Ensenada’s El Rey Sol restaurant, pioneer of Farm-to-Table since 1947.
Stanton Kowalski/Todos Santos
Photography: Efraín Carpio
Among all the paintings and prizes that hang in El Rey Sol’s entrance hall, architect Jean Loup Bitterlin points out to an old 1949 menu: a well-kept, typewritten relic that showcases how well you could eat in Ensenada, even back in those days.
A customer found the document a few months ago, and donated to the restaurant. The menu dates back from when only two years had past since El Rey Sol opened its doors, but it was already serving quite the culinary treats: a full meal including lobster, onion soup and a bottle of Bodegas de Santo Tomás wine.
The cost? $2.50 dollars.
“Back in those days it was easier to get fresh lobster and abalones from local fishermen than to find quality fruits and vegetables or premium meat,” says Bitterlin, who is the son of now-mythical Doña Virginia Geffroy, El Rey Sol’s founder.
An icon of Baja cuisine and a pioneer of haute cuisine in Mexico, Geffroy left a considerable culinary legacy which not only owes to her introducing French gastronomy and techniques to this region, but for being one of the first chefs to recognize the value of locallly-sourced quality ingredients as the basis for great cooking, a true pioneer of farm to table before the term was even coined, says Bitterlin, who is the current owner of El Rey Sol.
Born in Santa Rosalía, a town in the southern part of Baja California, where the Compagnie du Boleo had established copper mining operations back in the 1880’s, Virginia Geffroy displayed a talent for cooking in her early years that led her to drop the idea of pursue a college degree so she could attend the prestigious Cordon Bleu culinary institute in Paris.
After living abroad for 18 years, and now being married to artist Jacques Bitterlin, ‘Doña Pepita’, as she was called by her friends and relatives, decided to go back to Mexico.
She had settled in Ensenada since 1940, and her family, after recognized her cooking skills, encouraged her to open a restaurant next to Casa del Sol, a hotel her sister and brother-in-law had opened recently. Settled in a small hallway with only 10 formica tables and 12 dishes on the menu, El Rey Solopened its doors on May 23, 1947.
“Chicken was more expensive because you had to feed it, and I remember seeing my mom plucking and cleaning the chicken on our way to the restaurant,” said Bitterlin, who lived through his mother’s Cinderella- like transformation from homemaker to gourmet empress.
Because of the lack of prime quality meats and vegetables, which had to be imported from San Diego, Geffroy and her family established the Las Ánimas Ranch, a small farm located 40 minutes south of Ensenada, where she could grow onions, lettuce, tomatoes and fruits to be used for her restaurant, a concept that would later catch on in the U.S. thanks to chef Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse restaurant.
El Rey Sol now sits 250 guests in its four dinning rooms, and its menu displays over 70 specialty dishes from French, Mexican and International cuisines, of which many recipes Geffroy was the first to bring to Baja, like Escargots à la Bourguignonne or the well-known Thermidor Lobster, as well as amazing French pastries.
Geffroy’s dedication to cooking can be still felt in the way the restaurant staff still carries out duties, like preparing pastry dough at 5:00 a.m. each morning to have them fresh from the oven by breakfast, just as ‘Doña Pepita’ did for over 30 years.
“Some of our more iconic recipes were inherited by my mother from her family, some from her mother-in-law, some at Cordon Bleu. But we still follow them almost completely, like not using conservatives in our pastries, like they do nowadays in Europe, and we still use farm-fresh ingredients, ¡like we did more than 20 years before Chez Panisse!” said Bitterlin.