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My Baja Restaurant Doesn't Pamper Its Vegetables

The degustation menu at Corazón de Tierra is all about tasting Ensenada. The customer goes into a journey of cereals, vegetables, seafood, fish, poultry, game meat, etc. It sounds delicious? Yes it does. It sounds easy? Of course it does. But it’s...

Ensenada is a paradise. It's a town that's been hit with economic downfalls throughout its history, and it's hard for restaurant owners to survive, but living here is a delight.

I decided to establish myself and run my own restaurant, Corazón de Tierra, in Ensenada (Baja California, Mexico) because it's where I was born and raised. When I decided to be a chef, I didn't even know that my hometown was on its way to transforming itself in a world-class culinary destination. I live here because I like to wake up and see the sea and watch the starry nights with no electricity in sight. But above all else, I live here because Baja's food scene is like no other.

Here, we eat the sea.

oysters-in-ensenada

This town is full of small vendors selling ceviches made from the freshest fish. When I feel like eating clams, I go to "Gordito," the clam vendor or "Güero" for when I crave shrimp. "Tizon" has the best sea urchin and chiluda clams. "La Guerrense" is the most famous street seafood spot, which has been owned by the charismatic doña Sabina for more than 50 years. She sells the best octopus and cod in the area. It's easy to live in a place where food is this good, but it's more envy-worthy to live in a place that allows you to have your own sustainable restaurant with an orchard.

Ensenada's geographical enables it to exist as the perfect environment for organic and sustainable agriculture. We have two seas: the Pacific Ocean, with its cold water, and the Cortes sea, which is a warm-water sea; the land is fertile, there's a lot of space for crops, and the climate fluctuates but the sunlight and heat balance it out. We've been cultivating and eating organic produce for a long time before it turned into a worldwide trend. At first, we did it because it's an easy thing to do, but then the American industry asked us to, so we cultivate tons of food that ends up in US supermarkets like Whole Foods. If the vegetables don't pass the quality controls over there because of their size, they stay here and we eat them ourselves.

ensenada-garden

Eating something that has just been harvested makes a huge difference. This is why I built an orchard that would provide us with the produce that we need to make our dishes. The immediacy, the freshness, and the quality of the products are true luxuries. This means that the flavors are more alive because the peak of freshness when you serve it right away is dramatic compared to weeks later. Plants, like humans and animals, quickly respond to stimulus. The stress caused by our survival instincts when we are in danger makes us react in different ways. The plant needs to be a bit stressed out and suffer a bit so its survival instinct kicks in and makes it take more energy from the soil to concentrate its nutrients. This is why we don't pamper our plants too much. The land is what gives them flavor.

Maybe I'm a bit romantic, but to cook what I grow on my own land is a beautiful thing.

ensenada-building

At Corazón de Tierra, we don't have greenhouses or use fertilizers because that is fake energy. We let the crops expose themselves to the real climate of the place, from the cold and the heat to get the natural sunlight and maintain their natural cycles.

But it's not all fun and games. To run a restaurant that depends on an orchard to function is complicated; and in administrative terms, you never really know how much are you spending—you just have an approximation. Besides, we don't really have a menu. We are completely subject to what the orchard gives us.

The orchard that provides a sustainable restaurant has the reins of the business. And it will always be like that. When we opened, we had a whole different idea of how it was going to be. Little by little, we started to realize that the orchard was in charge.

exterior-shed-in-ensenada

We make the menu according to the orchard's activity. We understood that she's the one in charge and it's our duty to offer a journey through Ensenada's food. Our first course, for instance, is always smoked tuna, because we have smokers all over town (it's a traditional conservation method in the area). The second course is clams; the third, vegetables; the fourth, raw fish; and the fifth is always a warm dish (which can go from a tamale to a soup, a tartlet, or something sautéed).

To come up with a daily menu is a challenge. We never serve the same vegetable twice in two different dishes, ever. The degustation menu is all about tasting Ensenada, to try it on all of its sides. The customer goes into a journey of cereals, vegetables, seafood, fish, poultry, game meat, etc. It sounds delicious? Yes it does. It sounds easy? Of course it does. But it's actually sheer madness. You really need to be creative to follow through.

drinking-in-ensenada

Corazón de Tierra is not a completely sustainable restaurant, because there are many resources that we can't generate ourselves, like electricity, but it's a place that couldn't exist outside this environment. It's inimitable, like someone's life. This restaurant is alive and constantly changing, and reacts to a certain climate, an environment and above all to the people that works in it. I believe that Corazón de Tierra is my dream restaurant because it sustains itself and I have fun with it, even when it's not my goal to turn it in the most profitable business on Earth.

plated-dish-in-ensenada

All the cooks, farmers, beer makers, and other producers are a well-knitted community that's simply beautiful. We meet all the time to plan things over beers. We never need to say, "Hey, let's have a meeting." No, the plans come up organically at someone's birthday party or at the bar.

Without realizing it, we have influenced other cuisines and communities in Mexico. The reason for this might be the fact that Ensenada's food is so fresh, maybe because our community is so positive. Or maybe because our lifestyle is so beautiful and healthy. It's all a consequence to the fact that we live in an idyllic place.

As told to Margot Castañeda.

This article was originally published on MUNCHIES on April 9, 2015.