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Life & Food on Baja’s Culinary Arts

La Esperanza, Photo by Antonio Diaz de Sandi, Life & Food

The word is out – Northern Baja is home to an awesome and continually evolving culinary and wine scene. The likes of The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian have picked up on what’s going on down there, and Baja’s culinary arts were even declared a State Heritage in 2013. We we wanted to share a glimpse of what’s going on south of the border from local food bloggers Life & Food themselves, who follow the newest developments on a daily basis. In addition to their blog, they run tour company Club Tengo Hambre, with a monthly contribution to San Diego Magazine on Baja eateries.

For us — as Southern California natives — our love affair with Mexico goes back to childhood, but Baja more recently got its hold on us in 2006, when we first arrived back in San Diego. Before settling down, we threw everything we had into storage and packed our truck for a 3-week camping trip to the southern tip of Baja and back. Since then, it’s been incredible to see all that’s taken place in the gastronomy of the northern Baja region, including Tijuana, Ensenada, and the beautiful wine valley that is Valle de Guadalupe, just east of Ensenada. Kristin and Antonio of Life & Food are true connoisseurs of the region, and it’s been an inspiration to trek through Baja with them.

Above: Clos de Tres Cantos (Photos by Antonio Diaz de Sandi, Life & Food)

If you missed December’s Club Tengo Hambre outing, Tijuana After Dark, a Prohibition-inspired secret dinner in collaboration with Chef Javier Plascencia and the famed Caesar’s Restaurant (photos below), make sure to follow CTH and Life & Food for info on future events and some serious visual stimulation. Below are a few questions we sent over to Kristin and Antonio of Life & Food. Enjoy.

Valle de Guadalupe is home to many culinary masters (Finca Altozano, Corazon de Tierra, Deckman’s at El Mogor, Laja, to name a few). How would you characterize the common thread of the cuisine of the valle?

The soil and the land in the Valle de Guadalupe help to characterize the base of many meals that have been enjoyed there, as well as the countless sips of wine to go along with them. When taking a bite into the freshly picked greens in a salad at Corazon de Tierra, or the mesquite grilled tacos at Finca Altozano, there is no doubt that you can taste the earth that it came from. The tomatoes from Natalia Badan’s garden that Chef Drew Deckman uses at Deckman’s en El Mogor are almost magical.  The same thing goes for the beauty of the Pacific ocean providing much of the seafood to the restaurants and campestres there. Slurping down an oyster, and tasting the crisp saltiness of the ocean is an experience all on its own.

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Above: Deckmans El Mogor, including its incredible outdoor kitchen (All photos by Antonio Diaz de Sandi of Life & Food)

Some of the best Baja chefs use local ingredients in a way that is truly experimental and innovative. What kind of inventive approaches are you most excited about lately?

The passion behind the preparation and use of the local ingredients shines through in many of the meals that we have enjoyed in Mexico’s wine country. To us, keeping a dish and its ingredients true to its surroundings is what matters the most. We love to hear the stories behind the inspiration and sourcing of the ingredients. It may not necessarily be innovative, but it is what excites us, and keeps us yearning for more.

You have enjoyed many of Chef Plascencia’s meals at his various restaurants. What was your most memorable meal?

12+ course dinner at Misión 19. Chef’s Table. A remarkable experience celebrating a friend’s birthday. Chef Javier Plascencia prepared quite a few dishes that we had never tried before, and as always they were incredible!

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Above: Maquina 65 and La Carmelita of Tijuana’s Telefonica Gastro Park (which we can say from experience, outshines any food truck park we’ve ever been to — look out Portland!)

In one (or two) sentences, why would you encourage Americans/foreigners to travel to experience the cuisine of Baja?

Baja is truly unlike anywhere else in the world. You honestly have to come and explore the cuisine, culture, and beauty that this northern most state has to offer, in order to believe all that you may have read or seen recently.

As this article points out — quoting winemaker Hugo D’Acosta and referring to the dusty roads of Valle de Guadalupe — “Bad roads make good tourists; good roads make bad tourists.” There’s nothing like adventuring south down lesser traveled roads to experience the creative experimentation that’s going on first-hand, from the food and wine to the breweries and coffee shops. To make the trip with the help of Life & Food and Club Tengo Hambre, follow them here:

The Bakery Toy Drive


Help us send toys to San Diego families who need them this year!

The Bakery will be collecting NEW, UNWRAPPED TOYS for children of the families supported by the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. The IRC is a great organization and do so much, both for our local community and abroad (Read more about them here). We’ll be waiting for you to drop by and say hello, gift in hand!

Drop Off Location:

The Bakery
1701 National Ave. (Barrio Logan) // San Diego, CA 92113 

(Find us at the front door at the corner of the building.)

Drop Off Dates/Hours:

November 25 – December 10, 2014:
Drop Off 
Monday through Thursday 10 am – 3 pm*

*Please be sure to drop off during these hours to be sure your gift gets into IRC’s hands safely!

