Written by Stephanie Carmon
Last week I sat down with one of Yuctan’s top Chefs Pedro Evia on the sofa in the elegant bar at Kuuk Restaurant. While the bartenders were serving up their latest mixology drinks, the waiter brought me mezcal, peppermint and lime cocktail to try–one of their house specials. The bar is stunning and Evia explained to me that it was once used as the chapel of this 19th century house of the well-known Henequen family the Peons. He ordered me an aguachile with Campeche shrimp and Progreso ́s octopus with radish and “kisin” habanero pepper and esmedregal fish in black recado and avocado and a basket of freshly baked bread. It was an explosion of flavor, incredible really. I then proceeded to talk to Evia about his several restaurants, vision and quite frankly his fascinating story.
Having gained prestige throughout Mexico and internationally, Pedro Evia is one of the most accomplished chefs in Yucatan. He, along with Eduardo Rukos (his longtime friend and business partner) have carved their place in the legend of the Yucatecan culinary scene. They have Sensei, a Japanese restaurant that they have made into a chain with seventeen branches from Yucatan to Mexico City. They also have Kiwiik, famous for their breakfasts, La Piñuela one of downtown’s newest and best restaurants, and the internationally renowned fine dining restaurant Kuuk.
Evia is a tall man with a confident demeanor, he is a true master of his craft. The fascinating part of the story is that Evia is an empirical chef. He never had any formal training.
Pedro Evia and his business partner, almost by accident, started in the culinary business when in 2002 a construction and security systems company they owned got hired to provide all services including security, transport and food to a US company KS Scapelling who had acquired a contract to build an electrical plant in Valladolid. It was a massive project with over 3,000 employees on site. One of the services was to build a huge cafeteria for all the employees. Essentially Evia and Rukos designed two restaurants. One they modeled after TGIF’s for the majority of the employees and the other one was more of a fine dining where the engineers and executives would eat. They started off really well but after a while the diverse group of workers started to complain that all they were eating was food typical from Valladolid and Yucatan. So Pedro Evia–who always liked to cook at his mom’s house and at parties with his friends–started to investigate international dishes. He bought over 30 cookbooks and started trying his hat at dishes to please the international tastes of the workers. Evia learned how to cook a new dish for each day of the week and once a week would sit down with his cooks and teach them how. Although he didn’t start working in the kitchen full time yet, it was during this time that his passion woke for the professional kitchen.
When the project ended Pedro and Eduardo continued with their business and Evia even joined the Yucatan State Police force. Among other projects, they decided to open up their first restaurant in Merida. They called it Time and it was a hip Miami style bar and restaurant in front of La Gran Plaza Mall. It turned into a Merida hot spot. Because of his keen interest in the kitchen at Time, Pedro started unofficially mentoring under Chef Marcos Meneses and attributes his knowledge of running a restaurant to Meneses.
After they sold Time, both Pedro and Eduardo had caught the culinary bug and started to dream about more projects. They were offered the kitchen at the University of Anayuc Mayab. They made a food court with stalls including Mexican food, American food, Deli cafe, y Asian food and sushi. It was the sushi that was the big hit. They then decided to embark on a sushi restaurant, Sensei. Eduardo, who is the creative mind behind all the details apart from the kitchen, began to imagine a cool sushi place with huge Japanese-like figure animations for the walls. It was a fun ambiance and the first sushi restaurant to have a sushi bar in Merida and it was a huge hit. They have now made it into a chain restaurant that has seventeen branches from Mexico City east to Yucatan. There are four in Merida.
Their next project was an Italian restaurant. Evia took four trips to Italy to study about the Italian food culture with Italian chefs. He has a real love for Italian food and in 2010, they opened Cosa Nostra.
In Yucatan in 2012, Pedro thought it was time to revisit his roots and cook the food he really knew and loved: Yucatecan food. They decided to open a fine dining restaurant Kuuk, meaning sprout or rebirth in Mayan. They would serve all Yucatecan inspired dishes and use local ingredients. They combined traditional dishes and sauces with more international dishes such as ravioli with relleno negro and medallion de filet with longaniza sausage from Valladolid. They designed a gourmet menu with a touch of molecular food techniques such as spherification, gums, and liquid nitrogen. They offer a menu a la carte and tasting menu. They started in the location where Kiwiik is now.
With all of the success in restaurants, Evia was still not the main chef. He would always help and give ideas; however, they would hire a school trained chef to create the menu and run the kitchen. It wasn’t until KuuK that the stars aligned, unforeseen circumstances happened and their chef was no longer able to work for them. It was then that Evia decided that from then on he would become the main chef in his restaurants. And that is exactly what he did. Kuuk didn’t have much success with the locals because people were not used to the idea of molecular food in Yucatan. However, it quickly became noticed by food magazines and critics from outside of Yucatan.
Kuuk appeared in:
Food & Wine Magazine’s 100 Restaurants in the world worth a pilgrimage
2013 Travel & Leisure Gourmet Awards
2013 – No. 1 New Restaurant in Mexico Travel & Leisure Gourmet Award
2014, it was nominated for Best tasting menu in Mexico Travel & Leisure Gourmet Awards.
And one of the professional highlights of Evia’s career so far was in 2015 when he was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in France to cook for the “Marché du Film” dinner for film producers and actors to promote Mexico in cinematographic projects. There he served as a host chef along with Guillermo del Toro for the Federal Secretary of Tourism.
In 2015, they decided to move into their current location which is the 19th Century house on Paseo de Montejo. Although the house was in very good condition, Eduardo furnished with the finest furniture, converted the chapel into the bar, chose the paintings for the walls including a Diego Rivera. He also chose antique or unique plates and according to the plate he found, Evia would design a dish. It’s an extremely unique experience to dine at Kuuk. They even designed a special coal oven that would exactly imitate the traditional underground oven that the pig pibil is cooked in. They created a world-class culinary laboratory, the most complete lab in a restaurant in the Americas, including the US, where they try to create new dishes for endangered plant species and conduct culinary experiments. They were also contacted by NASA to do an experiment capturing flavors of early dishes in the original chicle.
The success of Kuuk came from the innovative vision of both Evia and Rukos. They pay homage to Yucatan and all ingredients have to be 100% Yucatecan. With each ingredient and each flavor, Evia had to feel his roots, his tradition, his family. With every dish, he tells a story of his childhood, an experience, of his favorite taco stand, his favorite dish. Each dish on the menu tells a story of Pedro or Eduardo.
Pedro Evia and Eduardo Rukos are visionaries and creative minds who have had tremendous success both locally and internationally. Kuuk is a must visit restaurant for foodie enthusiasts visiting Yucatan. They continue to get attention from outsiders including those from other Mexican cities. Visiting celebrities, government dignitaries, culinary enthusiasts all visit Kuuk when they are in town. Evia’s story reminds me of Chef Gusteau’s famous motto from the Pixar animation Ratatouille “anyone can cook” and the food critic character Anton Ego’s take on this: “I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant by “anyone can cook”. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” And in Evia’s case, this is true. His life plan was not to be a chef, the universe and cosmos in Yucatan had other plans for him.