A culinary proposal that empowers indigenous peoples through each and every one of its dishes. That is the philosophy behind Chef Elio Xicum Cobá’s cuisine. At 31 years old, Elio has turned his kitchen into a stage where he develops a narrative about the communities and their inhabitants.
As a Yucatecan, Elio does not just prepare Yucatecan cuisine, an icon of one of the greatest and most important cultures. In fact, he points out that his cuisine is no longer just traditional and defines it as “cuisine of origin, of history, and community that always seeks to create its own proposal.”
Elio Xicum was born and raised in Chumayel, a small town near Maní, in a family of Maya-speaking parents with whom he speaks only Maya. Although both his parents cooked, his dad was the one who had “the touch.” Whenever he got into the kitchen there was a guarantee that they would eat deliciously. Even a simple broth would turn out to be amazing!
Elio’s father learned from his own father. Elio’s grandfather is a figure that lives on in his memory. “I remember him a lot with his Jícara, making Sikil P’aak, all my cousins around him,” Elio told me, reminiscing about the past. Together they would eat tortillas fresh from the embers, enjoying the heat in the pumpkin seed and tomato dip prepared by his grandfather. Elio considers that these experiences have given him the opportunity to tell stories in his dishes.
As an adult, Elio had a strong wake-up call: he was forced to witness many instances of discrimination. He was especially touched by those directed at his parents. Elio says that his mother sold Panuchos and snacks at his elementary school. It was her way of supporting her children’s growth. However, many of the teachers there would direct some kind of discrimination in her direction. His father, on visits to Mérida, also went through similar experiences, which the chef clearly prefers not to delve into.
“People from rural communities are frequently looked down upon,” chef Elio Xicum pointed out; “how many more of these instances happen all the time?” This has led Elio to create a style of cooking where most, if not all, dishes have first and last names. “Juan, El Pescador” (Juan, The Fisherman), “Guayaberas” (a reference to his father), and “La Dama de La Miel” (The Honey Lady) are some of the names of the dishes. Behind each is a person involved in its creation process. This may be through an ingredient that was purchased from a local producer or a story he wants to bring attention to. One example is Vuela Homero (Fly, Homero), a spectacular dish from which butterflies seem to emerge; it pays homage to an environmental activist from Michoacán.
Elio believes in food as an opportunity to bring visibility to many issues that are latent, to talk about situations, characters, and moments. “At the end of the day,” he told me very seriously, “it is also an opportunity to protest.” In the case of Elio Xicum, the protest and rebellion come from the moment he chose a career in culinary arts. His parents were against it, but he stood firm, and now he is recognized as one of the greatest creators of Yucatecan and Mexican cuisine.
In Elio’s day-to-day life, the stories reach the public and become visible. In the restaurant where he works, the chef approaches the guests to talk with them. It is a somewhat exhausting cooking concept because of the amount of interaction, but it is necessary to give identity to what Elio and his team do in the kitchen of La Perla Pixán, in Quintana Roo. He tells the guests what region the ingredients come from, who was involved in making it. And on multiple occasions, the guest wants to meet Doña María or Don Felipe. “The Pixán experience doesn’t end when the last dish is on the table; that’s where it begins,” Elio often tells visitors.
Currently, Elio Xicum Cobá can be found as Executive Chef at La Perla Pixán in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo. Just in November, he was in the Saint Pellegrino Young Chef world competition in Milan, Italy, with the dish Tamal Nohoch Ná, after being a Semifinalist in the Mexico 2019 edition.
Editorial by Olivia Camarena
Yucatecan communicologist. Your favorite Assistant Editor. Writer, blogger, and bookstagrammer in her spare time. She also experiments with TikTok.
Photography courtesy of Elio Xicum Cobá for its use in Yucatán Today.
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