If Eric Werner’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, that of his restaurant, Hartwood, should. His was the classic pick-up-and-move dream story: In May of 2010, Werner and his wife Mya Henry went from fantasizing about leaving everything behind and starting a little restaurant on the Caribbean in Mexico, to making it a fast reality. They packed up their East Village apartment in New York City and bought a property on a patch of Tulum that was literally off the grid.
Once there, they built from scratch a restaurant on the jungle side of the beach town’s road that became, in many ways, the epicenter of a community. It wasn’t just any restaurant: They would use wood fire and solar kitchen power to cook everything, serve dishes that changed every day, and skip contemporary restaurant designs in lieu of building a place that looked like it just blended into the existing jungle—surrounded by native plants—and was open to the sky.
Lines formed. Locals and travelers flocked. And the pair released their first cookbook, the award-winning Hartwood: Bright, Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatán, in 2015. Today, they’re still doing their Yucatan-influenced, seafood-forward cuisine—with locally inspired dishes like al pastor, vibrant ceviches, and grilled Caribbean lobster—at the restaurant. But this month, Werner and travel journalist Nils Bernstein have a new book out called The Outdoor Kitchen: Live-Fire Cooking from the Grill. Inspired by his family’s frequent retreats to the Catskill Mountains in the US, it’s a blueprint for constructing your own rustic, fire-led outdoor kitchen that blends into wherever you are. The recipes are meant to connect you with the nature—and the ingredients—you have right around you.
We caught up with the chef about his new project, and why it’s wherever he currently is that ignites him.
A lot of people dream about picking up and moving to a foreign country. What helped push you to actually do it? My wife originally brought me here, since she and her parents had been coming here [for vacation] for years. I immediately fell in love and, after a few years of figuring it all out, we decided to stay down here and start a restaurant [in Tulum] and raise a little family and begin really small. And to really explore the Yucatan.
I was really intrigued by the Mayan culture and learning a different education in a different type of farming, living, climate, and sea. It was brand new for someone who had cooked in New York for 15 years. It was definitely a leap of faith and it was unfunded and really risky, but ultimately we were in the right mindset to do that. That constant kind of excitement to explore and search out new things was in the forefront of our mind the whole time.
What surprised you about living in a resort town? You have to be the kind of person who wants to go into the interior of a place and explore and find out new things and is interested in that direction. I wasn’t coming down here for multiple vacations—I was coming down to really kind of think, “Can I live here? Can we do this?” [This place allowed me to] create my own energy through solar panels and batteries and have a complete zero waste approach and no footprint. And to cook over fire. There were many challenges in the beginning and still today. Then there were like four restaurants in the whole town and one supermarket- it was really small, very quaint and kind of coming from NYC it was a big change. Tulum has grown and has become a little bit more built up, but if you look for it it still has that same core feeling and heart.
There’s still a big impact of Mayan culture, which we’re in the heart of here. So every single farmers’ market is all coming from that land. There are expats down here who have farms but they’re all learning from the community. The core is still very deeply set in that, and you can’t not see it when you move here. Every part of Mexico has its own identity and its clearly understood when you go there what parts of identity exist. There are big difference between [nearby areas like] Oaxaca and San Miguel.
Right, Mexican food is so much more regional than many people seem to realize. What is typical of the area that you’ve utilized in your own food? The cuisine is more Caribbean here in Quintana Roo. There are a lot of ceviches and things from the sea because we’re right on the coast. Quintana Roo is called the jungle state of Mexico: We have jaguars, monkeys, and all these exotic animals. At Hartwood we try to embrace the Mexican-Caribbean cuisine, and have a lot of fish, lobster, ceviches, etc. There is also al pastor here. But this is a very international town, too. There are people from Italy, Japan, Turkey, and the US doing their own type of cuisine from where they are coming from. It’s not so much an area that’s really famous for one dish and you have to go and get that one dish. But that doesn’t make it any less appealing. A lot of cooks come here to try different interpretations of Mexican cuisine.
Where do you travel locally that inspires you? I like to go to Oaxaca a lot and to Chiapas. In Oaxaca, the markets are incredible, and the assortment of chiles and different types of food on offer—it’s just a part of Mexico that’s very very special. For Chiapas, it’s a totally different climate. It’s mountains and it’s green but it’s cold, and they are known there for coffee and different types of spices and kind of a whole different litany of fruits and vegetables and things we don’t really get up here near the Yucatan. It’s further south.
So what about The Outdoor Kitchen: Is the new book based on the food of Hartwood, one of these other regions, or….? The grill is obviously one of the core aspects of our cooking at Hartwood. But I like to go back to New York state in the [Catskill] Mountains and the parks and do a lot of hiking with my family. I still have family there. We’ve built the identical grill there, and a lot of the recipes [in the new book] are based off of going to the markets in the U.S. and inspired by that. There is the use of chiles and things that have become part of my cooking foundation from my time in Mexico, but this is more inspired by the time that I go back to the States and I’m cooking for my family and friends.
What changes about your cooking when you change locations? When back in the States and having a bunch of friends over, I like to do all different types of vegetables and create a menu based on that and allow it to be more of the forefront of dinner or the afternoon barbecue. Attention to fish or meat later on maybe, but I make the meal more about salads and vegetables. Our climate down here [in Tulum] is very humid and sometimes [it’s harder to work with] leafy greens and things like that. So I look forward to that and to the tremendous variety of vegetables I can cook with on the grill.
In general, I like going to markets when I travel and trying things that locals are creating and making. But I’m also a chef and cooking every day of my life for an 8 year old and eating the same things with her, so just like any other chef I definitely enjoy eating out at restaurants when I travel, too.
Where else in the world are you dreaming about eating? I travel a lot for work but am often confined to doing events and things. This year, we [are hoping to go] to Paris and I haven’t been in maybe about 16 years or something, so I would really look forward to going and exploring again. I think we’d like to go to Copenhagen after Paris and visit our friend Rene and go to the new Noma and see what that’s like.
Basically over the past couple of years I’ve been working on the book and at the restaurant and our schedules have been pretty much to the grind. The photographers Gentl and Hyers really helped this book come together in a beautiful way. I’m telling a kind of romantic story with food and how the fire works with food and how the grill comes to life. It’s about how cooking can be so freeing. Even the cover itself is kind of freeing. It allows you to be yourself, cooking outside for friends, for family, whenever. Hartwood is outdoors, it’s free, everything is wide open. Last night was a super full moon coming right up over the customers who were looking right into the kitchen. The book is exactly the same feeling, just put into a publication. That’s where the connection really lies.
Stacy Adimando is the former Editor-in-Chief of SAVEUR Magazine and a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. She is based in New York.