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Bare Necessities

What it’s really like to build a restaurant in paradise.

All this month, we’re partnering with The Paris Review to offer an exclusive subscription deal: get a subscription to both Lucky Peach and The Paris Review for only $50. 

Like virtually all the other restaurants on Tulum’s sole jungle-lined road, Hartwood is outdoors—a ten-by-fifty-meter rectangle framed by palm trees and sea grapes. The food is reliably simple and straightforward. A ceviche made with cobia recently pulled out of the Caribbean is bright with lime and smoky with mezcal. Whole roasted fish are flawlessly cooked. Here and there are elements that aren’t immediately identifiable: an ensalada of smoked fish with a bright pink pickled egg sits on top of something that looks like spinach. The egg turns out to have been steeped in hibiscus; the spinach-looking thing is chaya.

You can expect that every night the restaurant is open there will be a line forming outside by two in the afternoon. You can also expect that Eric Werner, the thirty-seven-year-old chef and co-owner with his wife, Mya Henry, will be on site, shuffling cast-iron pans in and out of the wood-burning oven in cutoffs and an apron. All the cooking at Hartwood is accomplished by fire, either in the oven or over the grill. The nearest electrical lines are miles away; solar panels power the lights, the only kitchen appliance (a blender), and the music that comes from Werner’s iPod.

Eric picks me up in a rented Jeep on a Tuesday, one of the days the restaurant is closed, and we head inland. (He calls it a “day off,” but on this excursion Werner will buy vegetables and fruits, blue plastic straws, and a few potted plants for the restaurant.) It’s an hour and a half to the town of Valladolid, where there’s a morning market. Eric is goofy and charming, like a deeply tanned Tom Hanks, complete with a Cast Away-length (but tidy) beard. He talks enthusiastically about everything, but is most animated when he talks about vegetables specific to the Yucatán, or the restaurant’s biodigester, which breaks all their waste down into nutrient-rich water to fertilize the surrounding mangroves.

I have a litany of questions, but first things first: How does a former New Yorker wind up with the most popular restaurant in Tulum?

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I.

I grew up in the woods in upstate New York, Delaware County. My whole life I’ve spent hunting and fishing. My father was a trapper for the state of New York.

I first got into cooking watching him. We had tons of deer meat all the time; I didn’t even have a real steak until I was, like, eighteen years old. He passed away when I was twelve, and when he passed, a lot of it came together for me—what I wanted to do, how I wanted to be, working outdoors.

My mother passed away when I was nine. You have to go through a lot as a kid when you lose both of your parents, but you’re given a sense of freedom to a certain degree that is only beneficial to you later on in life. When you’re younger, it’s not so good, but it’s kind of what brought me to cooking.

I was raised by my aunt and uncle for a little while, still in upstate New York, then I went away to school. I got thrown out of high school twice. Nothing really bad, just not going to school, choosing to snowboard—stupid things. But, in the end, I graduated with honors.

At school I cooked all the time. Back then you went into cooking because it was a trade. People—not everybody—go into cooking now because it’s kind of trendy. People think they can be a celebrity, superstar. Bullshit. When I went into cooking it was like, Yo, I have nobody to take care of me. I need to find something I can do.

I was in cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America for two years, but I couldn’t afford it. I left.

Eric was twenty years old when he left culinary school. He “begged” the pastry chef François Payard for a job, and worked without pay for five months, with “French guys who were so much better than I was.” While working for Payard, he worked a second job—the evening shift at a deli—and lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant on the cheap, with three other roommates. They slept in bunk beds and had a screen door to the bathroom and a tub that didn’t drain. (“If you were the third person to take a shower, you were standing in the other person’s freaking water. It was disgusting. It was bad.”)

After Payard, Werner joined 71 Clinton Fresh Food, the restaurant that Wylie Dufresne helmed before going on to open WD-50 up the street. Eventually, Werner became pastry chef at Alias, one of two Clinton Fresh Food offshoots. He found the staff intimidatingly talented. There was “the sous from the Mercer. The sous from Clinton Fresh Food. One of the guys worked for Wolfgang Puck. They were all older than me, and knew so much more than I did,” he recalls. Both Payard and Alias were brigade-style kitchens—tightly run ships, lots of shouting. “I would get yelled at constantly. I’m not saying that’s the right way to go, but it definitely drives you.”