Have multiple toys to donate? If you’re near downtown, message us at stacy [at], and we’ll come pick them up!

The IRC is in need of toys for all ages. Check out gift ideas at IRC San Diego.


Death For Food, Baja: Recap

Last summer, we had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country, contributing to an event which brought an art exhibition to a six course dinner at the ranch restaurant of acclaimed chef Javier Plascencia. Conceived by photographer Jaime Fritsch, Death For Food is a conceptual photography project which documents the life and death of the animals we eat.

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The Baja installment of the event included an (optional) on-site harvest of quails from a local ranch, followed by a meal cooked by Plascencia on his caja china, paired with wines from holistic Valle de Guadalupe winery El Mogor and special release beers by San Diego’s Monkey Paw Brewery. Featured speakers led a discussion about responsible consumption and included founder/photographer Jaime Fritsch, author/San Diego Magazine food writer Troy Johnson, holistic Baja rancher Pablo Rojas, and designer Sean Kelley on behalf of Set & Drift.

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We worked alongside Tijuana based architect Manuel Martinez to develop the exhibition structure’s concept and oversee its construction. A tunnel form built with materials from the local ranches, the structure housed the photography exhibit and served as a contemplative space for the guests to reflect.

We were blown away by the hospitality that we encountered in the valle. It was truly an honor to be part of the community that developed around this event and this incredible property in Mexico. You can read more about our inspiration and process here, and check out the photos below, which came courtesy of Ron Miriello, who did an incredible job of capturing Finca Altozano’s sense of place.

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Death For Food: the exhibition

Death For Food Finca Altozano 500

Photo: Jaime Fritsch, Finca Altozano, Valle de Guadalupe

The first time we set foot in Valle de Guadalupe, we fell in love. I suppose it would be a little hard not to.

Our first trip to Valle de Guadalupe was in July of 2010, and it just so happened that it was alongside photographer Jaime Fritsch. Exploring the landscape and culinary scene, we had little agenda that day, but the visit left a lasting impression on all of us. Now, four years later, we find our love affair with the land manifesting in a new way, as we (as Set & Drift) assist with the latest iteration of a project that Jaime has developed in the past few years, based first in Portland and now in San Diego.

Death For Food, a photographic project fueled by the topic of thoughtful consumption, will host a July 13th harvest + feast in Valle de Guadalupe. Set & Drift is collaborating with Jaime Fritsch and Tijuana based architect Manuel Martinez to develop an experiential exhibition of Jaime’s photographic work, which will converge with a culinary event hosted by chef Javier Plascencia at his ranch restaurant, Finca Altozano.

Valle de Guadalupe lies less than two hours south of San Diego, with golden hillsides cradling family ranches, roadside stalls, and sprawling vineyards. What appears quiet is also incredibly productive, turning out something like 90% of Mexico’s wine. A community has formed in the valle, and chef Javier Plascencia is one personality among many. An acclaimed chef with restaurants on both sides of the border, he points out establishments in the valle where he sources his restaurant’s ingredients; El Mogor, for example, is one part vineyard, one part ranch, flanked with willows and bushy flowers, a few historic houses, a charming farm, and a weekly farmers’ market held on site.

el mogor 500Photo: Jaime Fritsch, El Mogor, Valle de Guadalupe

Pablo is a young cattle rancher at El Mogor who has studied the ways of small scale “holistic management”, as owner Natalia Badan refers to it. Water is now especially scarce in the valle, as it is in California, and at El Mogor they seek to enrich their land through careful management. Pablo will be slaughtering goats and lambs in preparation for the Death For Food dinner, humanely and informed by the training in Sonora and San Francisco that lends to his thoughtful contributions in the valle.


Our photo from El Mogor: Pablo the cattle rancher with Jaime behind the camera

The valle is an ideal setting to exhibit the Death For Food work. The land is photogenic with exploding blooms from otherwise dry brush, amber hills, meandering livestock, and geometric vineyards. Javier has created there the utopian ranch restaurant that is Finca Altozano, with its giant wine barrel lookout towers and grills perched on open-air decks that look out over the hillside below, with its restaurant garden and vineyards. Fellow culinary masters have set up restaurants in the Valle as well – including Corazon de Tierra, Laja, and Deckman’s En El Mogor. Vena Cava winery and Escuelita exhibit a stunning modern take on the reuse of materials that is Baja’s signature. The valle’s establishments are steeped in culinary and aesthetic creativity while remaining connected to the land and the rural landscape. It is enchanting.

