Meet the Chef Who’s Celebrating Indigenous Mayan Food

After losing everything, Hugo Durán discovered the food of his past—and wants to share it with the world.

January  3, 2020
Photo by Amelia Rampe

It’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit and pouring rain on the beach in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Nature Reserve, located in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Despite the intermittent torrential downpours, the Caribbean Sea is bright turquoise beneath the dark rain clouds in the distance.

Under a large hut made of bamboo and palms, a chef is quietly running his kitchen. This kitchen is unlike any other restaurant kitchen I’ve been in.

Front and center, there’s a tortilla station with a comal (a flat griddle that rests on top of an open flame), with a Oaxacan woman—short in stature, with hair pulled tight in a low bun—working with masa. To my right, on one side of the dining area, there’s a steady fire in the hornilla (a wood-burning oven). And to the left, the chef: an unshaven Hugo Durán, wearing a black T-shirt with a plain blue apron, a blue bandana wrapped around his head and worn leather sandals on his feet. Everyone is working together harmoniously.

The kitchen at Ka'an. Photo by Jason Rampe

Chef Hugo, known for his farm-to-table pop-ups in Mexico City (such as Pichón) wasn’t always a chef. He started his career in interior design, owning a company that would eventually go bankrupt. Out of this loss he discovered cooking, with a focus on ancient Mayan tradition.

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“One word of caution - rent a car or take a bike for the trip into the preserve from the Tulum beach area. You may get a taxi to take you to the "restaurant", but you can't get one back out.”
— Chrystal J.

“Growing up, I had a lot of shame around being indigenous,” Hugo told me. Born and raised in Mexico City specifically, in Colonia Guerrero, he was educated among children who were wealthier and white. And even though he was never bullied, he was always acutely aware of the stark differences between himself and his peers. Hugo was then envious of their wealth; that envy turned to self-resentment with the realization that he would never be one of them.

It wasn’t until he moved to Germany, at age 31—removing himself from the only place he’s ever known—that he was able to understand the colonial history of Mexico. He finally understood that his complex emotions were a product of a vast oppressive history. By making meals for friends there, Durán discovered that cooking was the definitive exercise for him to celebrate the part of himself he used to deny: his indigenous roots.

Ka'an's relaxed, beachside setting. Photo by Jason Rampe

With no formal culinary training, Durán looked to his surroundings for guidance. “I had to be very intuitive but disciplined. I learned to cook in a similar way I used to learn when I studied art: working closely with the people whose work I admired, and studying a lot of theory, which in this case was related to the prehispanic history of Mexico.”

The same principles applied to the dishes he learned how to cook. “When I began to cook, I worked with generic produce—the kind of things everyone can find in the supermarket. As I learned more about the cooking of my people, I approached organic produce, then native, then wild.” And as he explored new ingredients, his knowledge of cooking techniques expanded, too. “One plant guided me to the next one. To me, it isn’t possible to separate the knowledge of plants from the techniques used to work with them in the kitchen.”

Thus, Ka’an was born, starting out as a pop-up with his partners, Alberto Martínez and Alejandro Gamez (also a partner in another fantastic Tulum restaurant, ARCA). “Through food, I loved myself for the first time.” This self-love is apparent in the menu at Ka’an.

Refreshing aguas naturales. Photo by Jason Rampe
Octopus and scallop ceviche (top) and chayote and mountain potatoes with peanut mayonnaise (bottom). Photo by Jason Rampe

Ulysses, our server, is barefoot as he brings out coconut shells filled with chilled agua natural, a lightly sweetened, naturally flavored fermented tea. One shell contains melon-infused tea; the other lemongrass, which we learn is indigenous to the area. The tea is refreshing and deliciously intense in lemongrass flavor. The thick humidity from the rain causes condensation to waft gently from the coconut shells.

