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Manzanilla Chef Benito Molina on Baja and the Evolution of Mexican Gastronomy

Photo: Amy McKeever/

It's been about 14 years since Benito Molina and Solange Muris opened their Baja restaurant Manzanilla. Part of an early wave of Mexican chefs who were striking out with their own restaurants, Molina and Muris have become some of Mexico's most renowned chefs (and television personalities) thanks to their thoughtful treatment of the fresh seafood available in their coastal city of Ensenada.

Molina and Muris were recently in San Miguel de Allende, where they were responsible for one of the featured dinners for Mesa Abierta, Enrique Olvera's celebration of Mexican cuisine. Eater caught up with Molina at the picnic the next day for the following interview, in which he talks about the security-related drop in tourism to Baja, why a festival like Mesamérica is so important, and how "what's happening in Mexican gastronomy today is unprecedented."

How has Mesa Abierta been for you?
Mesa Abierta is fantastic, this is a show of force of all the Mexican chefs together, the colectivo, los cocineros Mexicanos. It's very important that we organize the events ourselves instead of coming and promoting something. It's a show of friendship, of what Mexican gastronomy is right now. What's happening in Mexican gastronomy today is unprecedented. This is part of why we are together. If we were not together, the show of importance would not be the same.

Why is it important that you organize it yourselves?
Because, as cooks, we see things differently, no? I mean, our point of view is completely different from someone who, I don't know, runs public relations or something like that.

What do you think of how much this festival has grown?

It's very important that we take people outside of Mexico City.

I think it's super important that we're doing it outside of Mexico City. I'm from Mexico City, I've lived in Ensenada for 20 years, almost, but it's very important we have events outside of the city. I mean for me, for the wine area, for the Guadalupe Valley, it's super important that we do an event there, and we will be doing it next year. We're going to be having an event in Valle de Guadalupe in Ensenada. It's very important that we take people outside of the city. I mean, Mexico City's one of the biggest cities in the world, but the tomatoes don't grow there, you know? Or the fish doesn't swim there! The fish market is four blocks away from my restaurant. Every day the fish is fresh, every day.

For our readers who are not familiar, can you explain a little bit about the cooking at your restaurant?
My restaurant is Manzanilla, and I've been in Ensenada for 18 years now. I originally worked at a winery called Santo Tomas. Hugo D'Acosta was my boss. He hired me, that's why I moved to Baja California. He's one of the most influential wine makers in Mexican history. Solange, my wife, and I opened Manzanilla 14 years ago. We work together one year in the winery and then we decided to open our own place.

Manzanilla is based on local ingredients from Baja California. We have the best fish, the best alcohol, the best wine, so the combination is just perfect. It's every chef's dream to live in that place. It's like a very good friend of mine, he's like, "You started at the end because this is how every chef wants to retire." They want to live in the vineyard, the ocean is right there.

Solange Muris and Bonito Molina. [Photo: FOXlife]

So you started at the end.
We started at the end. (laughs)

You were a pioneer, really, but when was it that you started seeing things change in Mexico was getting more attention and having this huge change?

Things changed when chefs became the owners of restaurants.

Things changed when chefs became the owners of restaurants. I mean, Pujol is I think 13 years [old] now or 14. Manzanilla is 14 this year. This generation of chefs decided to open their own restaurants 15 years ago when it was not so fashionable. Today we've become the rock stars of the world. I wish they'd pay us like rock stars! (laughs) It's a group of people who bet on opening our places. That's how the whole thing started.

That wasn't the case before?
No, of course not, I mean there were no Mexican chefs owning their own restaurants. So that's when things changed: when the chefs owned their places. We didn't have that before.

How about the ramping up in recent years?
Yes. Of course. We now have huge talents like Maximo Bistrot [chef] Lalo [Garcia] in Mexico City, he's fucking a genius. Jorge Vallejo right here, no? Who is a disciple from Enrique [Olvera]. The scene has grown, and in my case, Valle de Guadalupe, Diego Hernandez from Corazon de Tierra, he worked with me first. I turned him to the dark side. He used to be a computer engineer or something like that and he fell into Manzanilla.