Finca Altozano Death For Food  500Photo: Jaime Fritsch, Finca Altozano

Vena Cava 500Photo: Jaime Fritsch, Vena Cava Winery

Joining up with Death For Food in its first foray into Mexico offers a unique opportunity for cross border collaboration. San Diego’s Monkey Paw brewery has collaborated with Javier Plascencia to create a 5-style imperial red ale (the so-called “JAVIER!JAVIER!”) brewed with sea salt and Mexican spices and botanicals, which will be released at the dinner to a gathering of guests from both sides of the border. To create a structure for the event, we also looked to collaborate south of the border, reaching out to Tijuana based architect Manuel Martinez, who has also worked with Javier on projects such as his stunning Tijuana restaurant Mision 19. Manuel’s expertise spans from architecture to interiors to furniture design, and he is inspired by this comprehensive approach and a guest’s total experience of a space.


Art + antiquities at Manuel Martinez’s Tijuana studio

In collaborating with Manuel, the plan was to create a structure that would encourage not just a viewing but an experience of the Death For Food photographs. To venture to Mexico, especially as an American, is to disrupt one’s daily routine and expectations. When traveling, especially in Mexico, one’s senses come alive. Nature is operating on a grand scale in the valle. The Death For Food work is about reconnecting with the land and the food we eat, creating an opportunity for reflection and taking ownership of a process that has largely been cut out of our view, mechanized and sometimes, stripped of humanity. To experience the culinary expressions of Javier and the wine of El Mogor, taking cover from the valle sun under the shade of Finca Altozano’s giant oak, is to experience the land viscerally.

Manuel envisioned a structure to house the photos that would engage all the senses – with crackling of hay underfoot, the smell of crushed verbena from the ranch, piles of local wool — along with the photographic images projected into the space around the viewer. The guests’ feeling of the immediacy of the moment is well-tuned, their senses picking up on the bountiful output that flows forth from the land at its prime ripeness. The viewers see some images of animals that by now have long since passed, but feel their presence.


Our photo: Gathering mesquite and eucalyptus in the valle for the exhibition structure

The structure we envisioned with Manuel is a darkened tunnel. The wood beams present crosses that are suggestive of a cathedral or church. It is a place for reverence. The guests are participants in a communal, contemplative experiment.

The entrance is constrained and guests proceed down a tunnel that evokes feelings of death, emerging ultimately into light at the far side. It is a suspension from the reality of the surroundings — a further disruption that provokes reevaluation, as some illusions die and thoughts are born. In this structure, taking in the photographs of the animals and land of the valle, death itself almost becomes an illusion as one ponders the ever-flowing bounty that continually pours forth from the land — death recycling into new life.

“You often say ‘I would give but only to the deserving.’ the trees in your orchard say not so nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live for to withhold is to perish.”

-Kahlil Gibran

During the animal’s supreme act of giving, Jaime captures the beauty of humanity — the beauty of humane treatment. Although difficult at times to take in, the images evoke a sense of awe, gratitude, and reverence for the individual and a singular moment of giving.

death for food jaime fritsch 500Photo by Jaime Fritsch for Death For Food

There is a story told by Joseph Campbell of the Ainu people of Japan, whose mythology and rituals center around the bear.
The bear, he describes,“is quickly and skillfully dispatched. His hide is removed with head and paws attached and arranged upon a rack to look alive. A banquet is then presented of which the main dish is a chunky stew of his own meat, a lavish bowl of which is placed beneath his snout for his own last supper on earth; after which, with a number of farewell presents to take along he is supposed to go happily home.”
The animals and land depicted in Jaime’s work sit with us at dinner. We may be inspired to consider our actions, we may consider the meat industry, but certainly we are inviting the individuals to one last dinner in their honor.

We hope you will join us July 13 to take part in this communal feast.

More Details on Death For Food
>> The Backstory

Troy Johnson of San Diego Magazine
>> “Why I’ve opted to go to Mexico for a day & kill my own dinner”

Tickets for Death For Food’s Valle de Guadalupe Harvest + Feast
>> Reserve Now


Death For Food x Valle de Guadalupe

Death For Food, the roving photography project of Jaime Fritsch, is making its way to Valle de Guadalupe on July 13th for an open-air exhibition and feast. The program invites creative and culinary leaders from both sides of the border to gather in Baja’s wine country to converse about fully connected eating, including an (optional) animal harvest workshop on-site.

Famed chef Javier Plascencia will host at his ranch restaurant Finca Altozano (below), serving a bounteous six course meal of valle-raised pig, goat, quail, and lamb, paired with local wines and a special beer release by Monkey Paw.

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Javier Plascencia Death For Food 500

The exhibition features Fritsch’s recent photographic work from Valle de Guadalupe (shown here), giving guests a glimpse into the personalities and establishments that make up the valle’s landscape. Food writer Troy Johnson (San Diego Magazine) and Baja connoisseurs Life & Food will lead conversations in an art-filled setting designed by Tijuana architect Manuel Martinez.

As collaborators on this exhibition, we at Set & Drift are counting the days to July 13th. We hope you will join us in the festivities and this experience of the valle. Tickets include round trip transportation to and from the San Diego-Mexico border and are limited to 50, so reserve them now!

Death For Food Valle De Guadalupe

Finca Altozano Death For Food 500