On a late October evening in Mexico City, Cristina Rubio Hernández and Cyntia González Santos stood on the sidewalk outside their temporary home — the restaurant Degu — sipping from cans of Modelo Especial. They were discussing how to better communicate the nature of their group, El Sexto Colectivo, in a crowded field of pop-ups.
Inside, the other members of the Sexto were busily preparing the fermentation dinner they’d been planning for months. To get ready, the group read books, watched videos, experimented in their homes, and brought in an outside expert for lectures: Luis Manuel Serrano Ramirez, the master beer brewer for Monstruo de Agua. Luis taught them about lactic, acetic, and ethyl fermentation, and helped them make their own session IPA. They also prepared koji, raspberry vinegar, apple cider, fermented garlic, sour atole, kombucha, and more. They researched the fermented foods indigenous to Mexico, including chocolate, pulque, and tepache, and then devised a five-course menu, which began with a slice of sourdough bread, a beer, and a pat of butter with koji, and ended with a pie infused with pitahaya vinegar, topped with homemade cheese and apple cider vinegar meringue.
The name “Sexto Colectivo” is inspired by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. The five senses — sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste — are interpreted with a sixth instrument: the brain. Sexto, meaning sixth, argues that all senses are equal in the brain’s perception, and that therefore food ought to be considered an art form with the same legitimacy as music or painting.
The members of the group offer a variety of complementary skill sets: Cyntia, who has a background in PR, is the storyteller at their pop-up meals, focused on themes like “sound,” “form,” and “arrivals”; Cristina, who works in marketing and design, crafted their sophisticated Instagram presence; Sergio Ramírez de la Vega uses his expertise in business and sustainability to manage their budget and lessen their environmental impact; Raúl Dominguez Palestino, who works by day as a pharmaceutical researcher, is the other bona fide egghead, and, in their passionate discussions, the quiet voice that helps them come to consensus.
Juan Escalona Melendez is the group’s only professional cook and its de facto leader, though he’s so mild mannered that you often forget his impressive credentials: Noma in Copenhagen, Maximo Bistrot and Pujol in Mexico City, a bachelor’s degree in genomic science from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and a master’s in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Leeds. Much of the hard labor of the kitchen falls to him.
A quick look around his living room reveals total commitment. For furniture, he has a cheap futon and some packing crates repurposed into book shelves, holding titles like The Noma Guide to Fermentation; Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II; and the Larousse Gastronomia Mexicana next to science and philosophy textbooks. Next to those, a gleaming espresso machine, given to him by his parents because they rarely used it, is fired up seemingly every hour. He’s extended his kitchen into the living room with a folding table and metal shelving. Underneath the table sits a disconnected mini-fridge that’s been repurposed as a fermentation chamber, and on top is a vacuum sealer. Somewhere in those shelves there’s a juicer, industrial rolls of saran wrap, Japanese knives, and sieves in half a dozen shapes and sizes. In the corner is a Mexicana airline cart that’s been repurposed as a rolling spice rack.
Cyntia came upon the group by chance about two years ago. She was sitting in the Mercado San Juan when she struck up a conversation with Juan, a baby-faced 27-year-old. She had taken up cooking when her first child was born, then became fascinated by the market and started to write a guide. He was in the midst of an existential crisis, debating whether to pursue a prestigious doctoral fellowship in England or quit academia to become a chef. He told her about the dinners he was putting on with a few friends, applying rigorous formal investigation to the aesthetics of food.
“Invite me to one of your dinners,” Cyntia remembered saying. A month later, when the venue for a meal fell through, she welcomed the group of strangers into her kitchen and retreated to the roof to nervously sip mezcal. “It was one of those situations where you have zero expectations,” she recalled. “You think you’re doing something charitable, and it turns out to be the total opposite: They do something marvelous for you.”
Soon, Cyntia joined El Sexto Colectivo.
The pop-up at Degu, lasting two nights and costing 850 pesos per person (about $ 45), served six guests the first evening and 14 the second. On night one there were as many people in the kitchen as in the dining room. But the recipes — fermented carrots in deep red adobo; a white soup of fermented garlic, drizzled with fermented honey; chicken marinated in whey, sprinkled with popcorn and served in a pink pool of sour atole — have joined a wider repertoire of an ongoing project that defies restriction. Sexto could define itself as a group devoted to investigating the history of Mexican food, or an experimental cooking collective, or they could advertise their concern for sustainability. But they don’t want to choose such a specific focus, and they don’t have to. Still, the ever-changing nature of the project has made it difficult to explain — to loved ones, as well as strangers.
Juan’s mom and dad, who own a pastry shop, watched him defy childhood bullies by devoting himself single-mindedly to academia, determined to be the very best. In high school, he earned a silver medal in Mexico’s Chemistry Olympiad, and continued on to an international competition in Tokyo. He pursued a degree in genomic science at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, mainly because it was the most selective program he could find, then studied in Leeds. But when he found himself in the running for a prestigious Darwin Trust of Edinburgh scholarship, he ultimately withdrew. It’s been hard for his parents to understand, he said.
“My parents say it’s not true, but I can tell they’re not happy I left academia,” Juan said. “They maintain their distance from what I’m doing in the Sexto. They say they don’t know what it’s about, even though I’ve tried to tell them lots of times. My mom thought I was in some kind of limbo, and [that] it was only a matter of time before I went back to academia.”
“I think it’s not entirely clear to them why we would study something and then not end up pursuing it,” said Cristina, who went to junior high school with Juan. “My parents come from a very simple background, and they had to work before they studied to help their families. They were finally able to earn university degrees and become professionals. That was a big achievement for them. What we’re doing isn’t concrete; it’s far from their reality. We have the chance to experiment, to live in a different world — but they aren’t in that world. They understand and they tell me it’s great, but that’s as far as it goes.”
“My parents love making food,” Juan said. In addition to owning the pastry shop, his father is an engineer. “He spends every weekend baking bread. He bakes with regular yeast, and I thought, ‘This is a good moment to engage him in what we’re doing.’ So I told him about the sourdough starter we use, how we work with this amazing baker to make the bread, and then he got offended. He said, ‘This is how I like my bread. Why are you telling me this?’”
While both Cristina’s and Juan’s parents support the project, Cristina said, “they see it as something very distant — fancy, expensive. They think of it as food that comes in tiny portions. They don’t know the historic and scientific context.”
That night outside of Degu, Cristina, and Cyntia were trying to confront the same problem of estrangement, but with paying guests rather than family members. The pop-ups were not the end game; they wanted to show people that these ideas could be used in their own home kitchens, that the context and knowledge and techniques they were learning together was not solely the domain of pop-ups for diners in the know. Apart from each person’s connection with Juan, El Sexto Colectivo was a group of strangers when it began, but food had remade them into a band of passionate collaborators, coming from a variety of disciplines. They knew this in their bones: Food was a uniting force, and they hoped to spread the knowledge they’d accrued beyond the realm of these small gatherings. They were conducting free seminars and workshops. Some hoped to give up their day jobs soon and work together in a space of their own, where they could pursue their interests full-time: aesthetic philosophy, genomic science, neuromarketing, saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast and lactobacillus rhamnosus bacteria.
Perhaps the members of El Sexto Colectivo will never be able to succinctly describe what they are doing. Then again, maybe it isn’t so complicated. If you tasted the bread and beer that yeast created, that sixth instrument inside your skull would draw its own conclusion: Food, too, can be a work of art.
Laura Tillman is a journalist and author living in Mexico City, currently at work on a biography of Chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia. Jake Lindeman is a Mexico City-based photographer.