Anima is one the best restaurants in Merida as we start year. It is located on what we call “Culinary Row” Calle 47 x 52 y 54. The menu is designed by executive chef Ted Habiger from Kansas City. It is a farm to table open fire and smoker gastronomic experience. It has a casual vibe with food that is fit for white tablecloth dining. As you walk into the outdoor dining area the ever so familiar smoky aroma – customary to Yucatan – welcomes you. The main feature of the restaurant is the open style kitchen, the tailor-made smoker and the wood-fired grill reminiscent of a traditional hearth. It’s a homey comfortable feel.
The food is outstanding. They offer delicious options for both vegetarians/vegans and the meat lover. And if you are a meat lover, this is your new jam.
Chef Habiger’s gastronomy roots come from his farm to table approach to cooking. He has owned a brewery/restaurant, bakery and currently still owns a very popular restaurant in Kansas City. And now, he has decided together with a great team here in Merida, to try the concept of Anima in the Centro of Merida. We got a chance to sit down with him last week to ask him about his life as a chef and his experience here in Yucatan.
If you’re not strong with your opinion when it comes to food, sometimes you can just make mediocre food. You know? You have to believe in what you’re doing. –Chef Ted Habiger
What is the idea behind Anima?
So Anima is an open fire, gastronomy, kitchen, and bar. The concept really revolves around two basic cooking methods. One is our smoker, which is a custom designed offset smoker. And then the other one is using our open fire grill. We’ll take the entire lamb and basically tie it to a metal frame. And then we have a little device that we hook onto the side and, and it’s at a 45 degree angle over the wood fire at about 275 degrees for a couple of hours. It slow cooks for up to 12 hours. Then we also have a really hot part that we can cook our tortillas on and also grill our shrimp or vegetables. So it’s very versatile. There’s even a pib oven that we have underneath it so we can lift the bottom up and use the traditional method of cooking in Yucatan with the pib underground oven.
Why this concept in Merida?
Well, you know, I love to cook. I love being around crowds of people. I didn’t plan on this per se. We came to Merida with a thought of exploring the city and the beach. But I knew that I would maybe do a popup or something like that along the way.
Then one day, I met a rancher named Andrea from Rancho Haltun Xiki and we had a great conversation about her cheeses that she was making on the ranch. We met at a wine event here that I just happened to go to. It’s like, it’s one of those things, you do things at the right time and things happen. She introduced me to the restaurant group that I’m involved in now. Originally we thought we might do a pop-up Texas or Kansas City style. But as we started discussing it more, it became more and more about my natural cooking methods beyond just the smoking and meat, which is the open fire cooking, which I’ve done in restaurants for a long time.
So let’s talk a little bit about your journey as a chef. Where did it start?
I started as a history teacher. At one point, I was in between history teaching gigs and I wanted to go back to school or go teach college or something. I needed a little bit of cash, so I started working in a restaurant. And in the front of the house, actually, I was a bartender and a server. I was 24. I started cooking in a kitchen and I just fell in love with that culture. I loved restaurants. I searched out the best restaurant in Kansas City and applied there and got the job the next day and that was an open fire kitchen. I worked my way up and that was my first experience with an open fire kitchen.
My dad grew up on a farm, and although we lived in the city, we always had a big garden with fresh vegetables, which I never really appreciated as a kid. In fact, I didn’t like tomatoes until I was probably almost 29 years old. But when I was young and didn’t like what my mom cooked, she told me to cook for myself then. So I did. I also had a couple friends who had moms that were fantastic cooks. One was half Sicilian and half Calabrese and she taught me how to cook Southern Italian food. Another friend’s mother was Vietnamese and taught me how to cook Vietnamese food. I just kind-of fell in love with tasting things.
I know you worked in NYC. How did that contribute to making you the chef you are today?
