Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ensenada Gastronomica 2011: Ensenada Receives its Due from Top Mexican Chefs in the City's First Gastronomic Congress

On June 16th we attended the Ensenada Gastronomica: a gathering of Mexico's top chefs to recognize the importance of Ensenada in Mexican gastronomy and to take stock on its wealth of ingredients.

The two-day congress organized by Alejandro Perez Kuri--who stressed the need to include the contributions of Ensenada towards Mexican cuisine's recognition by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage--included cooking demos, workshops with local products and species, and an impressive gathering of Mexico's star chefs. 300 eager culinary students attended to learn from the best, meet their favorite chefs, and immerse themselves in the city that has garnered a reputation all over Mexico for its choice products and style of cooking.

Perhaps the most renowned chef, Enrique Olvera, kicked off the congress with a demonstration and discussion of the role of maize in Mexican cuisine. A cuisine with a base of maize was the presentation given to UNESCO that led to Mexico's award in 2010.

Chef Enrique Olvera is a pioneer of modern Mexican cuisine with his groundbreaking Pujol in Mexico City. He has taken Mexican street food and introduced avant garde techniques in his restaurants. In 2011, his restaurant Pujol received a grand honor by being named 1 of the 50 best restaurants in the world by S.Pelligrino.

It was more apparent than ever at this event that Mexico's chefs, too are now rock stars. A recent phenomena in the US driven by television has taken hold with the new Utilisima network, which features many of the chefs at this congress. Each cooking demo ended with an autograph session--the culinary students were as giddy as a flock of teenagers at a Justin Bieber meet and greet.

During the course of the day we were able to catch some of the chefs and ask a few questions at this very well organized event. On our minds foremost was about the significance of Ensenada in the national scene.

Chef Arturo Fernandez, Raiz Cocina de Estaciones

Chef Arturo Fernandez was at the congress representing the cuisine of the Yucatan. He was the first Mexican chef to work at El Bulli, and opened the modern cuisine restaurant Laos(Merida) before commencing with his latest project at Raiz, in the State of Mexico.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

This is our[Mexico's] store where the best products are coming from. This is where Mexico goes to shop for its seafood. It’s the sparkplug that’s setting off a production based on intelligence, using the appropriate manpower, respect and consideration for its fine products. At this moment, this is our store. Many people all over the country are imitating what they’ve been doing here for the last 80 years; with a theme that Mexican food is meant to be paired with wine, which is very unique to Baja.

SGLA: What will it take for the world to recognize Mexican’s gastronomic contributions to cuisine?

AF: We have been dealing with outside[European] forces that have influenced us. We believe in what we are[now] doing. We are united, and we have a friendship and a brotherhood that is working to revive our own[Mexican] traditions; that is what we are bringing to the national scene. Right now among the 50 best restaurants in the world, there are two of them right here in Mexico. Many other countries can’t make this claim. In 10 years, we will be #1. The best chef will be Mexican. This will happen within the next 7-8 years.

Chef Mikel Alonso, Biko

Biko tops many lists as Mexico's best restaurant. Chef Alonso was born in Biarritz, France, grew up in the Basque country, and has been living in Mexico City for the last 14 years. He has garnered a reputation for being a serious chef that can usually be found in his kitchen. He does events, but there's no time for the beach nor after parties--he wants on a plane and to be cooking immediately. He hoped that the culinary students understood that they are chefs, and should strive to be chefs, not rock stars.

During his cooking demo he said something profound which revealed the singular drive behind his triumphs: If you don't capture someone's attention, there's no memory, and without the element of surprise, there's no pleasure. Well Chef Mikel Alonso certainly has captured the attention of his diners and has achieved Mexico's highest spot on S.Pelligrino's 50 Best Restaurants in the World.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

MA: Mexico has a spinal column in its gastronomy that’s connected to the rest of Mexico, and to the whole world. Several of these vertebrae are Ensenada, not one, but many. Ensenada isn’t only the people, but the coasts, its place, its geographic location--it’s so beneficial. [It's] the cold waters, the bounty of seafood, but it’s not just the people who utilize [the products] these people treat it with lots of care. It’s impressive: the magic of the Valle de Guadalupe. Really, its appearance and beauty is a gift from God. The region--it’s really nothing without the people that treat it with so much care. This is the grandeur of Ensenada.

SGLA: What will it take for Mexico’s cuisine to be more respected internationally?

MA: This is something very sensible: cooking with truth and honesty. Work every day. You have to work, and to not fall into the trap of Hollywood stardom. We are chefs, not rock stars.[You have] to buy the best products and to have the sufficient technique to make them delicious. When the client goes to your restaurant with their mouth and their eyes, they should have an experience that leaves them with a smile, and a feeling that they’re in their own house. Nothing else matters.

Chef Mikel Alonso wants the influence of his grandparents to be present in his cooking.

Local Rockot presented in Biko's signature style. "Cooking is patient, slow"-Chef Mikel Alonso.

Chef Benito Molina, Manzanilla

In Ensenada's vital restaurant scene, Manzanilla is the heart and soul of the city. Chef Benito Molina has established himself as one of Mexico's greatest chefs, and his restaurant is a training ground for the local culinary boom. Many of the young talented chefs in the area started in Molina's kitchen, and his influence can be seen throughout Baja and in other parts of the republic.

Manzanilla is now an outpost where many of the chefs at this conference frequent, to hang out and do special tasting menus when they're in town using the rich, gifts of the Baja waters

Along with his wife, Chef Solange Muris, he is now star of the hit cooking show on Utilisima, Benito y Solange.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

BM: Because the best seafood from Mexico comes from here, the best wine, and the best olive oil; so [it's] the combination of all those three.

