. There’s Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City, #7 on the Latin America’s 50 Best list for his modern Mexican cuisine. Look, it’s Mitsuharu Tsumura, who was making waves with Nikkei cuisine at Maido, an impressive #2.
Benito Molina and his wife Solange Muris of Manzanilla jauntily ambled up the steps to represent Baja California— ranking that year at #25. We exchanged a quick greeting as I’d recently been to his now award-winning dockside eatery in Ensenada.
The arrival of famous chefs ebbed and flowed. During the ebbs, Nick Gilman and I made our way through the growing crowd to the patio bar to order more chilcanos, returning to the portico to wait for the next wave of notables to arrive. That’s when and where it happened.
Nick and I were engaged in a heated conversation about life and food with our backs turned to the wide, concrete bannister. I didn’t notice that a colleague had placed their drink on the balustrade next to me. To illustrate some now forgotten point, I swung my arms in a wide, sweeping gesture, knocking the drink off and sending it plummeting into the garden below. Astrid y Gaston is a classy place. They don’t serve drinks in plastic cups here. Only the finest, thickest, most substantial glassware will do. I recoiled as my highball hurtled toward its inevitable target. Nick saw it happen too and let out an audible gasp.
I covered my eyes and cringed. The moment seemed to be occurring in slow motion, as the split-second just before impact often does—as during a head-on car collision or train derailment.
The sound of glass shattering and ice cubes clinking across the pavement made me jump about a foot in the air. “Shit! What do I do?” I asked Nick, who had turned ashen, almost blending into the white stucco wall behind him. I imagine that my complexion was similar as I felt the blood rush from my face.
“Whatever you do, don’t look down!” Nick suggested. I couldn’t help it. What if I’d hurt someone? Or even killed them? Given the velocity at which the drink fell, this was a morbid possibility.
I couldn’t forsake responsibility and face the potential consequences. I turned and looked down to see chef Virgilio Martinez, owner of Central, now Latin America’s #1 restaurant, staring at the broken glass that lay just inches in front of him, with a “What the fuck just happened” look on his face. He snapped his head upward and glared at me in angry bewilderment. Our eyes locked for what seemed like an eternity, his in accusation, mine in sincerest apology. Had things been different, I could have been looking gravely down at his prone body and screaming spouse.
I turned back around to face Nick’s accusatory expression, everything about it saying, “I told you so!”. Virgilio and his wife made their way up the stairs and past us without another glance and joined the party. He was probably more relieved than me.
Though time had slowed down, the entire incident from me knocking over the glass to Virgilio’s entrance only lasted about thirty seconds. I was mollified. What to do about the sharp, potentially dangerous mess of glass shards below?
“Don’t pick it up!” Nick urged, no commanded since I hadn’t listened to him before.
I couldn’t help it. I’d almost killed Latin America’s best chef and didn’t want Latin America’s next best, or even its 50th best, to cut themselves on the splintered glass. There didn’t seem to be any security or restaurant staff attending to my mess, so I grabbed a cloth napkin, shot Nick an apologetic look and went down to ashamedly erase the evidence of my crime.
I felt fortunate as I rode, hungover, to the airport the next morning. What if the glass had conked Virgilio on the skull, causing a concussion or even his untimely undoing? I wouldn’t have been riding comfortably in that Uber on my way home, that was for certain. I’d probably still be in a rat-infested cell somewhere in the bowels of Lima. And fed, ironically, only insect-riddled gruel after having just celebrated the best gastronomy in Latin America and enjoyed one of the best food weeks of my life.
Not only would I have lost my freedom, I would have been widely discredited in the food press and regarded by chefs and culinarians worldwide as a murderous scoundrel. My reputation would have been stunted just as it was beginning to thrive. Indeed, my writing career would have careened into a crevice of shame, a nearby bottle of bootleg pisco smuggled into my cell the only relief from my intense pangs of guilt.
And I would go down in infamy as the man who killed Latin America’s best chef.
EPILOGUE: Congratulations to Virgilio and Central, Lima for winning the #2 restaurant in the world at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 last week! I’m happy that I in no way inhibited this accomplishment 🙂