After I worked my way up at the open fire restaurant, I wanted to expand my knowledge so I headed to New York City. I walked into Union Square Cafe one day at two o’clock in the afternoon thinking I could apply there when they weren’t busy. And they were still full. And Danny Meyers was behind the desk and took my resume and looked at it. He looked at me and said: “ I’m gonna have the chef call you immediately.” And I picked up the Gramercy Tavern card that was sitting there and I said, should I call Tom Colicchio? I didn’t know who Tom was and Danny was like, no, no,no don’t, don’t call Tom. And I could tell that he wanted me, you know, at that point. I met the chef later that night and I worked later that night in the kitchen.
I loved it. I had gone back home and sold all my stuff and then couch surfed at my sister’s house for eight months while working at the Union Square Cafe. I refocused everything, knowing a hundred percent that I wanted to be a chef in New York. I eventually became a sous chef at Union Square Cafe.
So when did you move back to Kansas City and open your restaurant there?
I wanted to open a restaurant in New York, but I just didn’t have the capital, so I decided to go back to Kansas City where I had more resources. I opened up a restaurant called Room 39. And 18 years later, it is still open. It’s a farm to table experience. I call it seasonal American food, inspired by my Italian, Vietnamese and American style cooking.
I’ve designed a couple of restaurants in Kansas City that were wood fire grills. I owned a brewery at one point that had a large hearth cooking situation. Hard cooking, that’s what I call it. It was an eight foot wide, four foot deep area where you could light a fire anywhere. And then we had different grills and pots of beans in big clay pots. I was inspired by Argentine chef Francis Mallmann for sure. It’s hard though, you know, like cooking with fire day in; day out, it’s almost ceremonial. You have to light the fire every day: you approach it almost like a ritual. It can be very rewarding because there are no ovens.
Who is one of your chef heroes?
I was born in the seventies and at that time Jeremiah Tower was really championing the concept of farm to table at Chez Panisse in Berkley, California. I always followed his career and he was a huge influence on American cuisine as I was becoming a chef. I met him a year and a half ago here, just two houses down from mine on the beach. And it was a big deal for me. He’s my fricking hero, you know.
Has he been to Anima yet?
He hasn’t been yet. But we are trying to time it so that we’re all here at the same time. Because we opened relatively recently, he’s letting me work out the kinks. I texted him about it about three weeks ago inviting him to the opening and they were out of town at the time. But he’ll come soon. He’s an incredible guy. What I really learned from him through his writing is to have an opinion. You know, like to be strong with your opinion. If you’re not strong with your opinion when it comes to food, sometimes you can just make mediocre food. You know? So you have to believe in what you’re doing.
What drew you to Mexico?
It’s interesting because you can just be in one restaurant as a chef owner and that’s all you do. And I’m very dedicated to room 39, but I also have all these yearnings to do other things. I’m an explorer and a traveler. I love to learn and the best way to learn food is to go experience it. I was dying to learn more about Mexican cooking and Mexican food. Rick Bayless was a big influence on me early in my career. So I had this itch to go to Oaxaca, Yucatan and Northern Mexico and see some of their cooking up there. So I started traveling and that’s kind of what brought me to the Yucatan that sense of adventure and travel. When we got here, it almost felt like this creative migration was occurring. Where all of these people from all over the world were kind of ending up here and being drawn here by some unknown force.
It reminds me of what Paris was in the twenties. What a creative energy that was there. I feel like Merida has that same creative energy.
What is your favorite food memory as a child?
I guess when I was really young, it was just about the farm. I would have these fruits and vegetables and cherry pie. My grandfather used to make killer cherry pie from his cherry tree. We’ve sold that family farm now, but it was in our family from the moment Ulysses S. Grant was president, it got deeded to us in southeastern Kansas. The cherry tree is still on the property and I took seeds from it. I have not planted them yet, but I’m gonna plant them on my property in Kansas. I’ll have the same cherries to make that same delicious cherry pie.
What do you want people to take away from their experience of eating at Anima?
I want them to feel the atmosphere that fire and smoke bring and just how fresh and honest the flavors feel. The best description of my food that I have ever heard is that my food feels honest. That’s what I want diners to experience.
Located on Calle 47 x 52 y 54
Open Wed-Sat 5-11pm & Sunday 2-10pm
Reservations: 999 960 3666