SGLA: What will it take for Mexico’s cuisine to be recognized more internationally?

BM: I think it’s going to take more fine dining restaurants promoting the local produce. On the other hand ,we were designated an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Very few cuisines in the world have this recognition, and like I say, lately I’ve been taking trips to South America; and Oaxaca alone is more intricate than most of Latin America. Oaxaca’s just one state [in Mexico]. We have 32 more states. The richness of what we have here is unquestionable. Where would European food be without tomatoes? Tomatoes came from here. Where would the chocolate world be without cacao that came from here, or vanilla that came from here? Mexican cuisine is not recognized as it should because not many Mexican chefs have opened fine dining restaurants abroad. There are excellent fine dining restaurants in Mexico, but there are very few, we have only one fine dining restaurant outside of Mexico.

SGLA: Lately, you’ve been taking trips to South America and Oaxaca?

BM: Oaxaca--constantly.

SGLA: What have you learned and applied to your restaurants from those trips?

BM: From South America? [That] we should be very proud of what we’re doing in Mexico, not that they’re doing a bad job, especially Brazil – Brazil has some amazing food – but Argentina, Colombia, Republica Dominicana, it’s good, but after five days, that’s it. Here you can go for 30 days and you still have more [to taste].

Chef Aquiles Chavez, Lo

Star of two of Mexico's highest rated cooking shows--Aquilisimo and Toque de Aquiles-- Chavez has captured the hearts and minds of the Mexican viewing public. He's arguably the most famous chef in Mexico and has excited the public about Mexican cuisine from his home state: Tabasco.

His recent programs have featured chefs and street food in Tijuana, Ensenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

At the end of the day, it’s the gastronomic center of this country. It’s more about the cooking rather than its plates that represents Baja, California, except for the lobster from Puerto Nuevo with rice and beans, but apart from this, it doesn’t have what they have in Morelia, Yucatan or Tabasco or Oaxaca. The cuisine known as Baja Californian, is relatively new, created by people like Chef Benito Molina Dubost and Solange; in Tijuana, Chef Javier Plascencia; and in Rosarito and Tijuana, Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero. The cuisine of Baja, California, is not about plates or techniques, but about the products. The question has been, what is so special about the products? It has seven of the 10 most expensive species of seafood products in the world: geoduck, lobster, abalone, bluefin tuna, shrimp, sea cucumber, and sea urchin. Seven of the 10 most expensive seafood products in the world come out of these docks. What gives me joy is the rich variety of wines, the microclimates; it has incredible vegetables and wineries, and its spectacular ingredients.

SGLA: What will it take for Mexico to get even more respect for their cuisine internationally?

AC: For me as a Mexican cook, what's most important [are] the products. That’s the reason, we are here in Baja, California, but maybe the success right now with Mexican food is because of the Mexican chefs who are working together, [on] the same side. I’m talking about Mexican local products. I’m talking about the natural products, I’m talking about the local cuisine. We make local cuisine with a global vision. The goal is to take local food and and spread it around the world. We are creating local cuisine with a vision of world cuisine.

There was an incredible buzz about Aquiles's demo. He is from Tabasco where they are famous for their use of the pejelagarto, a pre-historic, amphibious fish. He prepared it camp-style: grilled pejelagarto with hearty, tortillas Tabasco-style, a salsa of chile piquin--tiny grenades of heat--also known as salsa de chile amashito, and a chocolate beverage made from cacao.

Salsa de chile amashito

Grilled Pejelagarto, tortillas tabasquenas, atole de cacao, and salsa de chile amashito.

Chef Aquiles Chavez has taken the pejelagarto to new heights of fame in Mexico. This symbol of pre-hispanic cookery puntuates what all the chefs at this congress are trying to achieve. They're spreading the beauty of Mexican cuisine through Mexican ingredients and techniques in a fearless manner. Stateside, non-Mexican chefs have attempted to present safe cuisine, mild-Mexican flavors to the American public. Well it looks like the pejelagarto might be coming to the US--Chef Aquiles plans to open a branch of his Lo in Houston, Texas. It will be called La Fisheria.

The only other restaurant run by a Mexican chef in the US has been Chef Javier Plascencia's Romesco in Bonita, CA. It seems as the chefs at this congress are putting their words into actions.

The themes that echoed throught the event were that the brotherhood of Mexican chefs are preserving their traditions, increasing their use of Mexican products, using the best ingredients, and striving to bring passion to their culinary creations. Ensenada represents the best Mexico has to offer in seafood, wine from the Valle de Guadalupe, and world class olive oil. Ensenada and Baja chefs are drawing the atttention of culinary giants, many of whom were present at the Ensenada Gastronomica. We ran into Oaxacan master Chef Alejandro Ruiz at the end of the day at Molina's Manzanilla, who informed us that he is now incorporating geoducks into his Oaxacan recipes. Chef Enrique Olvera is a frequent visitor to Ensenada as well as other chefs participating in the congress: Chef Javier Plascencia, Chef Antonio Livier, Chef Paulina Abascal, and Mexico's top wine maker, Hugo D' Acosta.

In the community of chefs, Ensenada and Baja are now mentioned alongside Oaxaca, Yucatan, Tabasco, D.F., and Michoacan when it comes to seeking out about inspiration for their Mexican cuisines. More than ever, Ensenada matters.

Ensenada Gastronomica 2011

1 comment:

Food GPS said...

Very cool news to hear Aquiles will be opening a restaurant in Houston. Hopefully he'll serve pejelagarto and those great thick tortillas.