Baja’s Valle Food & Wine Festival returns this month after three-year break
Running Oct. 22-23 in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, the star-studded festival celebrates Baja chefs, wine, restaurants and more
After a three-year break caused by the pandemic, the Valle Food & Wine Festival returns to Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe later this month, but with many changes in store, including a new location, two days of tasting events rather than one, and an expanded lineup of chefs from Baja and the United States.
Founded in 2017 by famed Los Angeles chef, baker and cookbook author Nancy Silverton and writer-producer Carolynn Carreño, the event became a magnet for chefs from the Valle, Ensenada and Tijuana, as well as San Diego, Los Angeles and beyond. It also became a top draw for tourism. Ticket sales grew from 600 in 2017 to a sellout crowd of 2,500 in 2019, the last year it was presented.
Carreño said relaunching the festival this year on Oct. 22 to 23 has felt like starting over from scratch, because of the extended break, the impact of the pandemic on food suppliers and other partners, a change in location and new regulations that limit the size of crowds in the Valle.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the interest among chefs to participate.
“I think only one chef we asked has ever said they didn’t want to be a part of it,” Carreño said in an interview last week. “Nancy (Silverton) has become an ambassador for us in L.A. and she has people asking her all the time about the festival. Visiting chefs are super psyched.”
One of the 50 or so participating chefs that Carreño is most excited about is Gabriela Cámara, who runs one of Mexico City’s top restaurants, Contramar, and is a leader in the nation’s culinary scene.
“She’s a personal hero of mine,” Carreño said.
She’s also excited about first-time visitor Aarón Sánchez of Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. His mother, Zarela Martinez, opened New York City’s first Mexican restaurant, Zarela, in 1987. She’s also happy to welcome David Nishikawa, a longtime member of Baja’s Japanese Mexican community. He runs a spiny lobster restaurant in Ensenada called La Cocedora de Langosta.
Besides Silverton, who heads up the Mozza restaurant empire and won of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award in 2014, other visiting chefs this year include Food Network star Rick Bayless, whose Red O Mexican restaurant chain has a location in La Jolla; Brian Redzikowski of Kettner Exchange in San Diego; Ori Menashe of Bestia and Bavel in L.A.; Neal Fraser of Slab BBQ in L.A.; and Frank Ostini from the Hitching Post 2 in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.
Participating Baja chefs include David Castro Hussong and Maribel Aldoca of Fauna and Bruma Wine Garden in the Valle; Ruffo Ibarra of Oryx in Tijuana; Jesus Saldívar of Laja in the Valle; David Martínez of Muelle Tres in Ensenada; Janina Garay of Grupo Tahona in Tijuana; and Sheyla Alvarado of Lunario in the Valle.
Coming out of the pandemic
Carreño was living in the Valle de Guadalupe during the early days of the pandemic, and she described much of 2020 as bleak. Restaurants and wineries shut down but didn’t get any government grants or loans, like their U.S. counterparts. Fortunately, with lower rents and fewer loans to pay and mostly outdoor dining rooms, restaurant owners were able to adapt to social-distancing regulations well. As a result, almost all of the Valle’s hospitality businesses survived the pandemic.
One of the region’s hardest-hit culinary enterprises was the Pacifico Aquaculture seabass farm off the coast of Ensenada, which supplied fish to the Valle Food & Wine Festival in past years. The farm lost much of its export market during the pandemic and was forced to temporarily stop its fish-breeding operation. Today it has reopened but it is still rebuilding its fish stock, so it won’t be a major supplier for this year’s festival, Carreño said.
Another major development during the pandemic was the creation of Por un Valle de Verdad (“For a Valley of Truth”), a grassroots movement among Valle de Guadalupe residents, farmers and business owners to preserve the valley’s rural and natural beauty by discouraging large events. In 2021, massive crowds of residents blocked the roads to stop a massive concert event planned in the Valle by regional Mexican music artist Christian Nodal that was set to draw 40,000 people over two days. The protesters were able to stop one of the concerts, and since then have been active in stopping or reducing large events that draw hordes of traffic to the valley’s narrow, winding roads.
What’s new this year
As a result of Por un Valle de Verdad, the Valle Food & Wine Festival has been transformed from a one-day event with 50 chefs and dozens of winemakers for 2,500 guests to two days of events, with 25 chefs and 20 winemakers each day.
“Our event was not by any means massive — a couple thousand people versus 40,000 people — but we were lopped off in the same cut of the knife. We decided to have a two-day event instead,” said Carreño, who added that the chef lineup will vary by day, since most chefs don’t want to cook two days in a row.
Another major change is the festival’s new location. For the first three years, the festival took place at chef Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozana restaurant and vineyard in the center of the Valle. This year, it moves to Bruma, a restaurant and wine garden at the northeast end of the valley.
Carreño said because Finca is a working restaurant year-round, the logistics of setting up the bandstand and festival grounds in just a couple of days was very challenging. Onsite parking was also limited and the long, bumpy dirt road to Finca could be a challenge to navigate. Bruma, by comparison, is just off a main road, has extensive parking and the festival set-up can begin up to a week in advance. Bruma also has a shopping complex and underground wine cave.
Because all fixed costs, including ingredients for the chefs to cook with, have gone up, prices this year will be higher than in the past. But Carreño said they’re still a bargain compared to other food festivals.
“Our festival is super long. If you go to a typical food festival, it’s three hours. Ours is seven hours,” she said. “And unlike many festivals where the majority of food is not cooked by a chef, ours is made by the chefs themselves, and the food is in real portions and made with the best ingredients we can get.”
Valle Food & Wine Festival
When: 5 to 11 p.m. Oct. 22. Noon to 6 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Bruma, 22760 Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico
Tickets: $255 for Saturday, Oct. 22. $185 for Sunday, Oct. 23. Early entry ticket (4 p.m.) on Oct. 22 is $325. VIP admission (which includes covered seating, waiter service and unlimited wine and cocktails) is $495 on Oct. 22 and $425 on Oct. 23.
Extra events: Friday Welcome dinner with the visiting chefs on Oct. 21 is $325. Chef cooking demonstrations from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 23 are free with paid admission.
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