Local Talent: Baja Cuisine Inspires Deborah Schneider’s Culinary Career
For seasoned chef, restaurateur and award-winning cookbook author Deborah Schneider, Baja "is the most beautiful place on the planet."
Her adoration began over 30 years ago when she and her husband would trek south from San Diego in search of big swells. They surfed, they camped on the beach and eventually fell in love with all things Baja, particularly the cuisine.
"We would catch our fish and lobster. We would eat raw clams. It's such amazing fresh food, something most people don't experience when they come to Mexico." Hungry to learn more, Schneider began working in the kitchens of Mexican restaurants, where her co-workers taught her "how to make the food their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers made." She says, "I learned to make Baja food from the perspective of someone who grew up there."
She was compelled to share her love of Baja cuisine with fellow Southern Californians and eventually opened several restaurants including Sol Mexican Cocina (locations in Newport Beach and Scottsdale, Arizona) and Solita Tacos and Margaritas in Huntington Beach. Yet, she discovered that not all Americans are ready for authentic Baja cuisine.
"A good number people who come to my restaurants say, 'This isn't Mexican food! Where are the refried beans and the melted cheese?' They really don't know what [Baja cuisine] is. So we started calling it 'fresh and healthy authentic Mexican' or 'Coastal Mexican,' which helped."
This also helps explain Schneider's reaction to the current fascination with Baja cuisine. "Oh, it's going to be terribly hip to do all things Baja now," she says with a warm laugh, "But, we've been doing Baja for years. Really, we're pioneers in this industry."
Ironically, she earned her "pioneer" status by immersing herself in Baja's history. "Today," Schneider says, "people are looking for food with roots, and Baja food is food with roots." She explains that over centuries, both Asian and European seafarers landed in Baja on fishing and trading expeditions. What emerged was a unique mix of Mexican, Spanish and Asian cuisines.
This distinct cuisine became the focus of her first cookbook, Baja! Cooking on the Edge! that was re-released last year. Named one of the "Best Cookbooks of the Year" by Food and Wine magazine, it is considered one of the definitive cookbooks on Baja cuisine. There you'll find quintessential Baja recipes for Puerto Nuevo-style lobster, Ensenada-style ceviche, carne asada tacos and cocktel de mariscos (seafood cocktail) made with 10 types of seafood including shrimp, octopus, scallops and crab. With stunning photography and engaging stories throughout, this is a cookbook you'll turn to again and again.
This spring, Schneider's sixth cookbook, Salsas and Moles (Ten Speed Press) will be released. As someone who could "talk about salsa for hours," Schneider says that salsa is integral to all Mexican cuisine, particularly Baja coastal cuisine.
"Salsa is there to bring out the flavors of your food," she says, and is "a way to strut your stuff as a cook." Schneider has given us a sneak peak into her new cookbook with recipes for habanero salsa and salsa verde.
Even though she has been exploring Baja since 1983 and is considered an authority on its cuisine, Schneider says, with wonder, "I'm still learning about Mexico. It's just fascinating. There is no place else in the world like it."
Sol Mexican Cocina
251 Pacific Coast Hwy, Newport Beach, CA 92660
solita Tacos and Margaritas
7631 Edinger Ave #1508, Huntington Beach, CA 92647