Plates of food begin to appear. First up is the guacamole, which isn’t the guacamole you may be used to, laced with overpowering onions and acid. This one contains fresh avocados in their purest form, mashed and accented with local herbs: cilantro; peppery, anise-reminiscent hoja santa; nutty avocado leaves; pungent epazote; and onion ash (literally, burnt onion), savory and bitter, sprinkled on top. Each herb adds a different dimension of flavor, some bites spicy, some bites earthy, others herbaceous. Yet nothing is masked, and the avocado is the star of the show.

Next is a dish of chayote and wild potatoes from the mountains neatly lined in a bowl. They’re topped with peanut mayonnaise and local parsley, picked on the beach adjacent to Ka’an. The parsley—similar to Italian agretti—is crisp in texture and bright with herbaceous flavor. Then, we’re brought the scallop and octopus ceviche—the freshest preparation I’ve ever tasted. The scallops are caught 150 yards off shore, and the octopus is also caught in nearby waters. The ceviche is topped with diced sweet potato and par-cooked corn kernels, adding layers of flavor and texture to the ceviche.

The ceviche is served with fresh tortillas made by Paula, a woman known as the maestra de maize—the master of corn. This expertise is abundantly clear, as Paula’s creations serve as building blocks for Ka’an’s menu. Paula is Zapotec, from a town called Candelaria Loxicha, in the Costa region of Oaxaca; she left this town, and her family, to work with chef Hugo at Ka’an. A former farmer and merchant, Paula sold her products to Durán in a Oaxacan market before the two were formally introduced. He loved her corozo tostadas (a crunchy tortilla made of corozo, a type of nut from South America used in both sweet and savory applications) and smoked chile tusta (a chile similar in size to a scotch bonnet.), so much so that he approached her to lead the corn program at Ka’an.

And her tortillas that we taste at Ka’an are masterful—deceptively rugged in appearance, but revealing of a delicate structure and deep corn flavor once you bite in. According to Durán, despite her great skill, Paula “still doesn't consider herself a cook—rather, a hard-working villager.”

Paula, creating her masterpieces at the comal. Photo by Jason Rampe

Besides being the backbone of the corn offerings at Ka’an, Paula is also the unofficial architect of its kitchen. Durán first designed the kitchen along with friend and maize expert Amado Ramírez. But when Paula came on board, Durán says she “took one look at it and said it was wrongly made by a man who didn’t know anything."

“She’s the real boss,” says Ulysses.

The kitchen was then reconstructed to Paula’s specifications: “She demolished the 50 percent of our clay stove because the opening for firewood was too small, and we rebuilt it to make it functional," adds Durán.

With no access to centralized plumbing or gas, and only a small generator supplying electricity, the kitchen largely relies on wood fire, bringing smoky, earthy aromas to the dishes. Many chefs would be discouraged by the lack of modern amenities, but Durán embraced this approach, wanting the kitchen to directly reflect where the food it produces originates: Mayan village life.

Paula's speciality—the tamal. Photo by Jason Rampe

Halfway through the meal, next up is yet another one of Paula’s specialties: the tamal. To make the dish, she starts with nixtamalized maize—corn washed in an alkaline solution and then hulled, which helps remove toxins from any fungus contamination it might have experienced. Paula mixes the maize with a little pork fat, wraps the resulting dough in a corn husk, and steams the tamal, serving it with a light tomato-based sauce.

The tamal is followed by locally spear-caught pargo—a variety of snapper—wrapped in hoja santa. It’s served with local citrus that’s similar to a kumquat, and fire-roasted huitlacoche—the rare, earthy-flavored fungus that grows on certain species of corn. This particular huitlacoche is grown in the mountains, where the climate is humid and cool.

Finally, we receive our concluding dish: Lengua, or tender beef tongue braised with leaves of cinnamon, allspice, and clove. After the first braise, the beef is then braised again in red bean broth, and served with charred and fermented cabbage. The tongue is delicate, with slightly pungent and bitter notes from the cabbage.

