MEXICO CITY -- Christopher Kostow foraged in the open stalls of the Mercado San Juan, the most gourmet of Mexico City's crumbling, pungent public markets, as vendors hawked: "This way, this way! What can we offer you?"

Kostow, whose Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley has three Michelin stars, wanted to sample the diversity of the country's fresh ingredients: gray oysters from Baja California, lychee-like hairy rambutan from southern Chiapas, and bags of red flying ants from Oaxaca.

Like other top chefs from around the world, Kostow comes to study and experiment with the purity of ingredients and flavors in real Mexican cuisine, now a top export commodity that was dismissed for decades as tortillas suffocated in heavy sauces, cheeses and sour cream.

"I don't know if you come to Mexico to learn what's new, but rather you come to Mexico to learn what's old," said Kostow, referring to the ancient cooking traditions of the many indigenous groups. "There are flavors of great depth, and there are techniques that are pretty challenging."

Though the movement has been slow, Mexico in the last few years has begrudgingly earned the respect of an Italy or France as a destination for the world's foodies, be they top chefs such as Kostow, who was crowned America's best new chef just three years ago, or curious foreigners in sandals writing food blogs and leading mezcal-tasting tours.

Mexico's diverse terrain, from deserts and coastlines to cloud forests and jungles, has produced a vast range of flora and fauna that since pre-Hispanic times provided the ingredients for dishes that vary by ecosystem. It is the perfect model for the new global trend to cook "paleo" and eat local.

In Mexico, that includes worms, grasshoppers and insect larvae, long considered caviar-like delicacies that are now being introduced to a wider world.

"A lot of people that I know are sort of turning their eyes to Mexico as a new place where a lot of innovation is going to happen," said Lars Williams, the research director of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. "It's going to be a very strong player in the culinary world."

Star chef Alex Stupak, who runs a high-end taco joint in New York, visited a Mexico City street food stall and made a cellphone recording of cooks kneading masa dough to make huaraches, thick oval tortillas topped with cheese and steak resembling the leather sole for which they're named.

He is experimenting with pasta made from the same dough.

"We are trying to get the right consistency," Stupak said.

Up-and-comer Rosio Sanchez, a Mexican-American pastry chef at Copenhagen's Noma – recently named the best restaurant in the world – made her signature Gammel Dansk dessert, substituting the Danish liqueur with tequila and bathing the creamy whey in bitter cactus juice.

The leaders of this movement include Mexican chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol restaurant, a pioneer in the country's rediscovery of its authentic cuisine. He has been featured in local magazines as a young yet influential cook who has managed to modernize Mexico's pre-Hispanic food traditions in an elegant way.

His menu includes tostadas with escamoles, ant larvae, and green mole made with different types of ubiquitous Mexican herbs cultivated since Aztec times, known as quelites, that can range in taste from spinach salty to minty.

Olvera has traveled the world in the past few years, including Napa Valley and Copenhagen, forming a large network of the world's best cooks, most ranging in age from late 20s to mid-30s. His creative plates have inspired chefs such as Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco, who said Olvera shows them not how to make Mexican food, but to incorporate Mexican flavors into their own creations.

"Mexico is definitely a strong taste influence that we have," Patterson said. "I like Mexican cooking, the depth but also the brightness, a lot of acidity."

It's a hard sell in some aspects, especially to Mexico's Taco Bell-inundated neighbor to the north.

Soft tacos of crunchy grasshoppers or ants' larvae seasoned with garlic, onion and green pepper are delightful to many Mexicans. Paxia, one of Mexico City's many new restaurants featuring haute cuisine, includes a plate of fat, delicately seasoned worms on its menu, as does Olvera's Pujol.

"How can you get gringos to eat bugs?" said Nordic Food Lab's Williams, who grew up in New York City.

Williams and his team experiment with Mexican techniques at the nonprofit lab established by Noma chef Rene Redzepi.

One goal, he says, is to discover new flavors in edible bugs. Ants spray a defensive chemical that tastes like coriander or tobacco, and fermented grasshopper's juice tastes like a mix of mole and soy sauce, they discovered.

"We are trying to get insects to be seen as a very valuable commodity," Williams said.

Mexico's original food pilgrim, Diana Kennedy, who is considered the world's recognized authority on Mexican cuisine and has made a career of preserving its heritage, worries some of these chefs are mixing the wrong ingredients and "killing the flavor."

