Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Talkin' 'bout Mexico

Happy New Year! I hope 2016 is treating you well so far.

We spent a few glorious days in Mexico over the Christmas holiday. Not Cancun. Not Acapulco. Definitely not Tijuana. And sort of not Cabo. I say "sort of" because technically we did go to Cabo. SJD airport in/out. The rest of those warm, relaxing 6 nights, 7 days, were spent near the small town of Todos Santos, at a resort known as Rancho PescaderoAbout an hour north of Cabo, lies this small, intimate, totally unpretentious retreat, where you feel like you've stumbled into a secret club, and somehow they've let you stay! 

With only 28 rooms (most of which look directly onto the Pacific), it reminded me of that old Club Med commercial that proclaimed it was the "antidote to civilization." I've never been to a Club Med resort, and I'm sure they are very nice, but THIS is the antidote. With no TVs anywhere on the property, no fitness center (the great outdoors is their gym), no blaring music at the pool(s), you are gently lulled into relaxation. It's definitely not for everybody. But it was for us.
We quickly got into the "Rancho rhythm." About 7:30 each morning, a basket appears at your door with the day's weather forecast, coffee, fresh fruit, and a pastry or two. We spent the next hour or so on our lower terrace, drinking coffee and watching the migrating gray whales spout and breach out on the water. We'd slowly get dressed and meander down to the lobby cafe, where Mayel would whip up cappuccinos or Mexican hot chocolate. We'd order from the small, but well-crafted menu (roasted bananas with granola, honey, and cottage cheese for me, traditional huevos rancheros for the Mr). Then maybe a walk down the beach to watch the surfers, play with some roaming pooches, and chat with the locals. 

Soon enough, the pool is calling us. The resort is set way back from the beach, thus protecting you from the sometimes strong winds. The view from your lounger (when you glance up from your book) is of palm trees, blazing sun, and bright blue sky. All that morning activity is bound to work up an appetite, and luckily the Ranch has you covered. What's your pleasure? Traditional guacamole with house made chips? Fabulous. Tacos with fresh local shrimp? Terrific. Maybe you're a bit hung over from the night before? Have one of Jose's magic green juices with fresh basil, mint, parsley, and garden greens. Try the gazpacho - it's deluxe. And when you hear the bar bell, order one of Sergio's cocktails - it will set you right up. All the drinks at the Ranch are made with fresh fruit and herbs. They even have their own aged tequila. Yep. 

Almost at the end of our week, we got into the lovely habit of having afternoon margaritas and chips on our terrace, watching the sunset, before getting ready for dinner. A person could get used to this.

Ah, but what about dinner? I thought you'd never ask. How about an open air dining room and kitchen, run by two veteran Sonoma chefs? Jeff and Susan Mall oversee Rancho's food program, working to honor the history and tradition of authentic Mexican cooking. I spent some time talking with them one afternoon discussing how they got here, their backgrounds, and their vision for dining at Rancho Pescadero.
Jeff and Susan Mall
Jeff Mall grew up in central California in a farming family but quickly discovered farming was not for him. He studied hospitality at the University of California San Francisco and then went onto the CIA. After working for different chefs in the Bay area, he opened the Healdsburg location of the famed Oakville Grocery. While there, he met a couple who were interested in opening a restaurant, and at the age of 29, Jeff opened his first restaurant, Zin.

Meanwhile, Susan Mall, growing up in San Diego, was taught by her dad how to cook pancakes at the age of four!  Fast forward several years, and while studying business at USC, she picked up a copy of Jacque Pepin's "La Technique," and the rest, as they say, is history. She discovered she loved cooking and baking and left the dry business world behind to study at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. 

Jeff and Susan's paths crossed when Susan interviewed for the Executive Chef position at Oakville Grocery. She and Jeff started dating six weeks before Jeff's restaurant opened. 

While running Zin, they became good friends with one of their customers who was opening a resort in Mexico and was looking for a chef. That resort was Rancho Pescadero. Jeff and Susan spent the next few years consulting for the Ranch, flying down two-three times a year, to lead culinary weekends or plant the gardens that supply the ranch with much of the produce used onsite. Eventually, the resort's owner persuaded them to become the full-time chefs and oversee the entire culinary program. So after 15 years of owning Zin, they sold the business and headed south to begin a new chapter of their lives.

I asked them about some of the challenges they've encountered in the year they've been here full time. They talked about re-learning to be employees, responsible for just the kitchens, rather than every aspect of owning a business. 

Blending in socially with the staff, and learning the local customs, was another challenge. Here, the staff greets each other every day with a warm hug and sincerely ask "how are you?" Can you imagine trying to hug your co-workers in the US every day? They'd be going straight to HR! 

Sourcing of food was a huge hurdle. While only an hour from Cabo, the resort is definitely off the beaten path. Getting a supply chain going took months. 

Any chef will tell you about the challenges of taking over a kitchen. But what I found so interesting about Susan and Jeff was their passion for honoring the history and tradition of this part of Mexico. They want to bring back old culinary traditions that have been forgotten. They are planning to grow their own corn to be used for tortillas. Jeff is planning to experiment with bean to bar Mexican chocolate. For Christmas Eve dinner, they made tamales, which are traditional in Mexico for this holiday (they were outstanding, by the way). 
All the bread for the hotel is made by the kitchen staff. For the delicious wood-fired pizzas offered at dinner, they use the sourdough starter Jeff and Susan brought from California (developed from Nancy Silverton's method). They even make their own bagels!

Sitting each night at the restaurant's kitchen counter, I watched Jeff, Susan, and their team, create delicious dishes, using the local bounty of sea and land. My first night's appetizer of Shrimp Cocktail, done in the classic Mexican style using chilled, poached local shrimp with cucumber, avocado, and Saltines, was wonderful. My entree that night was local organic grilled Chicken Breast with Red Peanut Mole, grilled corn salad, and chipotle eggplant. If you know anything about me, it's that I never order chicken breast. I've been burned too many times when served dry, bland chicken. Not this time. The chicken was marinated and grilled at the kitchen's hardwood grill. It was bursting with flavor, and the spiciness of the mole accented by the corn and eggplant was fabulous.

Another night, we devoured the Tacos de Pescado "Al Pastor." These were sublime marinated, roasted fish tacos, in handmade tortillas with grilled pineapple relish, shredded cabbage, and a lime creme. Outstanding! 
Fish Tacos

A dish that was so good we had it for dinner two nights in a row was the fresh fish of the day "a la Plancha." Yellow Tail with almond and orange mole sauce, Rancho swiss chard, and Mexican rice. 
Yellow Tail

Besides wonderful cocktails, the resort has a terrific wine list (featuring some very nice Mexican wines). A benefit of staying on property, is that if for some reason, you only drink half the bottle, the waiter will put your room number on the bottle and store it for you for the next night.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Sure, on the beautiful Baja with picture-perfect sunsets, year-round great weather, and friendly people, almost any resort/hotel could make it. But the folks at Rancho Pescadero are doing something different, something special. Creating delicious and innovative food; offering gracious, warm service; and attention to detail at every turn. They've got it going on at Rancho Pescadero. And we'll be back next year.

All photos property of The Cook's Tour 2016