The Unexpected Mexican Master of Japanese Tea

03.31.2018 Arts & Culture
Marie Salcido
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Across the globe, the arrival of spring is nearly synonymous with fresh starts and new beginnings. Here in America, we ditch heavy winter layers and clean out our closets with a renewed outlook come spring. But in Japan, during the season of yayoi (or sangatsu) they celebrate new life in all its tangible forms: the abundance of cherry blossoms illuminating the country with their rosy, fragrant blooms and the anticipated arrival of the first tea harvest of the season. To the Japanese, the celebrated shincha represents fresh beginnings and the promise that comes with them… all poured into a cup of tea.

Joy, comfort, relief. Mauricio Zubirats says that’s the meaning behind Raku, the so-named shoebox-sized (100-square-foot) cafe he opened on a quiet street in Mexico City’s hippest ‘hood, Condesa, this past fall. The space is minimalistic, yet cozy, with wood-paneled walls and a bare countertop, save for a simple flower arrangement displayed in a centuries-old Japanese bronze vase. Behind the counter stands Mauricio himself: bearded, gentle, with kind eyes that smile at you through square-framed glasses, ready to offer a moment’s indulgence in the form of  traditional matcha or freshly roasted coffee. Despite his Mexican roots, Mauricio has fostered a curiosity and passion for Japanese culture since a young age.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved the cuisine. We would go every birthday to the same Japanese restaurant,” laughs the 31-year-old. “I don’t know why, but I always felt a super strange, unexplainable connection with Japan.”

It baffled his mother, an art dealer and single parent, who enrolled him in Liceo Mexicano Japonés, a Japanese school in Mexico City, where he studied the language and culture alongside more odious elementary and high school courses like geometry and algebra, which to him felt foreign and incomprehensible.

When it was time to choose a career, he enrolled at CESSA, arguably the most renowned culinary program in Mexico, where he immediately fell in stride with his coursework and his like-minded classmates. As summer internships rolled around, he followed his gut instinct and applied to restaurants throughout Japan. When one inquiry resulted in an invitation to Ryugin in Tokyo, he didn’t think twice.

“My mom asked me, ‘How are you going to go to Japan?’ and I said I didn’t care. It was a five minute discussion. From day one, it was all about going there,” explains the young entrepreneur.

Looking back, those eight weeks of tireless training and cooking in the kitchen of what is now a three-star Michelin restaurant was well worth it.

“I’ve never had such a hard time in my life, but in the greatest way. Everything was so strict and disciplined but I learned so much about cooking and about life. From then on, I was a completely different me,” he recalls of his 14-hour days in the kitchen. “I learned hard work is the only way. Of course you want to be happy about what you do, but everything about cooking and service really comes down to generosity and giving happiness to other people. It’s not about showing off, and it’s only important that you change someone’s experience or moment. If not, it’s an empty job.”

Subsequent summer internships for the young chef were equally impressive: the triple Michelin-starred and reputably sustainable Azurmendi, and Copenhagen’s Noma (purported as the best restaurant in the world) rounded out the list.

By the time he graduated and was working in Mexico City, his resume spoke for itself. But after years of running kitchens in the city’s top restaurants, working as a private chef for Mexico’s elite upper class, and even starring in a Lincoln television ad highlighting rising star chefs, Mauricio began to feel completely detached from himself and from the spiritual connection to cooking that he’d found in Japan.

“All of a sudden, this job that I used to love became the reason I was miserable all the time. It was horrible,” he recalls, eyes brimming with tears. “All this momentum and working my ass off in the kitchen — and I didn’t feel good or comfortable with it,” he remembers. “But at the same time, I was very intoxicated by my ego. As I got closer to becoming what you would call a ‘successful’ chef, I was feeling more and more empty because the drive wasn’t about being a better self. It was just about success, recognition and earning money. I couldn’t have any type of relationship, I was so neurotic, and I was empty.”

Amidst the exhaustion and misery, Mauricio was reconnected to Japan through an unexpected connection.

Roberto Behar has been practicing tea ceremonies for 50-plus years and had recently retired from his wildly successful career in advertising to a self-designed, zen-centric home in the mountains north of Mexico City, complete with two traditional tea houses. After meeting Mauricio through a mutual friend, he invited him to join for a Sunday tea ceremony, an intimate weekly gathering dedicated to the ritual of Japanese tea. The invitation proved transformative.

“I would never compare myself to him — he’s an amazing, unique genius, but in another way I so identify with him because I always just wanted to love and enjoy life. He left everything behind to build these beautiful tea houses, where every detail is perfect, and said ‘I just want to live there, I just want to make tea.’ And that’s it — it’s so simple,” he says, his voice full of genuine gratitude. “He helped me not go through another 30 years of being miserable.”

The centuries-old ceremony itself is centered around something particularly of-the-moment in health and wellness in the western world: matcha. But beyond the meticulous preparation and presentation of the delicious, antioxidant-packed green powder lies a deeper meaning: one of human connection, mindfulness and respect.

“When people ask me, ‘What is a tea ceremony?’ I don’t have an answer. I can try to explain to you, but there really is no way. You have to sit in a super rigid position, and you’re trying to learn all these different movements and the whole order of everything, and it’s super complicated,” he explains.

It is the significance behind the rigidity, the repetition and the tradition that makes it so integral to the Japanese culture and zen philosophy, which honors the present rather than dwelling on past and future worries.

“It’s about adjusting your life to enjoy each second, just now. Because now is the only time that matters,” Mauricio explains. “It doesn’t have any real function — going up the hill, making tea and whisking it with a wooden whisk. Everything is so simplistic, but at the same time, so complex — and I love that it’s useless. It’s as is,” he says, gesturing to the pour-over devices and espresso machine behind the coffee counter. “Learning how to make coffee, everyday, repeated, repeated, repeated, it’s useless. But it’s a way to find joy and live your life in a simple, beautiful way.”

From a business perspective, Mauricio insists it is not the matcha he flies in from Kyoto, or the exquisite coffee beans from Ecuador that sets him apart. It goes back to another Japanese term, omotenashi. Directly, it translates to hospitality, or service, but its meaning far transcends our average standards for good service.

“If someone asks me my differentiator, I would tell them it is attention and intention,” he says with a smile. “For me, it’s about giving the best of what you have at that moment that you have it, to people that are coming to your place, whether it’s your house, shop or restaurant,” he continues. “It’s about giving something to people, giving all your heart to them — but at the same time, taking a little of their heart so they have to come back.”

And back they come, lining the sidewalk during Mexico City rush hour to wait as long as ten minutes for a single, handmade, intention-filled brew.

“Matcha, I feel, is like medicine for the soul,” he says. “And for the western world, coffee is tea.”

And however it’s served, it’s the joy, relief and comfort of a moment of peace — it’s a moment of Raku.

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