"Many of them are using it as a novelty and do not know the things that go together," she said. "If you are going to play around with ingredients, exotic ingredients, you've got to know how to treat them."

She also says these cooks may be biting off more than American or European clients can chew.

"It's going to be a very small public that's going to accept these very innovative things," she said.

Olvera recently invited a group of chefs to a Mexico City food conference where they shared ideas and dishes, and spent off hours exploring markets, kitchens and restaurants of their Mexican colleagues. They opened the conference with banquet featuring the fruits of their experiments.

Olvera presented a charred mushroom tamale that was smoked, not steamed, bathed in Serrano chile sauce that was just spicy enough to draw attention.

"In this time of year, it gets very foggy, like misty," Olvera said of his technique. "We added roots of cilantro, which is our way to say that our dishes have roots."

Stupak made crunchy waves of masa sandwiching shrimp, sea urchin mousse and roasted tomato sauce.

Sanchez, the pastry chef at Noma, knew she wanted something acidic to transform her Danish bitters dessert.

The Chicago-born daughter of two Mexican parents tried with juice from the fruit of prickly pear cactus, but it didn't work. It wasn't until she tasted the juice of the plant, the spine-covered green paddles known in Mexico as "nopal," in a sorbet at Mexico City's Quintonil restaurant that she had the answer.

Drinking mezcal later that night, Sanchez asked chef Jorge Vallejo how he made it. Easy, he said, you just stew the cactus leaves in salt and lime and smash them. The 27-year-old Sanchez, her sous chef and Vallejo smashed cactus late into the night at Vallejo's restaurant until they were a mess. Then they rinsed and pureed it.

Less than 12 hours before the banquet, she was juicing 20 kilos of cactus for her signature dessert, a disc made of whey with roasted agave syrup, milk ice cream, crumbs and small cookies. The cactus juice gave it a taste that was acidic, then sweet and finally creamy.

"We were like, `That's amazing,'" Sanchez said.


Loading Slideshow...
  • Richard Sandoval

    Growing up in Mexico City, <a href="" target="_hplink">Richard Sandoval</a> was inspired to enter the culinary world by his mother's homecooking and his restaurateur father's business acumen. He eventually found himself in culinary school at the CIA in upstate New York. After graduating, Sandoval worked in classic French restaurants in NYC, but returned to his roots in 1997 when he opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Maya</a>. He later partnered with opera star Placido Domino to open <a href="" target="_hplink">Pampano</a> in midtown. Sandoval now has restaurants all over the world, covering authentic Mexican cuisine, coastal Mexican cuisine, contemporary Mexican cuisine and even fusion cuisine.

  • Mary Sue Milliken And Susan Feniger

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Mary Sue and Susan</a> have been friends and business partners for more than 25 years. Both chefs began their careers working in fine French dining, but were drawn to the cuisine of Mexico by their staffs. In 1985, the two took a road trip to Mexico, discovering a new world of flavor. They came back with a plan to open their own Mexican restaurant together, <a href="" target="_hplink">Border Grill</a>. With three locations in southern California and a food truck, the restaurants offer authentic Mexican cuisine. The two ladies have also made television appearances on the Food Network and Mary Sue Milliken was a contestant on the third season of Top Chef Masters.

  • Rick Bayless

    Ricky Bayless's name is synonymous with Mexican cuisine. Born in Oklahoma to restaurateurs who owned a local barbecue restaurant, Bayless gained an appreciation for food at an early age. Inspired by his Latin American studies in college, he moved to Mexico with his wife in the 1980s. There he wrote his first cookbook, "<a href="" target="_hplink">Authentic Mexican</a>," which was hailed as the greatest contribution to the Mexican table by Craig Claiborne. In 1987, Bayless moved to Chicago and opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Frontera Grill</a>, which specializes in contemporary regional cuisine. In 1989 he opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Topolobampo</a>. Bayless won the first season of Top Chef Masters. He continues to write cookbooks and host his award-winning cooking show on PBS.