At Alias, I would come in at ten o’clock in the morning and leave at two o’clock in the morning. I was so dedicated to the job and so dedicated to making pastries all the time. I was picking up a $300 paycheck for six days a week. It wasn’t about the money. It was really about surviving and learning as much as possible. I knew that building a resumé when I was younger was very important, no matter what it took. And I knew that working at the best places was only going to make the time spent worthwhile.

After working at Alias for four years, I quit. Being just totally ground down, I took off and I went to Grenada. Every chef does this. You power it out nonstop for years and years. But I think a lot of people now do that after a year. I don’t agree with that. It should be, like, four years. You should understand what work is first.

Werner flew to Grenada with a friend, and when the friend left, he decided to stay. He got ahold of a moped, and “made [his] way. Just traveled the whole island.”

I started understanding Caribbean food. I went to Trinidad and Tobago. I went to Panama. I went to Honduras.

I found a love for Caribbean markets and Caribbean food that’s always stuck with me. That’s where I first began spearfishing. That’s where I first went off and was by myself. I was twenty-five years old, and I would go from my apartment in St. George’s, where I was the only foreigner in the city, and get on an island-jumper plane to go to Port of Spain, in Trinidad. It was crazy. I went to these places in the middle of nowhere—it was kidnapper-ransom central. It was weirdo. But I found it exciting.

I would go to see this guy named Patrick there. This dude was six-foot-two, jet-black, and had a beach hut that was all pink and blue, where he made a five-course dinner that was very rustic. There was nothing fancy about it at all: breadfruit salads, fried flying fish, all these different, weird, cool things. And he wore a dress, a pink dress. He must have been in his forties, and he had been doing this forever. He would wash the dishes, make the food, do all kinds of different oxtail soups. Island food.

I had another friend, a local named Bishop, who I would go spearfishing with, and we would bring fish back to Patrick, who would make this Rasta feast. It was priceless for me to be a part of.

When Werner ran out of money, he headed back to New York City. That doesn’t seem like the place to go if you don’t have money, I remark. Why not find a job in the Caribbean? “I didn’t really want to work in a resort,” he says. “This is the kind of chef I am: I’m not going to work at some bullshit place and waste my time.” Burned out on pastry, he got a job on the line at Peasant, on Elizabeth Street, where he spent roughly the next eight years while working jobs on the side to make ends meet. One of those jobs was buying fabrics.

It turned out that his father had a lot of untanned furs languishing at an auction house upstate—thousands of dollars in furs. Werner got the furs tanned and sold them to companies like Rag & Bone and J. Mendel. “I started getting into fabric shows,” Werner says. It was during this period that Werner met his wife, Mya, who worked at the Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand, at an event that she had put together. “It became this little micro company. At night, I’d go to the restaurant with a backpack with tons of pelts in it.”

And it paid better than the cooking job. 

Most things pay better than a cooking job. That’s why cooking really takes a lot of dedication, and why a lot of chefs who start very early in cooking will break at twenty-seven or twenty-eight. You’re just yelled at and beaten down for so long in the kitchen that you’re just like, Fuck this job. I’m making no money.

You can’t have a girlfriend, you can’t have a life, you can’t have a family. You can’t have anything because you work every single night, and every single night after work you get drunk. You wake up just to go back to your shift. That’s what that life is.

At a certain point, you’re like, Is there more to this? I can’t even have a credit card! You don’t have anything, except your craft and what you know. So you have to make a decision at some point. I never wanted to give up cooking, I just wanted to pick up some extra cash.

Mya and Eric started to scheme.

Mya’s family had been visiting Tulum for years. “They’re old hippies,” Werner says, and they’d been coming to Tulum since the roads were dirt. He and Mya took a couple vacations there together.

“I had such tunnel vision, I was like, I’m going to work in New York for my whole life. She was like, We can try this. We can do this,” Werner says. “Coming down here throughout the years”—to Tulum and into the Yucatán, in particular—“made me realize that maybe this was the place I wanted to move to.”   

Mya and I lived with my grandmother in upstate New York while we still worked in the city. We commuted for a year and a half to save money. We had an apartment in the city that we rented out.

We maxed out all of Mya’s credit cards to open the business—I didn’t really have any credit. We would have gone into bankruptcy in the beginning if we didn’t work hard and make sure everything was done right. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress.

We built the restaurant from the ground up. We had to find the land and clear it. It’s very questionable land out here—what you actually own and what you don’t and what you’re paying for. You could lose it at any time. That’s why what we did was extremely risky for anybody to do. We wanted to try it out. We didn’t know what we were getting into. Back then, Tulum was very different. It was very cowboy.

