Why Mexico-Based Chefs Find it Tough to Make it Big Across the Border

In the last couple of years, Mexican food has been getting a lot of attention in the United States. From the acceptance of Tex-Mex and Alta California style cooking as legitimate, separate food genres of their own to the proliferation of modern Mexican in New York and the Los Angeles areas, Mexican cooking is on the minds and lips of Americans across the country.

Javier Plascencia | Jaime Fritsch
Javier Plascencia | Jaime Fritsch

A concurrent food renaissance has been occurring in the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California, which shares a border with the United States. As one of Mexico’s newer and most far-flung states, Baja California historically hasn’t had as unified a food culture as other Mexican states, like Oaxaca and Michoacan, for example, have. Sensing an opportunity, Baja California chefs ignited a movement that many in Mexico consider the driving force of culinary innovation across the country today, focusing on locally-sourced seafood, meats, vegetables, olive oils and even wines. Seeing as Baja California and California share much more than a border — history, economics, culture and more — it only makes sense that successful Mexican chefs looked north to try and expand their reach, though doing so means learning and navigating the legal and social customs of an entirely different country.

Casa Plascencia's Beef Cheek | Jaime Fritsch
Casa Plascencia's Beef Cheek | Jaime Fritsch

One of the early pioneers of modern Baja California cooking is Javier Plascencia, whose extended family owns a restaurant empire in Tijuana and who also has several restaurant credits to his name. At present, he owns and operates several concepts in Tijuana, the Valle de Guadalupe and Todos Santos. He also recently left his positions at the two San Diego restaurants where he was executive chef. One of those, Bracero, which opened in 2015, was nominated for a 2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. By the end of 2016, though, Plascencia had parted ways with the restaurant and its backers, which included his brother-in-law, citing creative differences and difficulties in operating a restaurant north of the border.

His departure was a shock to San Diego’s culinary scene — San Diegans were rightly proud of both Bracero and Plascencia, feeling the restaurant had given the city credibility on the national stage in terms of quality and by being on-trend. What happened? For Plascencia, who had a lot of experience running kitchens and also benefitted from a cross-border lifestyle that gave him a leg up on American culture, cost and regulations were the biggest surprises. He also admitted that the challenges he encountered were greater than expected.

“I knew it would be more challenging to open in the United States, but I was surprised at just how challenging it ended up being,” Plascencia admitted, recalling one particularly chafing memory. “A big mistake we made with Bracero was that we built two kitchens — one upstairs and one downstairs. Because of regulations, that essentially ended up being two restaurants. It really drove costs up and was a nightmare. We ended up closing the kitchen up top, keeping just the bottom. I will never do that again.”

He continues, “In Mexico, it doesn’t work like that. You have two kitchens? It’s still one restaurant. You want to change up the kitchen design? That would require re-permitting in the United States, but in Mexico, we can change whatever we want — stoves, prep stations — if we need to and it doesn’t matter.” He continued describing the differing expectations in labor laws, saying that there are no mandated breaks in Mexico, and that cooks were used to scarfing down dinner while standing up. “Now, you can be in the middle of dinner prep and half your line has to take a break — it’s very difficult for scheduling.”

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Plascencia says that while there aren’t many labor laws dictating what goes on inside a kitchen in Mexico, the human element is strongly present. "In Mexico, the labor structure is different. Kitchen staff doesn't take breaks but what we do is, we are generous with weddings, days off, family things like that. It's more ingrained in the culture — it’s more of a ‘restaurant family,’” he explains. “if they aren't feeling well or don't want to work, we have people who can come in and cover with no problem — there aren't as many scheduling or legal issues with replacement. The person who took off doesn't have to be afraid of losing his job at all.” He also details the lengths his family has gone to in order to bring chefs to Europe and the United States to eat and train. He notes that staff tends to stay with the franchise for their entire careers, which is something that doesn’t happen in the United States.

Culture continued to be a struggle for Plascencia in other ways — even though he had lived in the United States and helped operate another restaurant in the country, Romesco, before opening Bracero. “I think Mexicans spend a lot more eating out when they’re tight on a budget,” he says. “Americans are always on some kind of budget and can’t spend more than that exact amount; it’s a bit rigid. They also don’t like to sit down and have an experience with a lot of people. Mexican people stay, order drinks, and because of that, they spend a lot more money. Mexicans also drink a lot more during lunch, which results in a lot more money for the restaurant and makes serving lunch more worth it. Then, you have to give Americans free refills and all that,” he laughs.