  • Zarela Martinez

    Born in Mexico, <a href="a href="" target="_hplink"" target="_hplink">Zarela Martinez</a> began cooking in Texas during the 1970s out of necessity but soon saw herself drawn to the culinary world. She mentored under Paul Prudhomme and was soon noticed by restaurant critic Craig Claiborne. She moved her family (including son Aarón Sanchez) to New York City and consulted for the city's first Mexican regional cuisine restaurant, Cafe Marimba, eventually becoming its executive chef. In 1987, she opened her own restaurant, Zarela, which closed in 2011. Martinez continues to work on various projects and cookbooks. Her fans hope a new restaurant may be in her future.

  • Aarón Sanchez

    Most people will recognize Aarón Sanchez as the tattooed chef from the Food Network, but he's more than just a TV personality. Aaron began cooking at a young age helping his mother with her catering business (Sanchez's mother is Zarela Martinez). After mentoring under chef Paul Prudhomme in his teens, Sanchez entered culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Afterward he found himself working in San Francisco and later New York. He is executive chef of NYC's <a href="" target="_hplink">Centrico</a> restaurant, which serves elevated regional Mexican cuisine.

  • Roberto Santibañez

    As a native of Mexico City, <a href="" target="_hplink">Roberto Santibañez</a> left for Paris to pursue a culinary career. After working in restaurants throughout Europe and Mexico, Santibañez left for Austin, Texas in 1997 to work at <a href="" target="_hplink">Fonda San Miguel</a>. In 2002 he joined <a href="" target="_hplink">Rosa Mexicano</a> in NYC, making it one of the most popular upscale Mexican restaurants. He recently opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Fonda restaurant</a> in Brooklyn and Manhattan, serving urban-style Mexican food. He recently released a new cookbook, "<a href="" target="_hplink">Truly Mexican</a>."

  • Alex Stupak

    Can a pastry chef make the transition to executive chef? And can that pastry chef switch from cooking modernist cuisine to Mexican? <a href="" target="_hplink">Alex Stupak has done both</a>. After working as the pastry chef for some of the best and most creative chefs like Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in NYC, Stupak wanted a change of pace. In 2010 he decided to switch to Mexican cuisine and opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Empellon Taqueria</a> in the East Village. But this isn't the standard taco joint, but an upscale one. Just this past February he opened a sister restaurant <a href="" target="_hplink">Empellon Cocina</a>, which serves as his modern exploration in Mexican cuisine. Chef Stupak is the one to keep an eye on.

  • Jose Garces

    Born to Ecuadorian parents in Chicago, <a href="" target="_hplink">Jose Garces</a> has made a name for himself in the culinary scene with restaurants in both Chicago and Philadelphia, including his modern Mexican eatery, <a href="" target="_hplink">Distrito</a>, in University City, Philly. He was named best chef mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation in 2008. Most people will recognize Garces from the Food Network, where he's made appearances on Iron Chef America and won the Next Iron Chef competition in 2009.

  • Jose Andrés

    As a disciple of experimental chef Ferran Adria, Jose Andrés decided to leave Spain and make a name for himself in the United States. He began working in restaurants in D.C. and helped create Jaleo, one of the first Spanish tapas restaurants in the country. Although best known as one of the premiere Spanish chefs in America, Andrés put his stamp on Mexican cuisine when in 2004 he opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Oyamel</a>, a restaurant combining classic Mexican cuisine with modern touches featuring "antojitos," Mexico's version of tapas. One of Andrés' newer restaurants, <a href="" target="_hplink">China Poblano</a> in Las Vegas, combines Chinese-Mexican fusion, based on the influence Spanish exploration and the spice trade had on both countries during the 16th century. Andrés continues to open restaurants, write cookbooks, host television shows on PBS and run his business <a href="" target="_hplink">Think Food Group</a>.

  • Traci Des Jardins

    Born and raised in California, <a href="" target="_hplink">Traci Des Jardin</a>'s culinary journey was influenced by her Mexican and French Acadian grandparents. After working in the best kitchens in Los Angeles, San Francisco and France, where she apprenticed with some of the biggest names in French cuisine including Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard, she opened her French-California cuisine hybrid, <a href="" target="_hplink">Jardinière</a>, in San Francisco in 1997. In 2004, Des Jardins opened <a href="" target="_hplink">Mijita Cocina Mexicana</a> in San Francisco. Inspired by her cooking lessons with her grandmother, the restaurant offers the best combination of seasonal and local food with traditional Mexican flavors.