There was no backup plan. The backup plan was that we would fail and move back to New York. And people would know we failed.

II.

At the market in Valladolid, Eric walks at a New York City clip. He shoots from stand to stand, grabbing dried chilies and lentils, speeding past the perfect-looking tomatoes and onions to the fruits and vegetables that don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen. His market totes are repurposed gravel bags—he fills them completely. Most of the women grin when they see him. Those who don’t immediately wind up reluctantly charmed: when he buys jasmine from a disgruntled-seeming flower-seller, she throws in some extra flowers. Werner learned Spanish in high school, then more Spanish while working in kitchens. “At every market, I get called güero, which means, like, straight white,” he says. “With these ladies I’m called tch tch, meaning, ‘Come here’ and ‘I know you.’”

He buys a few jacaratia—a green, torpedo-shaped fruit that’s actually a hybrid of six different fruits—that will go into a sauce for the next day’s ceviche. From the beginning, the ingredients and the fire have dictated Hartwood’s menu; seeking produce from Mayan farmers—chaya and jícara and prickly pear—is what especially excites Werner. He uses these chubby bananas called plátanos machos that he cooks in the fire whole, in their peels, then drizzles with honey. At his station, he keeps ramekins of ground-up cacao, avocado leaves, bee pollen, ground-up toasted pepitas, and sal de gusano (agave worm salt) to finish and garnish plates.

It’s pretty straightforward. There’s no reinvention of the wheel. It’s just using the products that are down here.

I’m here to combine traditional Yucatán ingredients with a type of older American cooking. That’s kind of what it comes down to. Over the years, that has evolved and developed and become its own kind of food. But that wasn’t always the plan. In the beginning, the plan was to try to make good food, and to hopefully have customers. That was basically it. 

In the beginning, I was taking pork fat and putting it into a cast-iron pan, getting it extremely hot, making a cold popover batter, pouring that into the pan, filling it with a béchamel or something, and allowing the popover to bake. It was really good, but it was super time-consuming and not really what people want to eat if they’ve been at the beach all day. You learn from all those things. I was twenty-nine when I first came down here.

Half of cooking is memory alone. You have to remember what you’ve tasted in your life and what tastes good to you. We do so much with fish. I grew up eating trout—a lot of freshwater fish—and then when I moved to the city I did a lot of work with fish. One of my first jobs out of culinary school was fishmongering, and I found that was really a lot of fun. I really like the cleanliness of fish, and fresh fish are beautiful. Whatever you find beauty in dictates what you are attracted to in cooking.

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It’s straightforward food, but it’s also really, really good food. The dishes at Hartwood are bright and balanced and nuanced. I ate a softball-sized beet, charred from the fire and served in a puddle of green stuff (“Avocado, habanero, honey, salt, and pieces of coconut to balance out and add a little fat to it,” Eric clarifies), skin and all. It was probably the best, beetiest beet I’ve ever had.

Werner piles the market haul into the back of the Jeep. He used to get stopped at a military checkpoint on his way back from the market. There would be trained dogs and guys in masks wielding M16s and Uzis, looking for drugs or weapons. “I’d have all this weirdo stuff from these markets, like spices in little baggies and fruits and vegetables. And, like, a pig’s head. And knives! By myself. I’d look like an insane person in an insane vehicle,” Werner says. “And they’d be like, ‘Pull to the side. What are you doing here?’ And after a while they got to know me. They’d be like, ‘Yo, what’s up!’ Or I’d bring them something to eat. Then they started texting me: Are you coming through? Can you please get us these tacos from this stand?

I ask whether people—locals and other restaurateurs—were resentful of Hartwood’s popularity.

In the beginning, I think so. And then people started to see that what we were doing was good. I’d have hotel owners come in and I’d give them free food. Comping things all the time. I just gave one of my neighbors all my old batteries to use. That would’ve cost, like, $2,000.

It’s all about helping the community. If I was down here and paying my fishermen and employees like shit and doing that kind of nonsense, there’d be reason to be resentful. But most of the people who had restaurants or hotels down here before I came to town have houses in town or on the beach, and the restaurant helps raise property values.

Last week we had fifteen motorcycle riders show up—Mexican bikers—and they wanted a reservation, and I was like, “Let’s try to accommodate them.” And we did, and they were so happy. They were having a great time, taking pictures near the pineapples.

There have been guests who come into the restaurant with armed security guards, or guests who pull up in four Humvees when we’re totally full. They’ll say, “We need a reservation right now.” And we’re like, Based on the Humvees and the silver spinners you have on them, we’ll probably do that.

