What’s in a Nombre?

Baja California restaurateur proposes new name for regional cuisine

Miguel Angel Guerrero, La Esperanza, Baja California, Mexico Miguel Angel Guerrero's Baja Med cuisine.

Valle de Guadalupe restaurant Deckman’s en El Mogor won the award for “Best Regional Cuisine” at the Gourmet Awards in Oaxaca, Mexico this week. He announced the win with a social post proclaiming “…we officially have a regional cuisine!”. The statement was made with only the certainty that one of the region’s most lauded and experienced chefs could credibly express. So is it time for Baja California‘s culinary community to finally settle on a name for the country’s hottest new movement? At least one Valle de Guadalupe restaurant owner thinks so.

Modern chefs in Baja California are unbound by the shackles of pre-Hispanic Mexican gastronomic cultures that constrain Oaxaca, Michoacán and the Yucatán. They freely and frequently stir an immigrant-influenced pot of tradition and technique over an open fire using an embarrassing bounty of homegrown ingredients. Over the last twenty years, their work has created a fusion that culinary professionals around Mexico are beginning to proclaim the country’s “newest cuisine”.

In crafting a “new cuisine”, Baja California chefs like Deckman, Benito Molina, Roberto Alcocer, Diego Hernandez, Miguel Angel Guerrero, Javier Plascencia and others have inadvertently created a nearly singular gastronomic category. Guerrero saw the commonalities as early as early as the year 2000 and filed a trademark for a name to apply to his style of cooking — a fusion of traditional Mexican, Asian and Southern European influences. He called it “Baja Mediterranean,” or more succinctly “Baja Med”.

Miguel Angel Guerrero, La Esperanza Baja Med, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Miguel Angel Guerrero’s La Esperanza Baja Med.

Tourism types liked the satisfying snap of the mark and quickly adapted it as a general descriptor of the culinary movement occurring in the region post 9/11. It worked. Possibly too well. Gastro-tourists returned and more from around the globe are visiting the region for the first time. Food and travel media picked up on the term and applied “Baja Med” to the style of just about every chef working in Baja California. This diluted Guerrero’s certainly more specific intent.

As a journalist who has documented the region’s gastronomic rise, I’ve personally used the innocuous “Baja California Cuisine” as a descriptor in my articles and book, Seven Days in The Valle: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine. It’s safe and works, but certainly doesn’t honor the plethora of influences involved in this adventurous new style of cooking.

Luciano Gonzalez, Federico Cota, Restaurante Quercus, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Luciano Gonzalez and Federico Cota.

Federico Cota, the owner of Restaurante Quercus in the Valle de Guadalupe, would also argue that many of the phrases used to describe Baja California’s regional cuisine omit a key factor. The farm-to-table influence from Alta California that chef Jair Tellez introduced to the Valle de Guadalupe in 2002. At the beginning of this gastronomic revolution.

In a recent email, Cota offered up an alternative convention for Baja California’s fused cuisine and explained why a singular name is important as a cue for visitors as well as something to join NouvelleHaute and Modern Mexican in the index of culinary history. The email is translated from Spanish, with Cota’s review and approval:

Dear Scott,

I was born in San Diego in 1965 and raised in Tijuana. I think of myself as a true dweller of the lands of the Californias. I have a natural passion for cooking. I stood in front of a stove at age five and made scrambled eggs for my family. I took every opportunity to enjoy one of my most beloved activities.

As cooks, we try to emulate what we see and taste all around us, in a society made up of immigrants and their descendants — where everything we eat has the taste of another culture, from which it was derived. Together with a strong economy, we have the means and a desire in this society to experience food.

Tijuana was destined to become a tourist destination, given its situation at the US border with California. With its history of immigrants, gastronomy was sure to play a permanent role in the attraction with visitors to the city. By simply nourishing ourselves, we have created a unique, enjoyable gastronomy that’s undeniably our own.

As modern “Baja California cuisine” has been promoted, where did we begin to dismiss Alta California’s contribution to this new cuisine? Twenty years ago, with a few exceptions, there weren’t any “gourmet” restaurants in Baja California. As California has one of the wealthiest economies on the planet, it has drawn great culinary talent from around the world for over a century.

We’ve always had some of the elements; Chinese, our interpretations of regional Mexican cuisines, urban cuisine based on that of the United States, burgers and pizzas.

Our population and cuisine have grown in diversity to include Japanese, Lebanese, Indian, and American style steaks and barbecue costillas (ribs). That type of food has since franchised and is now available throughout Tijuana. On the other hand, there are Tijuana style taco stands all around Southern California.

By the late eighties, on any given Sunday, there was a variety of cuisines to choose from when going out for comida (midday meal). Including a new trend that became known as “Mediterranean”. So, what is it? Does that mean olive oil, bread and wine?

That type of cuisine had grown up recently in Southern California but contained nothing that was then truly “ours”. During that time, we were crossing the border for fresh herbs to use in our homes and restaurants. It wasn’t typical here. And it would be another decade before we could get good produce at Soriana (a Mexican supermarket chain).

What we are failing to acknowledge overall is that every single regional cook – and by regional I mean all of the Californias, disregarding the border – have common traits that we share and truly relate to as a society: a natural liberty to create from imagination using a variety of techniques, concepts and products that, when arranged on a plate, is a reflection of our shared identity. As dwellers of the land of the Californias.

As a legitimate culinary region, are we going to start further sub-categorizing our gastronomy as “Baja Nouvelle”, “Baja California Cuisine” or “Baja Mediterranean”? It doesn’t seem politically correct and it’s not backed up by history. It’s also not Baja-exclusive but used regularly by tourist or state services (to draw visitors to the region).

From another continent, it sounds like a cliché. I say let it stand as what it is — from the indigenous culture to the foreigners who made this their land. A region that shares the same climate, flora, fauna, seafood and a similar sharing of cooking and knowledge as that across border from the beginning. We mix in what the global economy puts within our reach to play and cook, constantly evolving into a distinctive cuisine we can call our own.

If one must label, I stand by “Cocina Caliterranéa” or “Caliterranian Cuisine”. We cannot change the reality. Our cuisine is truly regional.

But this is just my personal stream of ideas. And as the storyteller, my hope is that within this timeframe I’m able to start a dialogue that brings the community together to discuss these ideas as a whole and properly define our regional gastronomy and its history. I know that our shared history will be rewritten over and over as a growing army of chefs show up here to play and cook.

Then, today’s trends will be considered “old school”, as we are seeing with the first compact group of chefs that were in the spotlight twenty years ago. There are new talented chefs to prevail and represent their immortality and their names too. The chefs who will cling to a personal style who will ultimately become eclipsed by rising stars.

I do know this. We are all in for a serious ride as the region begins to saturate even more than it has. When our region begins to send its skilled culinary professionals out to the wider world, taking with them _______________ cuisine?

Federico Cota
Owner, Restauranté Quercus, Valle de Guadalupe

Do you agree with Cota’s suggestion of Caliterranian as a wider description for the cuisine of Baja California? What would you propose “Mexico’s Newest Cuisine” be named? Culinary posterity, after all, demands a label and we’d enjoy hearing your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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