There were also issues of creativity, which stemmed from what he thinks are more conservative palates in San Diego and the United States, in general. “In Mexico, people are more adventurous in trying new things, but that seems to be harder for Americans — they aren’t as adventurous,” he muses. “In the United States, diners are also less loyal. In Mexico, you find a restaurant you like? You go there two, three times a week. You become a regular. I don’t see that happening in the United States.”

Diego Hernandez | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez
Diego Hernandez | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez

Another chef from Baja California who recently made the leap to operating a restaurant in the United States has also battled a cultural divide. Diego Hernandez is the executive chef at Verlaine, in Los Angeles, which opened in March 2017. His other venture, which he’s still very much a part of, is Corazon de Tierra in the Valle de Guadalupe, which is about 90 miles south of the border and just inland from the port city of Ensenada. Hernandez has been a favorite of diners and critics alike, earning him a spot on the Latin America World’s 50 Best list.

It hasn’t been the easiest road for Hernandez, who arrived in Los Angeles amid a flurry of high expectations. Critics have said service at Verlaine hasn’t been up to snuff while others don’t like or understand the food. There were reports of bad cocktails and overcooked meat. All of this has been a learning experience for Hernandez, who despite the challenges is relishing the opportunity to make a name for himself in the United States.

“I feel that I have to make a name of my own until my customers give me the opportunity to show more,” he explains. “In Mexico, my customers already know me, but here, I have to make it all over again — it’s exciting.”

A Verlaine dish. Whole baby beetroot smoked and roasted, garlic puree, hibiscus powder and dried cheese | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez
A Verlaine dish. Whole baby beetroot smoked and roasted, garlic puree, hibiscus powder and dried cheese | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez

He also acknowledges the critical response, saying he has been making subtle changes throughout the menu and service, making sure to please palates across the board while recognizing the response from other critics and chefs is essential to building a name for himself. He noted that almost everything operating a restaurant in the United States versus Mexico is different, from legal to logistical and cultural aspects. In particular, he brought some of his staff from Ensenada, where they were met with delays in visa processing, a snag that eventually got sorted out.

For Hernandez, it’s all about that challenge, which in many ways seems to be more personal than practical. “That’s why I wanted to do this in the beginning. I knew everything would be different. I wanted to keep growing and learning,” he says.

Because of the lower cost of ingredients and the pedigree his name carries in Mexico, he has more freedom to create than he does in the United States, something that will plague him until he’s earned his chops. Recalling a chicken dish he’s well-known for at Corazon de Tierra, he explains the process, noting they use only free-range, Baja California-grown chicken that is then brined, hung, smoked and roasted before being rubbed with crushed garlic and whole rosemary branches. “It’s the most beautiful chicken,” Hernandez extols.

A Verlaine dish. Fish of the day ceviche with tostada, avocado, mayo and uni | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez
A Verlaine dish. Fish of the day ceviche with tostada, avocado, mayo and uni | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez

“Still,” he continues, “if you look at it on Instagram, it’s just another half chicken on the menu. I can do this in Mexico — it’s cheap. If the taste exceeds expectations, all the better. In the United States, though, this chicken is expensive to source and produce, and the perception is altered because, to Americans, it’s ‘just’ chicken. In the United States, there is a lot of everything, so it’s difficult to find what’s really the best. For me to be able to sell this other than at my restaurant in Ensenada, I have to build my name and have people interested in what I have to say, only then will they trust to order ‘just’ chicken. This takes me two steps back in my career, so the process of learning is now richer and more fruitful.”

Another challenge he has taken is on is re-educating Americans about Mexican cuisine and what to expect — or not — from a Mexican chef. While he doesn’t think Americans misunderstand Mexican food, Hernandez does think there’s a lot of room to learn.

