Michelin star chefs Wolfgang Puck, Michael Cimarusti among the famed cooks joining the fast-growing Baja event on Oct. 5
Two years ago next month, the inaugural Valle Food & Wine Festival debuted in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe, offering a daylong celebration of Baja’s Mediterranean-influenced cuisine and its locally produced wines.
Back then, it drew a mostly insider crowd of Valle regulars from Southern California and Mexico who were already in on the secret of the Valle’s rustic but charming atmosphere. But times have changed. The festival, which returns Oct. 5 for its third year, has become such a must-see event that it’s now drawing first-time visitors from throughout the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico, as well as some of some of the two nations’ most famous chefs.
New to the party this year? Wolfgang Puck of Spago Beverly Hills fame and Michael Cimarusti, who this year was named Best Chef: West by the James Beard Foundation and whose 13-year-old L.A. seafood restaurant, Providence, just picked up two Michelin stars. Cimarusti said he looks forward to exploring the Valle, collaborating with the all-star chef lineup and, hopefully, hitching a ride with some local fishermen to explore Baja’s bountiful waters.
“This year, the stars aligned, and I’m very excited to be a part of the festival,” Cimarusti said. “From what I’ve seen online, the Valle is a beautiful place, and I can’t wait to see it first-hand.”
Another of this year’s first-time festival participants is famed food writer Colman Andrews, the founder of Saveur Magazine, who will moderate a series of “Talks Under the Tree” culinary conversations over the weekend at Animalón restaurant in the Valle. Twenty years ago, Andrews was one of the first international writers to cover the then-fledgling culinary and wine scene in Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe. He said he’s not surprised by how much the region has grown.
“It was obvious when I visited that there was great potential in the area, for both food and wine, and people in San Diego and L.A. were already talking about it as a place to go — a more rustic, cheaper, more authentic alternative to Napa and Sonoma,’ ” Andrews said. “When I first visited, Hugo D’Acosta — who people call ‘the Mexican Robert Mondavi’ — told me there were 14 wineries in the valley. The last time I was there about three years ago, I counted signs for 58 and some estimates say there are 90 or 100. The number of restaurants has multiplied exponentially, too.”
Many of the Valle’s restaurants — including Animalón and the festival’s home, Finca Altozano — are owned by Tijuana-born chef and restaurateur Javier Plascencia, who emerged a decade ago as Baja’s most-famous culinary ambassador. In August 2017, he teamed up with famed L.A. chef Nancy Silverton, of Pizzeria Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame and James Beard Award-winning food writer Carolina (Carolynn) Carreño to launch the Valle Food & Wine Festival with just seven weeks of planning.
The first year, they sold 600 tickets. Last year, they sold all 1,600 tickets. This year, they’re capping attendance at 2,500 tickets and expect a sellout any day now.
Carreño, who is in her third year as festival director, said the festival has grown exponentially since year one, both in its geographic reach and in the number of events. Because many festival-goers come for the weekend, the number of events has expanded. Besides the festival on Saturday, there will be a chefs welcome dinner on Friday evening at Deckman’s restaurant in the Valle, book-signings, live music and dancing, a live painting demonstration and Andrews’ “Talks Under the Tree.” Also new at the festival this year will be a Mexican Spirits Alley, where festival-goers can sample Mexican-made mezcals, tequilas and other spirits.
Carreño said the festival has helped bring more people to the region. Most of the out-of-town visitors come from San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and Mexico City, in that order. A growing number of visitors are also arriving from Texas, Arizona and the Mexican states of Monterrey and Sonora, she said.
“The Valle de Guadalupe is being discovered by new people every day,” Carreño said. “As much as we want to introduce people to this magical place that we love so much, we also know that someday we will look back on this time and think ‘I knew the Valle de Guadalupe when ....’ It is a precious moment for the region.”
Carreño said that one of the most magical elements of the festival is the camaraderie among the chefs from both sides of the border, and the chance for festival-goers to meet one-on-one with famous chefs like Puck, Plascencia and Rick Bayless, a longtime Baja cheerleader who introduced Silverton to the region five years ago.
Bayless will be back at the festival for the second year in a row next weekend, where he’ll cook alongside TrasLomita chef/owner Sheyla Alvarado Acosta, who he has publicly hailed as the best chef in the Valle. Her scenic outdoor restaurant at Lomita Winery is known for its smoky black aguachile, roasted vegetables and grilled meats and seafood, all prepared over a wood fire in a kitchen that was entirely exposed to the elements until she enclosed it during a remodel this summer.
At the festival, Acosta said she will be serving almejas gratinadas, a clams au gratin dish inspired by the seafood carts she frequented in Ensenada after moving there from her native Sonora at age 18 to attend culinary school. Acosta is one of several fast-rising women chefs in the region, but she said gender isn’t as important to a chef’s success as their willingness to work hard and make sacrifices in pursuit of their passion.
“Growth in the Valle is happening real fast, and I’m glad to say that at least in this area, chefs are more focused on creating a community that is based on respect for others’ work, rather than sex labels and limiting opportunities,” she said.
Acosta said she’s honored and eager to cook with Bayless and the other top-name chefs at the festival.
“Rick’s opinion has been very motivating for me and my team,” she said. “We are happy that one of the top food exponents in the world enjoys our food, and of course his comments give us energy to push harder and keep working for all the people who visit our restaurant.”
Some of the other participating chefs from the U.S. are: Hugo Bolaños (Hotel Bel Air, L.A.); Edgar Chong (Puesto, San Diego); Ryan DeNicola (Chi Spacca, L.A.); Susan Feniger (Border Grill, L.A.); Dahlia Narváez (Mozza Restaurant Group, L.A.); Ramón Velázquez (Corazón Cocina, Santa Barbara); Brad Wise (Fort Oak, San Diego); Jorge Alvarez (Tacos 1986, Los Angeles).
Other participating Baja chefs include: Maribel Aldaco (Fauna, Valle de Guadalupe); Carlos Valdez (Buffalo BBQ, Ensenada); Giovanni Brassea (Humo, Tijuana); Drew Deckman (Deckman’s, Valle de Guadalupe); Oswaldo Flores (52Kool, Tijuana); Giannina Galvadón (Olivia, Valle de Guadalupe); Luis Gómez (Misión 19, Tijuana); Ángel Gutiérrez (Matilde, Valle de Guadalupe) Ruffo Ibarra (Oryx Capital, Tijuana); Travis Limoge (Pirata, Oaxaca); Adriá Montaño (Georgina Tijuana); Elena Reygadas (Rosetta, Mexico City); Jair Téllez (Amaya, Mexico City); Anthony Petracca (DaToni, Ensenada); Miguel Bahena (Madre, Ensenada); Denise Roa (Rancho La Puerta, Tecate); Omar Valenzuela (Orígen, Valle de Guadalupe); Sandra Vázquez (Once Pueblos, Valle de Guadalupe); Alejandro Ruiz (Casa Oaxaca, Oaxaca); Oscar Torrez (Animalón, Valle de Guadalupe).
Valle Food & Wine Festival
When: 4:30 p.m. to midnight Oct. 5. Visit website for related events.
Where: Finca Altozano, Carretera Federal #3, Baja California, Mexico
Tickets: $140 at the door. $450, VIP admission, which includes early access at 3:30 p.m.)