Five leading Baja chefs spell out the essence of Baja Cuisine for us.
by Erick Falcón | Todos Santos
Despite a few years have passed since Baja Cuisine’s rise to international culinary fame, few have an idea of how to define it.
It is a young cuisine, of course, some say, unlike Oaxaca or Michoacán’s millenary gastronomic traditions. You may hear ‘Baja Med’ a lot in culinary festivals and magazines.
But although the word does allude to this place’s Mediterranean essence and climate, which makes wine, olive oil, seafood and other ingredients possible, some local chefs feel that defining Baja’s regional cuisine just by its sheer European influence can be just a tad too limiting.
“Baja Med is a digestible, marketable term, but we can’t forget that there’s other influences from Asia and the regional cuisines of other states of Mexico, this has everything to do with immigration and how it has allowed Baja’s cuisine to evolve,” says Benito Molina, owner of Manzanilla restaurant in Ensenada and considered to be one of the best Mexican chefs.
Benito is aware that European influence in regional cuisine is crucial “ as this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the wine and the scene that developed around it.” Diego Hernández Baquedano, chef of Corazón de Tierra, agrees with Benito: Baja California has a young cuisine which responds to its culture and geography, but has a broad background, including, for example, the cuisine of fishing vessels & fishermen campsites around Baja’s mainland and islands.
One cuisine, many cultures
Attempting to define Baja Cuisine’s essence requires a thorough look at its history and the impact of immigration, but the chefs interviewed reduce it to at least 3 main elements: agricultural and fishing activity, with an abundance of high quality products; winemaking and rustic, outdoor cooking techniques (the use of wood and fire) with Mexican, Asian and European culinary influence.
It’s hard to picture Baja Cuisine withouth French techniques introduced after 1947 by Virginia Geffroy, founder of El Rey Sol, the oldest active French restaurant in Mexico, nor can we conceive it without the use of chili powder, achiote and other Mexican spices. Baja chefs are also fond of sashimi-style slices of bluefin tuna, sea urchin and varios types of clams, but here they’re called tiraditos.
Baja has 8 of the 10 most valuable seafood species in the global markets, including the spiny red lobster, abalone, sea cucumber and geoduck clam, as well as U.S. export-quality produce and 90% of all Mexican wines are produced in Ensenada. And Benito was among the first cooks to realize that this was a paradise for chefs.
As a student in New England Culinary Institute, Benito learned his trade in places from France to Boston and Mexico City. But when he arrived in Baja to work for Santo Tomás winery’s restaurant in 1996, Benito soon realized there was some great stuff happening here.
“Ensenada oysters are the same quality you can find in Bretagne, thanks to the cold Pacific currents. Its taste is clean and cristalline, not creamy, with a touch of iodine, but not in excess. Being bred in cold waters makes them develop more fat than oysters from southern Mexico, and have more texture and flavor.”
Benito took years to convince vintners, farmers and fishermen to supply him of the great quality products that were 100% being expor- ted to the U.S., and so became a pioneer of Baja Cuisine. Other Mexican chefs soon followed him and started buying Ensenada fish, seafood, produce and wines, which you will definitely find in Mexico City’s finest restaurants.
A cuisine based on pride and innovation
Another Baja Cuisine pioneer you’re probably guessing is Javier Plascencia Huerta, Tijuana’s most celebrated chef and one of the reasons that the border city became a fashionable tourist destination after years of its violence-related problems.
For Javier, Baja Cuisine is a seasonal cuisine, a seafood-based cuisine, wood-fired country-style grills and a prominent mixture of Mediterranean, Oriental & Mexican culinary techniques. He was among the first to promote regional pride for Baja products, and he has continued to inspire younger chefs to make use of local wines, olive oil, fish and seafood, as well as reinventing his own cuisine in his signature restaurants, like Finca Altozano, Misión 19 and the much-anticipated Bracero in downtown San Diego.
Fire is a key element to his dishes, as smoked ingredients are a mainstay feature of Baja Cuisine. When asked about what he considers his signature dish, he recalls preparing a marvellous beef rib grilled within fig tree leafs, which he feels is very representative of the aromas and the strong flavors of Baja and Mexican cuisine.
“It was a dish that people really liked, we were in a Vendimia event in the Liceaga winery, where there was a big fig tree, and we did this black mole with the figs, which went very well with the wines,” says Plascencia.
The Tijuana-born chef does not exaggerate about the importance of fire and country-style cooking. Mexican and American archaoelogists have found over 100 coastal campsites, known as fogones, which are known to be the remains of fire pits where the ancient Yumano culture would cook their food over 1,500 years ago. Mexican researchers have found fragments of animal bones, shells, stone tools and what seems to be ancient barbeque pits scattered near these places, and are currently trying to identify what was the purpose of each kind of these fogones.
A celebration of Baja ingredients
It wouldn’t be hard to assume that bajacalifornianos are very fond of grilling their ingredients, given all the taquerías you see around Baja’s cities.
But when it comes to regional hauté cuisine, you can see there’s a very norteño-style trend of mixing land and sea ingredients, with delicious examples being tuetano with barrel-smoked octopus and white wine sauce, lobster with beans or percebes with beef tongue tiradito, like the one chef Drew Deckman is cooking just in front of us in his restaurant, Deckman’s at El Mogor.
Drew is a U.S.-born chef with quite an international resumé, including one Michelin star awarded in his previous stints in Europe and cooking for Hollywood A-list actors (think Mission Impossible, yep), but it was Valle de Guadalupe that won Drew over, so he left his succesful restaurant in gringo-filled Cabo for the bohemian lifestyle El Valle offers.
“What’s my definition of Baja Cuisine? Wow… You like to start with the hard questions… I think Baja’s cuisine is a celebration of its ingredients, to me Baja lives from the sea, the wine, the incredible products you can can find here, which are some of the best in North America,” says Drew.
Drew agrees with other chefs’ opinion that, unlike the traditional prehispanic cuisines of Oaxaca and Michoacán, Baja has a more heterogeneus mixture of cultural influences “of everything from pirates and fishermen to ethnic groups from Russia, Switzerland, Japan, China and other Mexican states.”
It’s no surprise then that you can find everything from Russian Molokans’ XX century cuisine in the Samarin family restaurant in Guadalupe Valley, or iconic dishes like the Puerto Nuevo Lobster, the Ensenada-style fish taco, a 1950’s creation perfected by Zeferino Mancillas; nor can we forget doña Sabina Bandera’s clam and sea urchin tostadas or the Kumiai’s use of acorns and others ingredients from the forests, as well as the innovative interpretations that today’s chefs do, like Ryan Steyn, a South African-born chef who has made a name for himself in the past two years, and who currently owns El Jardín de Adobe, his comedor at Adobe Guadalupe winery in the Guadalupe Valley.
“That’s a question everyone is asking. This is a very young cuisine. I think that if you’re using an ingredient from Baja as the base and you add local flavors, you can do whatever you want however you want,” says Steyn.
You’ll surely find lemons, olive oil, wine and seafood in Steyn’s asador, which has been the start for many original and attractive dishes, both presentation and flavor-wise, like his signature ‘La Bufadora’ dish, named for Ensenada’s well known marine geyser.
Whatever the academic answer may be, it’s a lot better to find out the answer to this intriguing question by treating yourself to the taste of Baja cuisine, right now. And don’t forget the wine. Cheers!