“There is a lot to understand about the complexity of Mexico. Mexican food has a very vast, deep history with a lot of exchange between ingredients, culture, recipes and adaptations to become what it is today. Now, we have a Mexico that is very proud of its regional cuisines, so we find ourselves defending individual regional ways of cooking instead of Mexican food, as a whole. The Mexican food you can usually find in the United States and almost everywhere else in the world comes from mostly Oaxaca, Jalisco or Texas. That’s it. Mexican regional foods respond to a ‘where and when,’ so it can be difficult to reproduce. When you try, you have to explain everything to both Mexicans and non-Mexicans anywhere,” Hernandez details.

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Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins | Jim Sullivan
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins | Jim Sullivan

That sentiment is echoed by Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, a chef who laments certain aspects of Mexican cuisine may not be accessible to non-Mexicans who don’t visit the country. “The biggest reason many will never really understand the magic of our food is because the ingredients — chilies, avocado, citrus, spices — are very different and give the dishes their identity. True regional Mexican cuisine is unknown to many that haven't gone to Mexico to experience it,” she thinks.

Still in the process of opening her new restaurant, El Jardin, in San Diego, the ex-Bracero chef also has experience in kitchens on both sides of the border. She had been a contestant on Top Chef Mexico and will be a contestant in the U.S. version of the show this upcoming season. She grew up between Tijuana and San Diego, where her family lived, and Guadalajara, where her father’s extended family was from. To her, the experiences between Mexican and American kitchens are night and day.

“Everything you know about cooking in restaurants in the US goes out the window in Mexico, at least when it comes to the running a business,” Zepeda-Wilkins explains. “The cooks [in Mexico] are different as well, they are all working their tails off to put out a good product and there's no shortage of replacements if one doesn't meet your needs. In Mexico, everyone works six days because you normally close the 7th day and you work at least 12 hours a day without overtime because you are salary. Labor laws make it almost impossible to have a profitable restaurant in the United States by most Mexican standards.”  

“The phrase, ‘it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission’ was coined for Mexico, you can build something and then respond with, ‘I didn't think I couldn't,” Wilkins laughs. “You put a nail that wasn't on the plan in the U.S. and you get shut down and pay a fine. I'm sure as a general observation it does come down to culture, Mexico picks their battles and U.S. gets into as many fights as possible, and if they make money it's that much better. The labor laws in Mexico, they protect the business before the employee, and everyone accepts a salary position so working 70 hours a week for 40-hour pay is accepted from day one.”

It’s also more difficult to let go of weak links on your staff, Wilkins explains. “In Mexico, it's the government against the brick and mortar,” she says. “Not employees versus the brick and mortar, which how laws have influenced the atmosphere in the United States. You can ask anyone in the States that has a shitty employee — you can't fire them if they show up and do a subpar job because of the fear of wrongful termination, undue stress and unemployment insurance.” As for good staff, she echoes Plascencia’s statement that restaurants operate like families, noting while laughing that in the United States, “your cook will probably leave to start his own restaurant after being with you for six months.”

As for her experiences cooking on both sides of the border, she has nothing but good things to say about how her food is received in both countries — even in places one might not expect, which bodes well for cross-border understanding. “My food is received well in Mexico, I do things slightly different but always with the essence of the traditional recipe in mind and it's exciting for Mexicans to see where someone can take our food. In the United States, I sold out a 14 course Mexican collaboration dinner in Indianapolis in 8 hours, where I made Pipian thickened with veal brains and huitlacoche gelato with cacao blossoms and mamey. Everyone loved every course,” Zepeda-Wilkins boasts.

For her, the goal is to someday return to and open a restaurant in Mexico. “I want to build an international legacy for my son and daughter,” Zepeda-Wilkins dreams.

As for Diego, his focus is on building himself as a chef and restaurateur in Los Angeles. And though he’s full-time in Mexico at the moment, Plascencia loves San Diego. Even with the struggles encountered during his most high-profile foray into operating an American restaurant, he wants to come back. “I definitely want to open something again in San Diego. I think it would be in Barrio Logan,” he insists, referring to the historically Mexican-American neighborhood just south of downtown. “The rents are much lower, there’s more opportunity and it’ll be a destination. It would also be very self-service, with no waiters. I will have great food and take out the managers and front of house staff. If we can do that, people will just come, get good food, and have a good time.”

Top Image: A Verlaine dish. Whole baby beetroot smoked and roasted, garlic puree, hibiscus powder and dried cheese | Courtesy of Diego Hernandez

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