21 NOV 216: Most all-inclusives are not foodie destinations. At Karisma Hotels & Resorts, however, their proprietary ‘Gourmet Inclusive’ Experience aims directly at the food lover. From bringing in top chefs from Canada year-round for The Canadian Beef Culinary Series to their 76,000 square foot greenhouse operation and the Five Diamond awarded Le Chique at Azul Sensatori Hotel, Karisma reaches impressive culinary heights. And they sweeten the pot for agents with their Gourmet Inclusive Vacation Consultant reward programme.

I stayed at El Dorado Royale in Riviera Maya to get a taste of the Canadian beef series, now in its third year. This partnership between El Dorado Spa Resorts & Hotels by Karisma, Canadian Beef, and Air Canada Vacations brings in top Canadian chefs and Alberta beef for a meaty five day feast every two weeks year-round. On average 300 kilos of beef are devoured each of these weeks and 80% of all the beef used at El Dorado Royale is Canadian.

Chef Paul Rogalski, of Calgary’s well-loved Rouge Restaurant, was the presenting chef when I attended. His friendly, bubbly personality made the events as fun as his skills made the meat super delicious. Monday kicked off with a beach BBQ. Prime cuts cooked over the charcoal of regional hardwoods, a large selection of grilled vegetables and salads and freely poured Jackson Family wines.

Jackson Family Wines has a partnership with Karisma and practically owns their wine lists (80 – 90% of the selection is from their Collection). Since they own good wineries across the globe from their home base of California, to Europe, Chile, South Africa and Australia, the selection is still better than most all-inclusives.

The next night featured a sampling of three beef dishes paired with healthy pours of three premium California cabernet sauvignon wines from the Jackson Family: Murphy-Goode 2012, Freemark Abbey 2011 and Arrowood 2005. The fabulous Arrowood would retail for over US $100 if you could find it. The add on cost for this event of $35 per person seemed like a small price to pay.

The Canadian beef week culminates with a gala dinner at the resort’s Fuentes Culinary Theatre, under its 90-foot-high “big top” thatched roof. The open presentation kitchen and four towering large screens allow guests to see the Chefs work their techniques as they demonstrate recipes. People pay for the beef event but the rest of the week the theatre is part of the resorts Gourmet Inclusive Experience.

The beef events were great – much better than I could have imagined at such a large resort. Just as remarkable was the enormous state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouses which yield some 12 tons of vegetables and herbs every month. That’s so much tomatoes, cucumbers, chiles, basil, mint and other produce that the resort uses only about 60% to supply all the Karisma Riviera Maya resorts. The remaining 40% is donated to the region’s Mayan communities.

The resort also has a fruit farm with papaya, mango and lime trees as well as their own plant nursery and composting area. Their water is natural sourced and filtered.

El Dorado Royale’s Executive Chef Florian Durre told me the Karisma philosophy is to obtain the best quality produce (they test all products from all suppliers) and to give the kitchen staff solid training. The chefs who come from all over Mexico are empowered to consider each restaurant as if it’s their own property. I would say that works a good part of the time but there are slip ups. Most of the restaurants at Karisma resorts are a la carte dining. The flavours and recipe concepts of the dishes are generally very good but I did get on several occasions overcooked fish, undercooked pasta, and the like.

But then there’s an experience like the awesome, theatrical, delicious tasting menu at Le Chique at Azul Sensatori. The avant-garde Mexican menu is designed to puzzle, amuse and amaze and it does. Chef Jonatán Gómez Luna uses molecular and other cutting-edge tricks in his modernist cuisine. That’s not surprising as he sharpened his knives with stints in the top kitchens of the world: el Bulli, Noma and El Cellar de Can Roca.

What is surprising is just how delicious each of the 24 small bite courses are and how they play on traditional Mexican dishes and flavours with ingenious invention. Pecan from Saltillo looks like a plate of unshelled pecans but two of them are actually chocolate-covered truffle-flavoured foie gras. Quail egg + pipicha + chicatana is a shelled quail egg with a green mole type sauce inside, served on edible ash. The “sea” is presented with its own rolling (dry ice created) ocean scented fog.

Le Chique has won multiple awards including the Best of the Best Gourmet Award by Travel and Leisure, Mexico. Chef Jonatán who opened the restaurant eight years ago, said “Despite being in the middle of nowhere, people come from all over to eat here.” About half are not staying at a Karisma resort and may be from the Fairmont, Ritz Carleton, or local residents. “The company never expected this. They are super happy,” said Chef.

Plans are in the works to open “By Le Chique” restaurants with the first one being in the Dominican Republic using Dominican ingredients. Meanwhile at the El Dorado Royale, in about six months Chef Florian will open a fine dining Chef’s tasting menu restaurant based on French traditions and aimed at achieving Michelin Star status.

Travel Agents who want to register and learn more about the Gourmet Inclusive Vacation Consultant programme go to www.karismahotels.com/travelagents or call 305-445-1077.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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