Eric Werner on Hartwood restaurant: 'We were just following our dream'

Mya Henry and Eric Werner turned their shared dream into a reality by opening the restaurant Hartwood near the Caribbean Sea in Tulum, Mexico. They are co-authors of a book by the same name.

Von Diaz: When I looked at this cookbook, I thought immediately, "If I could dream up a restaurant, and if I could eat a single food for the rest of my life, it would probably look like the food that's in your cookbook." Can you paint a picture of Hartwood?

EricWerner_MyaHenry
Mya Henry and Eric Werner (Photo: Gentl & Hyers)

Eric Werner: Hartwood is a restaurant that is located in Tulum, Mexico. It's on a road with no electricity, no plumbing from town. Everything at the restaurant is run by solar.

When you walk into the restaurant, it has a white gravel floor, all wooden tables, it's completely open to the sky. We have a wooden palapa semi-roof that's off to the left-hand side. The kitchen is completely wide open with no walls to it. It is one large wood-burning oven and one large wood-burning grill. Everything is right there in front of you, all to see, so there's nothing being hidden.

VD: What happens when it rains?

EW: Usually it doesn't happen so much at night except for September and October. Generally those are the months we're closed out of the year because of the weather.

If it does rain, then there are places -- we have an upstairs section that's a little bit covered or people come into the kitchen for the 15 minutes that the rain shower happens. We do a shot of mezcal with everybody and try to make everybody as happy as possible.

VD: What do you call your food?

EW: Basically it's not Mexican and it's not American. It's a combination of the both. It really embodies a lot of the characteristics of Yucatecan-style food but done in an American way. We're using all peninsula ingredients that are all grown locally and organically, and putting them into a style that is somewhat older American and Mexican mixed together.

VD: Can you describe a dish that's really popular?

Chicken Legs Recado Rojo
Hartwood recipe: Chicken Legs Recado Rojo

EW: One of the most popular dishes is Yucatan ceviche. That is done with a ginger, mezcal, citrus chili. That's usually done with different types of fish that we get. We don't know what kind of fish we're going to get except for the day that they come in.

VD: I understand that most of the fish there are spear-caught?

EW: Most of the fish that we get in the restaurant, almost all of it, is spear-caught. That's one of the practices that we really try to make sure happens all the time, so that it doesn't produce overfishing. We're very much in tune with what's going on and what's running along the Caribbean so as not to put on something that's out of season, in nursing or only a few that are out there. We try to maintain balance all around.

VD: Tell me about some of the people who work at Hartwood.

EW: A lot of Maya community work at the restaurant. These are people who we brought in to do certain things, certain jobs in the restaurant. But we have become so close that they are really like our family.

Antonio was one of the first people we met. He is an older man. He has so much wisdom and so much knowledge about the area. He is so kind and so gentle, but shows a work ethic that I've never seen before. He's someone that I learn from every single day.

VD: It strikes me that you've been very intentional about every aspect of this restaurant: where it's located, what you serve, how you interact with the local community. Can you walk me through that process?

EW: Those aspects are probably more of a human characteristic rather than a thought-out business plan.

VD: What do you mean?

EW: Meaning that it's what you have inside of yourself. When Mya first presented this idea to me -- she was like, "Let's figure out how to do this" -- this was a dream. This was a dream that we both shared together. She was like, "Let's do this." I was like, "OK, let's try to do the best that we can."

In order to have a restaurant that is going to have fresh seafood every single day and be served on a platter only hours out of the water, it must be near the sea, in my opinion. In order to have a restaurant that is going to be run off solar energy, it must be in an area that doesn't have electricity.

These are ideas that we didn't really think all the way through in the beginning. We were just following our dream. It came about that way, some of it by mistake, but good mistakes. But it's hard to look back and see that this was intentional, that this wasn't intentional. It just really is hard work every single day, all the time. That really plays through in what you do.

VD: How do you make it all work? How do you honor the history of the local landscape and honor this community that you're really entrenched in while staying relevant and fresh?

EW: I would say it's a constant mindset. When Mya and I are in Tulum, we are non-stop thinking about the restaurant all the time. It requires that much attention always. It's turned into not just a job, but something that has become such a huge part of our life that we can't even see another way at this point. The aspect of being true to the community, that must be thought out in every single step of what you do.

VD: What was the hardest part of this whole process? Was there a moment where you felt like you were going to lose your mind?

EW: In the event that there was a hurricane or in the event that there was a large storm, what would we do? That happened to us one time where there was a torrential storm for about two to three months. It didn't stop raining and the restaurant got flooded. But we used that as an opportunity to redo everything -- to clean up the tables, to refinish things and to take a look at how our structure is really sound. To build on that to make it a little better for the future.

From This Episode: 
Ruled by Fire
Published: 
December 4th, 2015

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