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.


Sherry said...

I have never heard of him, however I have never left the state of Minnesota. We plan to go to California this winter, so I will have to make my husband stop at his restaurant. There is nothing better than a good mexican meal. Thanks for sharing.

brightlights said...

I think Benito also just won an award as being one of the 5 top chefs in Mexico...

Kathleen is Cooking in Mexico said...

Thank you for expanding my culinary horizons with this interview.

Anonymous said...

Benito has the right stuff,,,nic plug or sushi ota ..


Anonymous said...

write something new already !!!
look forward to your new post !


Blaine said...

After watching Benito on Travel Channel I hope one day to travel to Baja and sample his Geoduck clam creations!!! Benito seems like a humble, down to earth man and I hope he becomes a household name but stays approachable and influential :)

MaMaZu said...

We had a wonderful dinner at Silvestre's among the oaks and vineyard with friends. Absolutely amazing!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the info that you gave us, it helps a lot hearing it from someone who has been through the whole process.If you were to recommend some places to stay with clean, safe and moderate rent where would it be? Thanks again for the help.
Culinary Schools in California

caninecologne said...

Hello MA! What a great interview!

Maria said...


I love your blog, it's so well-written and includes wonderful authentic recipes and news on Mexican cooking. Thanks so much for sharing. I also blog about Mexican food on I'm very passionate about it and I hope you'll check it out! (Ah, y también hablo español :)) Have a great day! Maria

Carmen said...

Yo doy fe que el restaurante Manzanilla es un estupendo lugar para conocer la comida de este magnífico cocinero. En si ENsenada es mi paraíso particular:

Recién descubro tu blog, recibe un saludo

Anonymous said...

you need to write MORE !!! enough of this break already.


Anonymous said...

I have dined there a few times and everytime it seems to get better. If you are in Ensenada this is a must.

Tijuana MarkP

ebayshop said...

thank you nace blog