Everything is artfully prepared and served, with meticulous attention to detail.

Hoja santa–wrapped pargo with citrus and huitlacoche. Photo by Jason Rampe

This attention to detail extends beyond the food, as complex and refreshing cocktails are presented throughout the meal—made with mezcal, fermented beet juice, and chamomile. For the cocktail program at Ka’an, Durán enlisted the prowess of Sofia Torres, a person he considers an expert mixologist, whom he worked with on previous projects in Mexico City. Says Durán of their program: “We prefer to direct our cocktails towards minimalism, with a few ingredients that work well together— in the same way that our kitchen works.“

Most of the staff of 13 have all left their lives and families behind in Oaxaca or Mexico City, and commune together on the property, living in small yurts. “We live together, work together, decompress together,” says Julio, the general manager, who is from Mexico City. “I studied psychology in school—the environment at Ka’an is like a human social experiment.” I ask him if everyone in the kitchen gets along. “Yes,” he tells me resolutely. And one can see that unmistakably in the quiet, tranquil kitchen at Ka’an, where everyone is calmly chatting and working away.

Spiced lengua with fermented cabbage and fresh tortillas. Photo by Jason Rampe

Ka’an has now been in business for almost two years, and Durán is optimistically looking toward the future. He and his partners have begun to host pop-ups with guest chefs, and events with DJs and dancing on the beach that goes late into the night.

“I've been very lucky to grow my business and be even kind of successful representing my heritage, in a world ruled by rich Westerners. Most people with an origin like mine are not that fortunate.” When I use the words “fine dining” to describe Ka’an, Durán shakes his head. “I want to establish a new paradigm and show people the best techniques I know.”

And when diners visit Ka’an, Durán wants them to leave with just one thing: the concept of sharing. Specifically, sharing this culinary experience steeped in Mayan traditions. Durán has created a special gathering place in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. His pursuit of tradition and technique is evident in every element of the restaurant. Ka’an, and all it enompasses, is well worth the extra journey out of the hustle of Tulum. With its dreamy locale and equally beautiful food, Ka’an is a place I’ll fondly draw upon when I’m itching to escape the grind of the city. I can’t wait to go back.

Ka'an's dining area (which transforms into a place to dance the night away). Photo by Jason Rampe

Have you ever eaten at Ka'an? Let us know in the comments.

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Rubitone January 5, 2020
Mayans didn't eat this much meat (if they did it was usually reserved for the elites, who, we have found, showed signs of heart disease). As many of us choose to eat less meat for health and the planet (meat/dairy production are the number one contributor to climate change), it would be great if a story about "authentic" mayan cuisine could really be authentic. Every day Mayans ate lots of corn-based meals, with tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, and avocados. They also used vanilla in their cooking. We all need to eat more plants, like the Mayans did!
tundracat January 9, 2020
Why do you use past tense to describe what "Mayans" ate? Maya people are alive and cooking, eating and innovating today. Seafood, pork, and poultry are valued ingredients, as are fruits, vegetables, herbs and tubers.
Josmine January 5, 2020
This read like a rushed submission to meet a deadline and fill a content quota. What this chef is doing is important work and his story deserves to be covered by someone who cares enough to take their time and tell the story with some depth.
debbie J. January 5, 2020
I am curious as to the pricing of the meals.......
BrooklynFood January 3, 2020
Ka’an is amazing. It’s the type of place you don’t want to leave. One of the most memorable experiences of my life. This article describes it so well.
Chrystal J. January 3, 2020
My husband and I had the pleasure of dining there in December. The tamale are indeed amazing, as is their ceviche. Their xicilpak is the best version we tried. We also had a deceptively simple braised chicken dish that I dream about. Simply the best food we had in Mexico this trip. One word of caution - rent a car or take a bike for the trip into the preserve from the Tulum beach area. You may get a taxi to take you to the "restaurant", but you can't get one back out.