Why did Baja star chef Javier Plascencia leave Bracero?

Cross-border super chef Javier Plascencia has pulled out of Bracero Cocina de Raíz, the high-profile Little Italy restaurant he opened to much fanfare in 2015.

Citing financial pressures from operating in one of San Diego's most fiercely competitive - and expensive - dining neighborhoods, the celebrity chef said creative differences led to the rupture of his partnership with his co-owner, who is also his brother-in-law.

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"Working with family is very difficult, especially if you don't have the same ideas or the same passion," said Plascencia, who was reached Wednesday by phone in Todos Santos, Mexico, where he is opening his latest restaurant project.

"I'm very, very passionate about my cuisine, and I'm very strict with my ingredients. I don't like to take short cuts. I was having a difficult time with the labor cuts. My food is very labor intensive. Bracero was taking all of my energy - it was draining me, physically and mentally." 

Plascencia's departure from Bracero and its operator, Mexiterranean Hospitality, was first reported by Eater San Diego on Tuesday.

Plascencia said Wednesday that he was "more relieved than disappointed" by his decision, adding that the expense of operating Bracero, a stylized two-story, 5,000-square-foot eatery on the corner of Kettner Boulevard and Beech Street, put his star power as a chef in direct conflict with the realities of operating a profitable business. 

"The margins are very tight and having a chef like me, I want my money of course, but my partner wanted money and the investor wanted his money back," Plascencia said. "They wanted to start cutting corners around the kitchen and doing simpler things and ordering from Sysco," the multinational food supply company.  

"I didn't become a chef to get rich, and I don't open restaurants to get rich. I have passion and that's the struggle that chefs have."

That sentiment was echoed by a fellow chef who was familiar with Bracero's finances but not authorized to speak about them.

"From the beginning, Javier was typing his menu with his heart not with his accountant sitting next to him," the chef said. 

Indisputably the biggest restaurant opening of 2015, Bracero debuted in a neighborhood already teeming with some of the most-heralded, showcase eateries in San Diego, including Juniper & Ivy, Ironside Fish & Oyster and Kettner Exchange. Bracero went on to earn a slew of critical acclaim and a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant. 

But after the buzz died down, the crowds inevitably moved on to the newer, shinier objects, including Brian Malarkey's nearby Herb & Wood, 2016's highest-profile opening. 

Plascencia said he was confident that a restaurant built on his culinary cachet - he is the scion of Tijuana's successful Grupo Plascencia restaurant family, has been featured on "Top Chef," and both The New Yorker and The New York Times have done glowing profiles of him - could survive his departure. But he added that the value of his brand might have been undervalued by his partners in the now-fractured Mexiterranean Hospitality group.

"Eventually they're going to know that - I don't think they appreciated the name I have, the following that I have," Plascencia said. "But I want people to know this restaurant is still open and I want this restaurant to succeed. I'm not in a fight or anything like that with them."

That said, Plascencia, who still helms multiple restaurants in Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe wine region, said he has learned from the mistakes he made at Bracero. 

"Even if it's family, you should have a really good contract. Hire a lawyer who knows everything you want in that contract and make sure it's covered," he said.

Plascencia's brother-in-law and former partner, Luis Peña, dispelled talk of unpaid bills at Bracero and said the eatery is profitable but needed to operate more efficiently. He said the restaurant's $20,000-a-month rent isn't onerous or excessive, given the eatery's size and Little Italy location. He said Bracero went from having a staff of 120 employees at its opening to 60 today. Its two kitchens, one on each level, weren't sustainable so the upstairs kitchen is now only used for prep work. 

"Javier wanted to be more focused on other things right now and Bracero is very, very challenging because of the size of the operation. Things change all the time," Peña said.

"Right now we're in the big leagues, we're in Little Italy - that's where the magic is happening and you need to step up and be creative."

Peña said Bracero's menu was too focused on modern Mexican cuisine and will be revamped to make it more familiar, yet still with modern elements. 

Mexiterranean Hospitality still runs Romesco, in Bonita, which was Plascencia's foray in the San Diego restaurant scene more than a decade ago. The chef confirmed Wednesday that he had quietly left Romesco "a long time ago."

Candice Woo, editor of Eater San Diego, called Plascencia leaving the area a loss.

"Bracero was such an enormous spotlight, it was really (Plascencia's) grand platform to make him a household name, not just in San Diego, but on a national scale as a culinary leader," Woo said. 

"Seeing the attention it generated and the interest in that style of food, its success encouraged a lot of other chefs to do projects along the same vein. We definitely saw an uptick in travel to the area, lots of press. He made a great ambassador."

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