Oaxaca is renowned for its distinct cuisine, which emerged over generations from the eight regions, 10,523 rural villages, and 18 recognized ethnic groups – including the Zapotec and Mixtec tribes – that make up the southwestern Mexican state. Over the past decade, the food from “The Land of the Seven Moles,” which also includes dishes like memelas, barbacoa and tlayuda, has been embraced everywhere, with mezcal-serving Oaxacan restaurants opening around the world. That this gastronomic culture is the work of Indigenous Peoples in communities struggling against globalization to preserve their particular customs, including cooking by fire – which gives Oaxacan food its smoky aromas – makes it particularly worthy of preservation.
And that is what the Centro Gastronómico de Oaxaca is all about. In the former convent of Carmen el Alto in the region’s capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, the local studio RootStudio, led by João Boto Cæiro, has created a place where “the past, present and future of Oaxacan gastronomic culture converge.” It features a study centre, with an administrative office, classrooms and public library, alongside commercial and recreational facilities, including a restaurant, cocktail and tasting rooms, a gallery, courtyards and retail premises.
To transform the 16th-century building, however, the firm began with a full restoration. Overseen by the Oaxaca department of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, RootStudio employed 20 designers and supervisors from the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural del Estado de Oaxaca and the Instituto Oaxaqueño Constructor de Infraestructura Física Educativa to uncover walls, ceilings, frescoes, vaulted ceilings, and the space’s original levels and to open up walled-up windows.
“During the process,” the firm explains in its press release, “among the most important events was the discovery of an 18th-century sewer, which has been transformed into a space where tastings of ancestral mezcals and culinary experiences are held.” Traditional construction techniques and materials such as lime, brick, wood and green cantera stone were deployed throughout the process of retaining the building’s original character and making it functional once again.
In terms of new interventions, RootStudio installed an elevated element in raw steel to contain the industrial kitchens: “In the parking lot, a two-storey pavilion with steel pillars and brick vaults houses 12 commercial spaces and a public events hall that offers a privileged panoramic view of the mountains of the San Felipe nature reserve, the Church of Santo Domingo, and the Ethnobotanical Garden.”
In the interiors, the firm commissioned local cabinetmakers and artisans to fabricate the furniture; they “used macuil wood, a tree popularly known as palo de rosa (rosewood) and recognized for its medicinal properties.” Juchitán-born artist Damián Flores created a mural, called “Men of Corn,” in honour of the crop that ties together so much Oaxacan food; Sabino Guisu, meanwhile, designed the wayfinding murals for the elevators. Completing the scheme is a garden landscaped with plants that are “either edible or associated with cooking,” including guajes, yuccas, zapotes, and magueys.
RootStudio, led by João Boto Cæiro, has created a place where “the past, present and future of Oaxacan gastronomic culture converge.”