I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be kidnapped, I have no idea. It’s frightening because you could be taken and never found again. You’re surrounded by so much wilderness. You’re in the middle of nowhere. 

What I realized in the beginning, because I would have those fears, is that what you do is create strength in numbers. We have eighteen families of fishermen that we support. Pig farmers that we support. Farmers that grow the fruits and vegetables. The size of the restaurant that you sit in at night is this size, but in reality, all the families it touches, is this size. In my opinion, that’s the only way you can succeed anywhere.

I’m not really in total support of people who have their own farm, their own plantation, their own this and that. What are you really doing? You’re hiring other farmers to work for you on your farm? Why don’t you give the farmer some money to start his own farm, let him be self-sufficient, and buy from him—maybe at a reduced rate because you gave him some money to buy the farm? Figure something out. Isn’t that better for mankind? Isn’t that better for all of us? Those were some of the questions I asked myself coming down here.

I would drive around and go from seeing beautiful hotels on the beach to seeing kids running around in what looked like dirty diapers and half clothes. And I’m like, Why the fuck should these people have everything, and these people not have everything?

Over five years, I’ve had farmers go from having nothing before to having their own truck. And now their kids are well-dressed. Before, they’d be selling a kilo of chaya a day, and now they’re selling nine kilos of chaya a day. They were growing this much before, using it for their family and selling a little bit of it on the street, and now they’re clearing more of the land that wasn’t being used, and growing more to supply the restaurant or supply other restaurants.

With my sprout guy, in the beginning, he was growing sunflower sprouts, melon sprouts, radish sprouts, and beet sprouts. Now he has over forty different types of sprouts and he goes up and down the coast to sell them.

But every decision that is made in benefit of the whole, someone or a couple people have to absorb the problems that come along with it. That’s why people choose to go with companies like Sysco. There aren’t any problems. You place an order, it comes in a truck, done. With this there’s a whole human aspect, and understanding that when the one farmer can’t go out, you’re going to have to go out for him if you really want his stuff.

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Tulum’s beauty is the most apparent thing about it, but staying there for any length of time reveals other facets: it’s removed, and a lot of people work very hard for you to be comfortable here. During my trip, I got something like thirty mosquito bites. I got food poisoning from bad shellfish at a fancy-seeming restaurant across from my hotel, and spent two days throwing up more than seemed possible and expelling horrible stuff into a toilet, down which I could not flush toilet paper, because you don’t flush toilet paper in Tulum. Which is to say, the idyll comes at a price. Which is also to say, it’s really hard to maintain a restaurant in paradise.

When people say that they’re envious or jealous, you gotta be like, Dude… It’s a restaurant completely outdoors, so you can imagine what that entails. You’re thrown against the elements. You’re dealing with wet wood when you’re cooking at night if it rains. You’re dealing with crazy things. Monkeys coming in the kitchen. To get the restaurant to look like it does every night is a huge job. It takes twenty people to do that. Perfectly painted, gravel, tables, everything, all the time. If you left the restaurant without anybody maintaining it, in a week, it would be covered in leaves and palm fronds.

Yes, to do this is a fantasy. Yes, to do this is paradise. But there are so many hurdles and rough times and things you have to go through in order to do this. It’s not like you’re going from New York to Paris. You’re going from New York to the middle of nowhere. You’re not trying to go against the grain. You’re trying to understand the grain and get yourself in peace with the land.

I’ve been stung by a scorpion. I’ve been bit by snakes. I’ve been bit by crazy ants. I’ve been bit by crazy spiders. I’ve been put in the hospital.

I was bit by a certain type of white spider, and it blew up my foot to double or triple the size. I worked with it and it got even worse. I had to go to the hospital. These things happen. You get staph infections. Spiny lobsters have a certain type of venom, and if it goes inside your nail, it blows up your whole hand. One of my chefs had to get his hand drained. There are crazy things here; it’s so wild, and you have such a city body that hasn’t adjusted to these things, so when you’re first acclimating—you can ask the cooks in my kitchen. Their legs were ripped up by mosquitos when they first came down here. Now I don’t get bitten by mosquitos. That same white spider bit me the other night. I saw it bite me and I was like, Oh shit! No problem.

My daughter’s been sick. My wife has been sick. My wife and I didn’t have hot water for two years. Imagine coming home after working in the kitchen and you’re covered in grease and smoke and you have nothing but cold water every single night.

