Wild Flavor By The Sea

The off-the-grid dream story—and epically good recipes—of Tulum's Hartwood restaurant.

By: Eric Werner; Mya Henry

In December 2009, we found ourselves at the one stoplight in Tulum, wondering what would happen if we didn't make that right turn toward the airport. For the last few days of our escape from freezing New York City, we'd been fantasizing about starting a new life here. What would our lives be like if we didn't have to work until 2 a.m. every morning and weren't always worried about paying rent? There were restaurants in Tulum, but there was room for more, and everyone in town seemed to know how to relax. When they worked, they worked hard, but when they had time to themselves, they spent it drinking up this paradise. We could picture swimming in the clear blue Caribbean in the morning, cooking in the evening, and closing up to travel during the summer.

Sometimes you dream out loud because it feels good to put voice to a fantasy, then you go back to your old habits. But the more we talked, the more we began to realize that we were serious about staying. Maybe. What if we changed our tickets, told everybody back home that the flights were canceled, and spent a few days crunching numbers and looking at real estate? What if we changed our lives entirely?

At the time, the only commitment we had was to each other. We didn't have kids. We didn't own property. We had jobs we could leave. We knew we were fortunate to have work following the financial collapse the year before, but we were so caught up with the high-RPM restaurant world that we never had time to see each other.

We'd begun asking ourselves what it was all for. Then, finally, one day, we decided it was time to give up a rent-stabilized East Village apartment, pack up our lives, and move to Tulum.

We returned to Mexico in May 2010. We had only a vague plan at that point. We were still looking at properties and just beginning to untangle the complicated regulations that governed the real estate on the beach. It's a protected environment, and it's literally off the grid—the power lines stop at the bend in the road. We weren't interested in taking over an existing restaurant. We wanted to build one ourselves—even if that meant installing a septic system and having potable water trucked in every day. If we wanted electricity, we'd have to look to solar panels and gas generators, so we decided that the restaurant would cook everything on wood, either on a grill or in an oven—no propane burners or electric rings. That meant finding a supply of properly cured hardwood in a part of the world where the jungle is so lush and humid that dead trees don't dry out—they're eventually reabsorbed by the land.

In July, we found a place: an unappreciated, overgrown piece of the jungle right on the beach road with a fig tree out front. The plot was about 3,000 square feet, and it sloped steeply. The palm trees and plants were so thick you couldn't see the ground. We fell in love with it.

We could afford it because of the money we had saved, the possessions we'd eBayed, and Mya's good credit rating. At the time, there wasn't much on the jungle side of the road. All the hotels and most of the restaurants were on the beach side, facing the water. There were a handful of restaurants and shops on the jungle side, but it was generally ignored, more of a place for a hotel to locate a generator or a parking area. But it was within our budget. And, from the front, you could catch glimpses of the beach, though you could hear the water better than you could see it.

We signed the papers in August.

When we'd first started talking about doing this, everyone looked at us like we were crazy. It was just the two of us, but it finally began to happen. The permits were filed and approved and we started to clear the land. We didn't have a crew of workers or a backhoe; we had ourselves and some machetes. As we hacked through the plants, we came across snakes and iguanas and other creatures. There was standing water in places, and you could sink into the mud up to your thighs. It was certainly culture shock from what we knew in New York, not because of the overwhelming sense of being out in nature, but because we were moving so slowly after living in a city where everything is boom-boom-boom. We were forced to realize our approach was totally wrong and we needed to relax a little bit.

That's when we first learned the double meaning of mañana. It can mean two things: it can mean "tomorrow," or it can mean, "Yeah, later, like tomorrow or something." When you're told, "Mañana, mañana," you're actually going to get it tomorrow morning. If you need it right away, it's better to hear the mañana, mañana rather than just the mañana. Because when you get just the mañana, well, you never know when that will be. It could be sometime tomorrow, or never. Or it could mean, "Next week when I feel like it, or when I need money again, because right now I don't need money, so, yeah, mañana." Both mañana, mañana and mañana serve their purpose. You just need to know when you need which one.

We were working with a team of talented young architects who were hungry to get a start in Tulum. At first they wanted something more streamlined and modern, but we wanted a place that looked frozen in time, as if settlers had just tied up their boat and unloaded all of their possessions, their battered metal teapots and silverware and linen napkins. We wanted it to feel like a shipwreck. And we wanted it to be open to the sky and to the road and to the jungle.

All of our hard work is what drew people to Hartwood, especially in the beginning, when it was so simple and we were really just right out in the open for everybody to see. We were sweating. We made mistakes. But people were kind. In an era of huge, well-financed restaurants, they saw what was going on and said, "This is a love project, isn't it?"

It still is.

Excerpted from Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Gentl & Hyers.

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