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Alchemist in the Kitchen: Paula Muñoz, Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Born and raised in Mexico City, Chef Paula Muñoz grew up loving spicy food. So when her mom taught her how to make hot sauce from scratch, her mind was blown, and her path was set. “Everything evolved from there,” recalls Paula. “I was so fascinated by how ingredients can work together and become something entirely elevated and new.” Cooking became the key to understanding the world and the people around her.


Eager to explore cultures and connections through food, Chef Paula Muñoz has built a culinary career across Mexico, Spain and the United States. Over the last two decades, Paula’s experience includes highlights at Michelin-starred restaurant Quique Dacosta in Valencia, The Bazaar by Jose Andres in Miami, and leadership roles at W Hotels and Sofitel in Mexico City. 


Paula is currently the Executive Chef at Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen, situated on the Mexican Caribbean Sea, with 314 guest rooms and 36 deluxe suites. As head of the hotel’s culinary program, Paula oversees six food and beverage outlets, including The Grill Playa del Carmen and La Cocina Restaurant and Terrace. 


Paula shares herstory.

 

Alchemist in the Kitchen: Paula Muñoz, Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen, Mexico

What drew you to the food industry?


I was lured into the world of food by the deep belief that food serves as the beating heart of every culture across the globe. It's more than just sustenance; it's a gateway to diverse journeys, offering tantalizing flavors and rich traditions. Through the exploration of food, one delves into a wide range of tastes, textures, and stories, each dish unveiling a unique chapter in the ongoing story of humanity.


What was your first job?


I had jobs during school, but my first formal job was at Walt Disney World at EPCOT Center. I worked inside the Mexican Pavilion on the food and beverage team for the Cultural Representative Program.


Every time one of the Mexican groups finished their program, we had this celebration called “Traveling Around the World,” where together, we visited all 11 countries in the pavilion and got to try a drink and food from there. This was amazing since we got to merge with cultures from all over the world. I made really good friends who became like family.


What do you love most about the hospitality business?


I love how the hospitality realm intertwines the art of service with the intricate threads of human connection. It's where professionalism merges seamlessly with the warmth of genuine care, creating a dynamic space where every interaction becomes an opportunity to craft unforgettable experiences. Ordinary moments can become extraordinary memories, leaving a lasting effect on guests and hosts alike. Also, as a chef, hospitality nourishes my soul, fostering personal growth and fulfillment along the way.


Veggie Tacos from The Grill at Hyatt Playa Del Carmen
Veggie Tacos from The Grill at Hyatt Playa Del Carmen

What inspires you?


What truly inspires me is the ripple effect that my creations can have on the people who taste my food. Through my cooking, in some way, I affect people's lives. I consider it my enduring legacy that I sculpt along the way. It's the thrill of knowing that every endeavor, every innovation, every spark of inspiration has the power to ignite hearts and minds.

 

What is your creative process? How do you come up with ideas for new dishes and menus?


My approach is to orchestrate flavors that harmonize with not just the palate, but also the very essence of each individual. I believe there is alchemy in ingredients. Food can change people inside and out. It’s about delving into ingredients, understanding their taste profiles, as well as the transformative power they have within the bodies of diners. By weaving together ingredients that not only entice the taste buds, but also nourish and invigorate, I aim to create a culinary experience that goes beyond mere satisfaction. I strive to make it a sensory voyage that leaves a lasting imprint on both body and soul. It's about empowering diners to feel not just full, but truly alive, as they savor each bite and anticipate the vibrant impact it will have.

 

Do you have a signature dish?


It's not really a dish, but a focus on the grill–everything that has to do with the grill and how ingredients are enhanced by it.


What trends do you see?


Right now, I see a deep appreciation of traditional cultures that speak to authentic history.


How do you feel about TikTok or other social media and their influence on the food industry?


I believe TikTok is an interesting tool that helps share how the food industry is evolving in a non-ordinary, wide-scale way.

 

What is the best and worst advice you received?


Best advice: Never forget who you are and how you started to get to where you are today. Give yourself the credit that you’re due.

Worst advice: You are not a mentor.


Ceviche from La Cocina Restaurante & Terraza
Ceviche from La Cocina Restaurante & Terraza

What is your leadership style in the kitchen?


As a leader, I am grounded in humility—the recognition of the vastness of knowledge yet to be discovered and the willingness to learn from every interaction and experience. It's about fostering an environment where knowledge is not hoarded, but shared freely, nurturing growth and collaboration among all.


Empathy is also key, as I strive to understand the perspectives, emotions, and needs of those around me. By listening with an open heart and mind, I cultivate trust and respect, forging genuine connections that go beyond hierarchy and foster a sense of belonging.