When we first opened up the restaurant, there was a wild dog on the property that didn’t want to leave. It mated with another dog in the area, and so we had five puppies that would run underneath the tables at night, all through service. We had four cats at home. Nobody in town sold curtains, so our windows had no curtains. We had to put up newspapers all over our windows with little eyeholes to see outside. It was completely out of control. Looking back, it was a lot of fun, but there were a lot of tears and a lot of: Are we going to be able to do this?

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To say they did do it would be an understatement. Regardless of day or season, the restaurant is gills-packed with vacationing tourists, many of whom are chefs and journalists. (On a night I was there, they had a big reservation in the books—a bunch of GQ editors—and Werner was looking anxious about the rain. It’d rain a little, the staff would squeegee the water off the tables, and go back to nervously watching for rain. In the end, it was fine.) For the last couple years, Mya and Eric have been writing a cookbook, due out this October. “A book, a child, a restaurant in the jungle that runs off solar energy and breaks down its own waste,” Werner says. “We are gluttons for punishment.” 

My father-in-law told me before I came down, “You’re going to see that it’s funny what you can accomplish when you have to.”

He’s right. When you have to accomplish something, you accomplish it. Or you do your best to accomplish it. And working hard is an accomplishment in itself.

You have to understand that your mind doesn’t really matter, and your body can keep going. That’s basically what it comes down to. As soon as you’re telling yourself you’re tired, as soon as you’re telling yourself you can’t make it, you’re already knocking yourself down and taking yourself out.

And the biggest thing is remembering that it never can be you by yourself. You have to ask for help from others. To go into another man’s country, you must be humble enough to learn as much as you can. To come down here and to think that you know it all, or to come down here and to think that you have the answers, or you’re here to teach—you’re completely wrong.

My wife is a true champion. Within the second year of opening, we had our daughter, Charlie. We had her with a midwife, at our home, and Mya was in labor for twenty hours. I came from service, got home, and she said, “I think we’re going to have a baby.”

Charlie is a crazy lady. All our friends are Mayan, and she’s whiter than white with blond hair, blue eyes, and is always naked on the beach running with all the other Mayan kids. She completely stands out. She’ll be sitting at a table with a whole Mayan family, and she’ll be there like it’s nothing. It’s really cute.

But I can tell already Charlie’s going to have her own path. This is my wife’s and my decision to be here doing this. Charlie has a Mexican passport, so she has dual citizenship. That’s what I can give to her. I encourage her to go to school. I encourage her to get a real degree. I encourage her to do proper things. 

This turned proper. In the beginning it was very risky and improper. I don’t think that many people have done this before. So for us to do this and for us to succeed has only been by the grace of God and the product of hard work and sacrifice. But is that for everybody? No, it’s not. Maybe if I had both of my parents or was raised differently, I might not be down here doing this. This wasn’t just a decision of cooking as much as it was a decision to find out who I am inside.

That’s why when I’m driving out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t listen to music. There’s nothing to distract me from the meditative part of being in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing more disruptive than being in the middle of nowhere, and some song brings you back to some other place. I really enjoy the peace and quiet that’s out here. Something that’s older, so much older than I could ever be—so much bigger.

Living in paradise turns out to be a precarious balancing act—even once you’re there, once you’ve reached that good, perfect place of being happy, it has the potential to quickly become its own kind of burden.

I ask Werner whether he ever feels restless, and he says he doesn’t. “I really love it out here,” he says. “I feel really grateful to be able to do what I do. To cook outdoors, go to the farms, go to the markets.” I ask him about things I have a tendency toward: panicking, despite the fact that things are going well; wanting to quit, despite success; “or sabotaging yourself,” he says, reading my mind. “All of those things,” he says.

It’s just—that’s why hard work was created. You don’t have to focus on all those things if you’re focusing on your work. You have to stop filling your mind with all those bad, negative things that could possibly happen: This could happen, that could happen. That’s inevitable.

I’ve had that problem for such a long time. After losing my parents, I thought that shit was gonna happen all the time. This is too good to be true, something bad’s gonna happen. I used to always think that with this place, with this restaurant. Mya, something bad’s going to happen, I just know it. She’s like, Just calm down. Stop.

As long as you do everything honestly every day—as long as you’re a good person, you give to others, you’re honest and fair, and you know inside your heart that you’re doing the right thing—then what do you have to worry about? Anything bad that happens, you can’t control, but you can know that you’re doing the right and good thing.

All this month, we’re partnering with The Paris Review to offer an exclusive subscription deal: get a subscription to both Lucky Peach and The Paris Review for only $50.