Interview: Chef Javier Plascencia discusses Mexican Cuisine, Hiring Practices, Prized Proteins + Baja Culinary Fest
If the Baja dining scene were a meteoroid, then Javier Plascencia would inevitably be at center mass. Sure, some of his contemporaries are also producing exciting food using local ingredients, including Miguel Angel Guerrero at restaurants like La Querencia, and Benito Molina and wife Solange at establishments like Manzanilla, but it’s been Plascencia who’s had breakout success in the past couple years. By opening Mision 19 – from all accounts a next level Mexican restaurant – he’s managed to appear in national publications like the New York Times. Now, he and his comrades are working together to promote the region in a more concentrated way by bringing top culinary talent from Mexico and Los Angeles to take part in the inaugural Baja Culinary Fest. Leading up to the first fest – October 5-9, 2011 – Plascencia took part in a press conference in L.A. at Playa, and he fielded a number of questions related to, and totally separate from, the fest.
Why do you think there has not been a Baja Culinary Fest before, and why is this the right time to have it?
We always had some type of festival, but very local, especially the seafood. It was called Feria de Pescado y Mariscos. It’s like a fair of seafood and fish. It’s been going on since the ’70s. This festival itself, this is the first time that we do it because Baja California’s been getting a lot of attention, and it’s a movement that’s happening very strong and very fast. There are a lot of young cooks and chefs coming up, chefs like myself. We got together and we thought, you know, we need a festival like this, like the ones we have in Puebla, in Oaxaca, and we thought we were ready to do it because we have all these wonderful products, olive oils, wines, cheeses, seafood, so we decided to start it this year.
Do you feel like Mexican cuisine gets the respect it deserves internationally?
It’s definitely getting its respect. It’s just starting. Since a couple years back, we’ve been getting a lot of attention in Mexico. Not just in Baja, but all of Mexico. It’s not a fad. I don’t think it’s going to fade away. It’s going to stay because people are really liking it. They’re interested in the culture and the food of Mexico.
What do you think are a couple misconceptions that people have about Mexican cuisine that you’d like to clear up?
One of the problems, especially in the States and in Europe, what you see in most of the restaurants is not Mexican cuisine. It’s Tex-Mex. Recently, we’re seeing a lot more places doing more authentic recipes from regions of Mexico, which is very, very good for us and for Mexico. Most of the food that you taste in the States is not real Mexican. It’s Americanized Mexican. For instance, we don’t use a lot of cumin in our recipes. We don’t use the yellow cheese that you use, cheddar cheese and so on, but I think that’s going to change. I’m very happy to see places like this doing really authentic recipes, which is what we want.
Do you travel much?
I travel a lot in Mexico right now, but I do travel. That’s where I get all my inspiration.
What’s an example of a recent trip that you took and how did that impact what you’re doing at your restaurants?
I just took another trip to the Baja coastline because I wanted to talk to the fishermen and the mothers of the fishermen and see what they’re doing. I just found out a recipe that they do, recently. It’s just clams and rice, like a stew. I found out it’s really popular near Loreto. They made it for me, and it’s got a lot of history to that dish. I’m going to add it to my menu at Mision 19. Things like that I’m trying to learn from the fishermen in Baja. I’m trying to cook more with abalone, so I’m going to see more abalone farms, talking to the people and they just give me tips and old recipes, what their grandmothers used to make and so on. That’s what I’m doing right now.
What’s the name of the clam and rice dish?
It doesn’t even have a name. It’s sopa de almeja de puerta, that’s what I’m going to call it.
How would your version be different?
I’m just going to plate it more nicely. It’s very rustic. I’m just going to not mess a lot with the recipe itself. I’m just going to use a better quality of rice. The clams, they are delicious and I’m just going to finish it with a really, really good olive oil that just came out of Santa Tomas Winery. They just won a medal in Europe. So that’s what I’m doing.
I have a few different types of questions. What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen?
I was young. I was just coming out of cooking school in San Diego. I took a trip to Europe with my father for almost a month and as soon as I came back, the restaurant was ready. I was working full-time, probably 14 hours a day. It was a whole experience full of adrenaline. I was real young and very, very excited. Time flew by and I was doing what I wanted to do. I found myself in the kitchen, and I had the liberty of doing whatever I wanted. So as you can imagine, being so young and inexperienced, I threw a lot of food in the trash. That was my best school. My father let me do whatever I wanted, and I’m very grateful to him for letting me do that. That’s where I got a lot of experience.
What was the restaurant?
It was called Villa Saverios. We still have Villa Saverios, but it was in another location. We were there for 12 years and it was super fun…The first day that we opened there was a line waiting outside to go and have dinner for many years. It was great.
Your father is a chef too?
No, he’s a restaurateur, but he loves to cook. He didn’t study. He just goes into the kitchen, tastes, maybe gives you some pointers, gives us a dish that he wants to do, and we create it for him. He loves to eat. He loves to drink wine and especially greet people at the door.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
Passion, a lot of passion. Time. I don’t care if they’re experienced as long as they have the passion. I can see it whenever I do the interview. They have to have respect for the ingredient and where we’re coming from, their culture, helps a lot.
If you could only cook with one more protein, what would it be and how come?
That’s a good question. Probably it would be fish because I love the ocean. I love being in the water. I love fishing and I especially love cooking with fish. So just give me any type of good fish, fresh, and I’ll be real happy.
What do you look for in a restaurant experience in a restaurant that isn’t yours?
I look for authenticity. If they have a really authentic menu with fresh ingredients and respect for what they do with their ingredients, with the recipe, that’s what I look forward to. Especially if they have some history to it, or the chef, like here, for instance.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
Right now I’m drinking a lot of craft beer from Tijuana. A lot of young guys are doing craft beers and they’re real good. I drink wine every day. I don’t have a specific wine that I like, but I like to try new things. I’m always trying different wines.
I recently met Damian and Ivan Morales from Insurgente.
Okay, yeah, yeah. Really interesting guys and they’re doing really good product. Good beers. I just tasted another new beer called Frontera. They have a blonde, well they call it a blonde but it’s a lager. And a porter. The porter is really, really interesting.
That’s produced in Tijuana?
Do you have Frontera at Mision 19?
Yes, yes. We have Frontera, of course. There’s a lot of interesting – people really want to show craft and are showing a lot of artisanal things. We’re real excited. Hopefully whoever comes down to the festival will be able to taste all these great new products that we have and meet the producers.
What’s the longest that you’ve ever waited to sit down for a meal at a restaurant, and was it worth the wait?
My kids love this place in San Diego called Walker’s. It’s a place that sells pancakes. They like to go there on Sundays. So every time we go we have to stand in line for 45 minutes or so. They’re very nice, really tasty, but I don’t like to wait in line that much for pancakes.