I believe in never taking anything for granted, recognizing the fragility and preciousness of every moment and opportunity. This mindset drives me to approach each task with care, diligence, and gratitude, ensuring that no detail is overlooked and no effort is spared in the pursuit of excellence.


As a leader, I aspire to be a guiding light, illuminating the path for others through my actions and words. I set an example of integrity, resilience, and compassion, inspiring those around me to reach their highest potential.


What do you see as the major obstacles for women in the kitchen? What insights can you share as a female chef?


In life, I've come to embrace a profound truth: the greatest obstacle we face often lies within ourselves. It's not about the external challenges or the daunting hurdles that loom before us. Rather, it's about the inner journey of self-discovery and self-mastery that determines our success.


Within the dynamic landscape of the industry, it's the way we navigate the currents, the ebbs, and flows, that truly defines our journey. It's about the resilience of our character, and the determination to pursue our goals with purpose.


For me, it's not just about setting goals—it's about crystallizing them with such clarity that they become beacons of light guiding my every step. It's about cultivating a mindset of relentless focus and commitment, refusing to be swayed by doubt or deterred by adversity.


Ultimately, it's not about the obstacles we face, but the way we choose to navigate them. It's about embracing the journey with open arms, embracing the challenges as opportunities for growth, and embracing our true selves with courage, conviction, and unwavering determination.

 

What would you tell your younger self, just starting out in the industry?


Always stay humble. Be more patient with yourself. Believe in your skills and what you are able to achieve. All of these abilities will take you where you want to be.

 

Having worked in Mexico City and now based in Playa del Carmen, what do you see as the main differences and challenges of being in the city versus a resort?  


The world of hospitality is as diverse as the guests it serves, and nowhere is this diversity more apparent than in the contrast between city and resort hospitality. Each offers its own unique set of challenges and rewards.

 

In Mexico City, hospitality operates at a relentless pace, catering to a diverse clientele ranging from business travelers to tourists. The atmosphere is vibrant with a constant buzz of activity that demands quick thinking and adaptability from staff.


In Playa de Carmen, resort hospitality offers a tranquil oasis away from the hustle and bustle of city life, providing guests with an opportunity to unwind and rejuvenate in a serene environment. The focus is on creating immersive experiences that foster relaxation and escape.


What new projects are you most excited about?


I’ve always enjoyed teaching, so I’m especially thrilled about our new initiatives at the Culinary Academy. It’s a wonderful way for Grand Hyatt’s culinary team to share our knowledge and innovation with guests. We have tastings, classes, and workshops on topics like mezcal, tequila, and authentic Mexican dishes.


Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort
Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort

Quickfire with Chef Paula

 

Daily rituals?

I always start my day with a positive thought.


What is your morning routine?

I wake up giving a kiss to my girlfriend and my little chihuahua Maya. I take a shower and get ready to commit to work.


What do you do for self-care?

I eat well, go to the beach, and try to meditate. For exercise, I like to do 9Round, which features intense 30 minute kickboxing circuit training. After that or during the week, I like to go to the spa and do cold and hot water therapy that really helps the body relax.


What hobbies or interests help you unwind in your downtime?

I love sneakers, and have an extensive collection. I also love the NFL, as well as bowling.


What books/podcasts/shows are you into right now?

Right now I’m into crime scene investigation documentaries. I also like to watch YouTube channels of people who get to travel around the world.


Do you listen to music in the kitchen?

Yes, I listen to Jazz and R&B mostly. I love Alicia Keys.


What's your favorite food or cuisine to eat?

Chilaquiles are my favorite food. I love Mexican and also Mediterranean cuisine.


What do you like to cook at home?

BBQ with friends and family. I’m a meat lover so I really like grilling any type of meat, along with fresh vegetables, melted cheese, a nice charred hot sauce and guacamole. Also, a good drink to go along with it, as well as amazing company!


Favorite recipe?

All kinds of hot sauce.


Favorite kitchen tools?

My Santoku knife.


Recipe for Serrano Pepper Sauce with Dried Avocado Leaf


Ingredients:

400 g green tomato

23 g serrano pepper

7 g charred garlic

60 g white onion (julienned)

60 g raw brown sugar

2 g dried avocado leaf

 

Steps:

1. Boil the green tomato and serrano pepper in a pot until cooked. Strain.

2. Caramelize white onion with the raw brown sugar till brown and reserve.

3. Combine the tomato, pepper, garlic, and dried avocado leaf in a blender and blend until smooth. Add salt as needed.

4. Top with the caramelized onion and serve.

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