We didn't work with Mexican chefs because there were no Mexican chefs.

Then he worked with Guillermo [Gonzalez] and then with Enrique. It's so funny because when I had lunch with Anthony Bourdain, and I told him this, he was like, "So he's a Mexican chef trained by Mexican chefs." This had never happened before. I trained with Todd English. I tried working in France. Enrique worked in Chicago. Guillermo was in France. We all worked outside. We didn't work with Mexican chefs because there were no Mexican chefs.

Right. My colleagues interviewed Rick Bayless and he was talking about how chefs would go to Europe and then come back and do European cuisine, but now they're coming back and doing Mexican food. Is that that case now?
In my case, I was completely French trained. For me, cooking is French technique. I use that French technique every day with my Mexican ingredients and my Mexican roots. There are some Mexican techniques, for example the pescado Tikin Xic is a Mayan preparation that was done thousands of years ago. When in Europe they were eating boiled meat with potatoes, the fucking Mayans had already done pescado Tikin Xic.

So there is this thing with the fire. I mean, for me, fire is one of the most important ingredients, smoke. My grandmother used to say that when the gas stove was invented, food changed because the smoke element was always present. It was wood stove, coal stove, so there was smoke always present. This marked my life forever. I love to cook in the open fire, that's my favorite thing to do, cook fish on the open fire. So my restaurant is based in that, the fire and the ancient Mayan technique of just putting Achiote on the fish and putting it over the fire.

Manzanilla, Ensenada, Mexico. [Photo: Facebook]

Do you do a lot of research into the Mayan history?
Si, of course. My mother is from Campeche in the Yucatan, that area, and Oaxaca, it's like San Sebastian. I was recently in Cancun, it's so sad to see in the big resorts, the food is just shit and nothing is from there. It's sad. It's a beautiful beach, but the fish is not from there. The shrimp are not from there. It's very sad. I mean, there are some beautiful places, fantastic food, but everything is shipped from somewhere else.

Finally, you've got a lot of Americans coming through Baja, but how has that changed?

We were ultra sustainable before sustainable existed.

Well it's weird, you know? With all this bad publicity — our insecurity, now the [Tijuana-Ensenada toll] road fell down, and then before that, the swine flu — people from California are scared to come to Mexico to Baja. The surfers still go, some of the foodies, but mostly tourism has just dropped horribly. And we're right there. Just get in your car and drive down from San Diego, it's an hour and a half drive to one of the most beautiful places in the country, where the best wine is produced, the best olive oil, best fish, best oysters, best abalone. I mean, we were ultra sustainable before sustainable existed. And it's right there, an hour from the border.

That's a shame.
It is, but you know what? Tijuana is doing a very strong shot and people are coming back to Tijuana. I mean that's where the Caesar Salad was invented. Come on! It's right there! All those under 21 who can't drink, in Mexico [the legal age is] 18.

That's true. A lot of incentive to go.
No, of course. I mean, that crowd also stopped coming and now it's more about the food. So, I think it's very good, what's happening is good, but also the sad part is going back to the States.

What do you mean?
The border can be up to like two or three hours. That's the worst part of your Mexico experience, going back through the border.

The Americans who do come, do you think they have a better appreciation for Mexico?
Right now since it's so scary, the people that go are ultra quality. Beautiful, super fancy foodies that are willing to spend $200, no problem. They don't want the nachos and free margarita, no no no. I mean, La Villa de Valle and Adobe Guadalupe, have you seen those places? They are two hotels in the valley that are just so beautiful. One of those is [owned by] this couple from LA that sold their house in the Hollywood Hills, and built this beautiful place with six rooms in the middle of nowhere, with the restaurant whose chef trained with me and Enrique, [Corazon de Tierra's Diego Hernandez]. Check it out, it's a beautiful place.

· All Benito Molina Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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Teniente Azueta #139 22800 Ensenada, Baja California