Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chef Benito Molina Interview - Baja California's True Pioneer

Chef Benito Molina by Iker Muris
Benito Molina Photo by Iker Muris

Chefs Benito Molina y Solange Muris by Iker MurisChefs Solange Muris and Benito Molina photo by Iker Muris

Many of the young talented chefs of Baja California I have met over the years have named Chef Benito Molina as their inspiration and mentor. Regarded as one of the most important figures in Baja California's culinary movement Benito Molina is a true pioneer.

Without putting a label on Benito's style I would describe it as, Artistically crafted dishes utilizing fresh local seafood, combined with the best local and regional ingredients, prepared in innovative fashion while preserving Mexican tradition.

I had a chance to sit down and with Chef Benito at his Restaurant Manzanilla which he runs with his wife Solange Muris. Manzanilla is one of Mexico's top dining destinations.

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to become a chef?

My mother and grandmother are from Campeche in the Yucatan Peninsula and some of my fondest childhood memories are spending time with them in the markets in Campeche. The colors of the food and the aromas of the fresh fish are forever etched in my memories.

I didn't realize this was something I wanted to do professionally until I was about 20. One night I was laying down looking at the stars in my grandparents apartment in Mexico City and something just hit me. At the time I was studying economics and working a 9 to 5 job at a bank. I think part of the reason I got into economics was the influence of the movie by Oliver Stone, Wall Street, you know back in the 80s when I was going to High School in California everyone wanted to be Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas character in the movie).

By year two of economics I was really struggling with the advanced math stuff. On the social side of college I was doing very well, I mean I would host some of the best parties and of course cook at the parties, but I really started to dislike the academic side.

So back to that night looking at the stars, I began searching for what made me happy. Everyday at my job in the bank we went out to eat with customers and my boss had me choose the restaurants we would eat at, this would be the highlight of my day, this is what made me happy. I also started to think back to my teen summer job as a busboy at French Restaurant Maxim's Mexico City, those times in that bustling, frantic kitchen stayed with me.

My childhood memories in the mercado in Campeche, experiencing the different restaurants while I was working my 9-5 at the bank, and spending time in the kitchen at Maxim's all culminated into a life changing moment. The next day I quit studying at the University and gave my boss at the bank my 2 weeks notice.

I returned to Maxim's and Mr. Jean Yves Ferrer gave me a job in the kitchen. I was very lucky because the chef did not speak Spanish and I was the only one who spoke French and Spanish. My first task was cleaning a huge amount of shallots , that day I knew I would dedicate the rest of my life to the kitchen.

Who were the most important influences in your career as a chef?

Jean Yves Ferrer who opened the door for me at Maxim's, Michel LeBorgne co-founder of New England Culinary Institute's (NECI) were I went to culinary school, and Chef Todd English.

How has your cuisine evolved from your first experiences in the kitchen to now?

Radical changes, I mean the first time I really started cooking their was so much of a French influence. I still think french food is fantastic but of course now my cuisine has more Mexican influence. I remember some of my best experiences at Maxim's was making some fantastic tacos de lengua for the staff.

You are originally from Mexico City how did you end up in Ensenada ?

I have an uncle from San Blas Nayarit, he was a Marine Biologist and happened to work at an oyster farm when I was a little kid. He would come to the city with the oysters and for me it was a huge event, I probably displayed more emotion when he showed up with the oysters then I did on Christmas Eve.

I grew up on in the city with no contact with the wild, I would sit out on my 10th story terrace and all I wanted was to go to the ocean or live on a farm. My uncle would tell me about Ensenada and it sounded like such an interesting place.

While I was attending High School in Ojai California a friend of of mine who was from Ensenada invited me down for the summer, this was my first experience in Ensenada and I loved it. The next time I came down to Baja was with another friend whose father owned huge professional tuna boats. At this time I had already been excepted into culinary school in Vermont but I wanted to go on the tuna boat before I went off to school.

