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Restaurant Love Letters: Cosme
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COMMENTARY

Restaurant Love Letters: Cosme

In this new column, contributors, readers, fellow chefs, and casual diners share their “Restaurant Love Letters.” It’s our hope that this series highlights the spirit of hospitality, the importance of restaurants and dining culture to our economy, and more critically, to the fabric of our daily lives. This is our way of saying thank you to the industry, we appreciate you, and we’ll be waiting here for you when you get back.

JUNE 22, 2020
BY KRISTINE GUTIERREZ

My life can be divided into two distinct eras: before mezcal and after mezcal. These periods define a global shift in enlightenment, an irreversible awakening toward a bolder path to self-actualization. Before mezcal, life felt accidental and aimless; it was a time when ignorance was bliss, if bliss was a two-dimensional, white bread world. After mezcal, however, is the beginning of a life led with purpose. Pain finally took on meaning with mezcal, failure felt conquerable, and tequila felt forgettable. It healed and heightened everything. And it all began at Cosme.

My love story with mezcal is really my love story with Cosme. On a cold night in January of 2014, a snowstorm closed down New York City, but my friends and I wanted dinner. Up until that evening, Cosme was fully booked every night, but we decided to try our luck. I can’t honestly tell you if I had mezcal before Cosme, because in my drunken memory, Cosme is mezcal. My baptism into the world of mezcal began the moment I first entered those glass doors.

The restaurant was at half capacity, but it felt lively. We ate chicharrones the size of my hand topped with freshly cut radishes, onions and serrano peppers. We ate the restaurant’s infamous duck carnitas folded into its own fat and salt, pillowy tortillas, and rich brown salsa made of toasted peanuts and peppers with tostadas. That salsa fired an intense obsession in me: it became the theme to my every craving.  I thought to myself: no more men, no more shopping, no more mezcal (ah kidding), I have this salsa and it has me completely.

Dinner was punctuated with visits from the manager—they called him Pancho—who brought out the first round of mezcal with orange slices and sal de gusano on a wooden board. With only a few ounces of this clear liquid, I was immediately hooked. I understood mezcal isn’t just something distilled and bottled; it is the spirit of Mexico, and the pride of Oaxaca. With infinite depth, I inherited a bit of its strength with each sip. The presentation, bestowed by the hand of our new friend, and shared by the bar, was a gesture and a welcome that initiated us all into Cosme’s world. It told us, this can be our home now.

But the best thing about Cosme—and it’s really hard to top mezcal and duck—was the people. My friends and I were all maître d’s, but here we received the most valuable lesson in hospitality. The act of giving and sharing is an inherent part of Cosme’s culture. It’s not just a job; it’s a personality. If you care about others, then making people happy and full makes you happy and full.

We left that night completely in love with our new friends and culinary obsessions. We had a meal that changed our entire idea of restaurants. Cosme is a fine dining institution, with excellent standards and service, yet its personality is not lost in the pursuit of perfection. We learned a restaurant can be technically flawless, but also fun and down-to-earth. As we walked through the city in the snow, we felt the magic that makes everything seem possible. I left wanting to know everyone’s name and story, wanting to return and explore every dish and every mezcal. I left with a new type of hunger conditioned to yearn for that acid, that heat, that sweet al pastor, that crisp salt. Thinly sliced serrano peppers appeared in my dreams like a friendly specter of what awaits me on 21st and Park.

I spent the following years fulfilling my cravings and hopes at Cosme. Cosme is where I first learned to dine alone. It’s where I first became a regular. It’s where I celebrated at least four birthdays. It’s where every hug is met with a mezcal, and somehow I end up with not enough hugs but too much mezcal. It’s where the restaurant celebrated becoming one of the world’s fifty best, a success made sweeter by the fact that America’s best is proudly and undeniably Mexican.

There’s something validating about having this big restaurant—along with its sister properties Atla in New York and Pujol in Mexico City—as my home. I know I can fail and fall, yet inside those concrete walls of bachata and salsa, I am loved and looked after.

My last restaurant meal before the Covid-19 shutdown was at Cosme’s older sibling, Pujol. Even though it was an entirely new restaurant to me, it still felt like family. My friend and I didn’t know at the time that this meal would be our last call before the world shut down. We were in pure bliss—three-dimensional, deep umber mole bliss. We toasted our blessings with mezcal and sealed the evening with churros so airy and crisp, they may have been plucked from a sweet dream. We made new friends once again, we thanked and hugged them, and we marveled at the beautiful space.

I carry the memory of this meal and it feeds me courage and hope. I know that despite everything, the need to break tostada, to share our stories, and to lift our drinks will always bring us together.  I know my cravings will always bring me home to Cosme, Atla and Pujol.

I, like many, will start to categorize my life into the period before-Covid and after-Covid. The time in-between will always be a painful reminder of what we lost. But perhaps this will mark a renewed era defined by kindness and patience. Maybe our collective isolation will give us a greater need to cultivate healthier, more empathetic communities. I hope this is our awakening and that the new era nurtures our strength and heals our scars. May it have mezcal, may it have tacos, may it have you and me, and may it have Cosme.

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