It’s no secret that the hospitality industry has taken a hit since the pandemic but even in the thick of 2020, MeXo didn’t slow down. This pre-Hispanic modern Mexican restaurant was recognized by the American Culinary Federation and awarded ‘Innovative Organization of 2020’ for its creative combinations that overlap ancient Mesoamerican and present-day Mexican cuisine. But who's the chef behind the layers of flavor? Executive Chef Oscar Moreno, a native of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
The American Culinary Federation caught a glimpse of this type of game-changing innovation and awarded him Chef Professional of the Year for Grand Rapids. Chef Oscar’s passion for food is rooted in the importance it had in his family while growing up. That passion grew as he worked as a sous chef from country to country – learning historical culinary techniques and utilizing raw, fresh ingredients to create a fusion of authentic flavors.
With a spotlight shining on this hidden gem, we want to know from the chef himself – what’s the inspiration behind MeXo?
How did you become so passionate about cooking pre-Hispanic and Mesoamercian cuisine?
Mexico is one of the only countries in the world that still passes on ancient culinary techniques and recipes from generation to generation – which is what inspires me the most. I wanted to highlight the health-centric diet of pre-Hispanic food because I think the United States has a misconception that Mexican food is primarily unhealthy. I’ve always been intrigued by my culture so I started digging into my pre-Hispanic roots and combined the traditional Mesoamerican flavors with a new, modern Mexican twist.
What does it mean to cook pre-Hispanic?
All cuisine in pre-Hispanic times was gluten free and dairy free – with corn substitutes and no cheese. When the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500s, we started adapting European ingredients that you see in Mexican cuisine right now, like pork, chicken, and beef. Back in these ancient times, it was a ritual to cook for the family. From growing to harvesting and cooking the ingredients, it was all a form of praise and respect, to ask permission from the Gods to use produce from the earth. As a chef, I believe you need to have a deep appreciation for each element in the dish – which is exactly how things were done in pre-Hispanic times.
What makes the MeXo experience so unique?
MeXo is focused on the unique history of each dish. Unlike other Mexican restaurants that hone in on a single region, we take a different approach and play off the ancient and modern culinary techniques of the country as a whole. We even bring back seeds from Mexico to plant in our greenhouses so we can grow fresh herbs and vegetables like my ancestors did in ancient times. To me, cooking is energy – it’s a cultural experience. When people walk into the building, they see a gallery full of pre-Hispanic art – both visual and edible – and are transported to both past and present-day Mexico with traditional paintings and authentic flavors.
How do you give back to the community, and how is MeXo continually innovating?
During the pandemic we stayed busy partnering with nonprofits to feed hundreds of families with the food that we couldn’t utilize when we were shut down. I also created a program to help other Hispanic restaurants and owners with the operational aspects of running a business like food costs and inventory. The MeXo team works around the clock, even in a pandemic, to support local businesses, create new seasonal menus, and surprise you with tasty specials.
What's next for MeXo?
We are just about to release our new summer menu and with every menu, we use seasonal produce, local meat, and fresh vegetables to incorporate into each dish. As one of the most iconic pre-Hispanic foods, we try to show different kinds of moles on our menus. Mole at MeXo is gluten-free, nut-free, and vegetable based so you can get a taste of this classic snack even if you’re vegan. Also, with ArtPrize coming up this September, Arturo Morales is painting a mural that starts in our back patio and will wrap around the entire MeXo building, showing a cultural representation of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to modern Mexico.
Chef Oscar clearly has an overwhelming passion for the flavors he creates – but more than that, he is here to share the culture, history, and culinary experiences of Mexico with the people of Grand Rapids. If you’re interested in a trip to MeXo, you don’t have to go too far. Visit Chef Oscar and try these authentic flavors.
118 E. Fulton St., Grand Rapids
mexogr.com | 616.828.4123