I spent a month and a half at sea on the tuna boat and it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had. Several years later, after I finished culinary school, I returned to Mexico City when I received a call from a friend whose brother was looking for a chef in Ensenada. He arranged a meeting with his brother Hugo D' Acosta who at the time ran Santo Tomas Winery and La Embotelladora Vieja. I took a tour of the facilities and of the beautiful countryside of the Valle de Guadalupe and I knew this is were I wanted to be.

My childhood dream of living in the country or by the sea was about to become a reality.

What are your favorite destinations in Mexico to dine?

Oaxaca without a doubt, Mexico City, and Campeche.

Restaurants Manzanilla, Muelle Tres, and Silvestre are your babies, do you and your wife Solange have plans to open anything new in the near future?

The deal is not sealed yet but we plan to open a special place in Tijuana, we already have the space picked out.

Im from San Diego, when you come to our town what is your favorite place to dine?

Sushi Ota for sure, I mean I dream of Sushi Ota.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Quick Day Trip In Tijuana

I'm out of state for the week but before I left I made sure I spent a few hours in Tijuana. Here is a little picture post.

Cabeza Tacos at La Chuleta Cento Tijuana
Tacos De Cabeza - La Chuleta Tijuana

Cerveza Tijuana Brewery
Cerveza Tijuana Brewery -TJ Beer

Cerveza Tijuana Beer Flight Sampler
Cerveza Tijuana Beer Flight

Mexican Microbrew from Beer Box Zona Rio Tijuana
Poe Beer - Beer Box Tijuana

Tacos De Costilla de Res Taninos Wine Bar Zona Rio Tijuana
Tacos de Costilla de res - Taninos Wine Bar Tijuana

Salsa for the Tacos de Costilla
Salsa For Tacos - Taninos Wine Bar Tijuana

Full write up on Beer Box Mexican Micro Brews to come...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

El Agave Gastro Bar - Mezcal for the Soul

Since first reporting about Ensenadas El Agave Gastro Bar back in October I've been anticipating expanding my knowledge in the world of premium Mezcals. I finally made it out to El Agave a few weeks ago and now It is time to profess my love for this fine spirit.

I remember my first introduction to Mezcal, I was probably in my early twenties bar hopping somewhere in Tijuana. I just remember some bottle with a worm inside that tasted like gasoline. Unfortunately most people are first introduced to a cheap, diluted, chemically altered, mass produced Mezcal,as I was.

The purity of true Mezcal has a distinctive soulful earthiness, floral undertones and elegant smoky qualities. As the gracious host "Chava" pulled down the obscure artisanal Mezcals from all over Oaxaca State, I noticed each had its own distinct character and purity.

El Agave Mezcal Bar

El Agave Gastro Bar - Ensenada

My notes became jaded after a few Mezcals, but I did manage to jot down Pierde Almas Mezcal as being one of the favorites of Ms. Masa and I. Pierde Almas is a double distilled spirit, primarily derived from three different species of agave, Espadin, Dobadaan, and the prized Tobala.

Pierde almas

As the Mezcals kept coming I was served some fresh botanas, the first was a simple house made guacamole spread on a tortilla.

El Agave Guac

If you follow my blog you no my love for stuffed chiles so when I looked at the board and noticed "Chiles de Agua" I just had to order it. Roasted Chiles de Agua stuffed with Oaxacan Cheese in a Black-Bean Purée. Spicy with herbal notes and the perfect accompaniment for my Mezcals.

Chile De Agua Oax

I was hoping to get some gusanos de maguey (which I love) but they were all out so I ordered some Chapulines, seasoned lemon and garlic roasted grasshoppers.

El Agave Chapulines and Mezcal

El Agave Chapulines

If you want to experience what an outstanding Mezcal and world-class spirit tastes like, check out El Agave Gastro bar. The owners Laura and Chava are super friendly and will be more then happy to give you a taste of Oaxaca. For more information you can visit my original post here.

El Agave Av. Ruiz #230-a (2nd and Ruiz)
Tel (646) 175-7467