Better-than-Baja Cuisine

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The Flavors of Rincón San Román, the first “serious” cookbook to come out of Baja, went into its second edition this year. Its recipes, which are given in both Spanish and English, come from the kitchens of the chef Martín San Román’s signature restaurants and are presented such that readers might prepare them easily at home.

Back in the mid-1980s, when San Román first started cooking in Tijuana, the town was still finding its feet in terms of cuisine. There were the obligatory “combination plate” places made famous by generations of tourists, a goodly number of seafood restaurants serving the local catch, dozens of places offering what is still called Mexicali-style Chinese food (nineteenth-century Cantonese), and a couple of fine-dining establishments that Dean Martin would be comfortable in. But there was nothing remotely like the food San Román wanted to serve, food that has come to acquire a host of misnomers such as “Baja Cuisine”.

San Román comes from Mexico City, where he grew up with all the great Mexican regional styles at his fingertips, yet he was trained in classical and modern haute cuisine by the University of Michigan, the École Ritz Escoffier, and the École Lenôtre. Today he applies the techniques of Beard, Carême, and Bocuse to the raw materials of Colonial Mexico. He refers to his work as cuisine d’auteur, for which he has both his training and gastronomical history to back him up. He is an auteur, an individual artist: he applies what he knows to what he has at hand in order to offer his customers a uniquely satisfying experience at table.
He opened his Tour de France in Plaza Fiesta but quickly outgrew the location and moved to an historical hacienda-style home in front of the Hotel Azteca. Eventually he set up in Real del Mar, outside the urban part of the city, where the ambience is as refined and as expansive as the cuisine. The restaurant reflects the cuisine d’auteur approach down to its name, Rincón San Román.

Chef enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for good food. He televised a weekly cooking program for many years addressed to households on both sides of the border. He has also trained the next generation of restaurant professionals at the culinary academy in Rosarito. And for fifteen years now he has been the federal government’s first choice to represent Mexico overseas at state dinners and gastronomical expositions.

The Flavors of Rincón San Román is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But only those who buy the book directly from its publisher through the link given here will also be able to purchase the subsequent edition (which promises to be more than double the size of the present one) at a significant discount.
For this present edition, San Román added a page specifically to address the erroneous notion that his work, or that of any other restaurateur in Baja, might represent some new style of gastronomy.

To put the matter plainly, what Baja really has to offer are regional cuisines (ranging in quality from street food to refined) and a small amount of inventive gastronomy. Bearing witness to this fact are the cookbooks that our area has generated: one volume of indigenous Yumano cooking, a collection of recipes from the prominent wives of the 1970s (also in its second edition), a few Baja-for-gringos volumes, one amateurishly produced compilation of recipes contributed higgledy-piggledy by the members of the local restaurant association, and only one book that presents the work of a particular cuisinier.

When the media began touting Paul Bocuse's “nouvelle cuisine”, the philologist Jean-François Revel was provoked to write a history of culture and cuisine in order to demonstrate that nouvelle was really atavique, that gastronomy moves in the great cycle, and that Bocuse merely brought food before Carême back into fashion.

In Revel’s analysis, there are only two kinds of gastronomy. Regional cuisines are “a corpus of fixed recipes possessing essential ties to a given region and its resources”. The more refined sort of food, often associated with international hotels or haute cuisine, makes use of “methods, of principles amenable to variations, depending on different local and financial possibilities … conducive to variations within a given country, depending on seasonal possibilities.”

Revel reviews three millennia of Western Europe to make his case. By the mid-eighteenth century, “we see a clear distinction being made between the cuisine of the female cook, transmitted by a tradition of manual skills and instruction within the family, and the cuisine of the [male] chef, based on invention and reflection.”

To his credit, Revel adds immediately that such an “antifeminist distinction should not, of course, prevent us from noting that often chefs are women and vice versa.”

Ultimately, even Bocuse agreed with Revel in that his cuisine nouvelle was more a revolution of cooks than of dishes and that his intention was to save haute cuisine from an international homogenization at the hands of the big hotel chains. 
This analysis applies with the same validity to the growing presence of gastronomy in Baja California. Anyone who has eaten in Baja before 1990 will recognize the truth of Revel’s thesis immediately: it is the age-old question of whether you want to look at the forest or count each of the trees.

Chef Martín invites the readers of this blog to download a sample recipe for their personal use. Chiles rellenos de mousse de camarón begins with the Colonial favorite but then takes advantage of our region’s shrimp and of the lightness San Román learned from Bocuse in order to produce a refreshing appetizer or buffet dish. ¡Provecho!


Katy-waits said...

You tell the story through the eyes of one who lives there - I simply tell the story of someone who spent one day there - how can i pretend to know more than what I do?

The Real Tijuana said...
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The Real Tijuana said...
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The Real Tijuana said...

Quibblers and chivviers may contribute at’s_first_“haute_cuisine”_cookbook

(It looks like you need to hightlight the URL then copy and paste it into your browser.)

The Real Tijuana said...

Yes, Katy, the answer is implicit in your question, that is, none of us should pretend to know more than we do. Each of us has our own truth to tell: yours is that of a day-tripper, ours is that of a group of locals who are trying to create a subtler awareness of our culture.

Your story demonstrates that folks can show up here on a moment’s notice, with no particular preparation, and yet have a good time. Our blog is trying to foster a cultural tourism (along the lines of Rick Steves and the responsible tourism movement) on the promise that such an increased awareness will make your visit much more rewarding.

The next time you visit, spend a few days instead of a few hours and you’ll see what we mean.

Katy-waits said...

I agree, and definitely I would like to return to Tijuana to expand on my first visit and impressions - I enjoyed my time there and although I am not aware of all the culture and history, sometimes a spontaneous adventure awakens curiosity, which in turn leads to discoveries and learning. That's what it's all about.