Local couple’s film chronicles quarantine struggle at famed Deckman’s restaurant in Baja
Coronado residents Jill Bond and Ajay Sawhney’s “Ingrediente” captures chef’s shock, grief, fear and resolve on film
About 20 minutes into a new documentary now airing on KPBS, famous Baja restaurant chef Drew Deckman tells the filmmakers that his hugely successful Deckman’s en el Mogor restaurant has been on one “hell of a ride” for years and he sees no indication of that changing anytime soon.
Then the pandemic hit.
Deckman never saw it coming, and neither did Jill Bond and Ajay Sawhney, the married Coronado filmmakers who were shooting Deckman on location in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe in March 2020 when the arrival of COVID-19 shuttered the international border and most of the full-service restaurants on either side, including Deckman’s.
Because Bond and Sawhney have a second home in Ensenada, they decided to quarantine in Baja and spent the next four months filming every single day at Deckman’s restaurant. Their documentary captures Deckman and his wife, Paulina, draining their savings, paying salaries for as long as they could afford to and preparing more than 1,200 free meals for out-of-work employees and their families, local fishermen and Valle residents.
The results of Bond and Sawhney’s quarantine efforts, the 56-minute documentary “Ingrediente: A Restaurant Uprooted,” premiered Monday on KPBS Television. It will begin streaming Sept. 1 on the Amazon Prime video platform, it will be shown again on KPBS Sept. 6, 12 and 20, and it will be featured Sept. 30 at the Coronado Film Festival.
Bond said “Ingrediente” is a unique film because it captured in real time the devastation of the pandemic in Baja as it unfolded. On Day 1 of quarantine, Deckman appears bewildered as he advises his team to pack up the chairs and tables for what they hope will be a brief shutdown. In scenes filmed weeks and then months later, his emotions transition through frustration, fear and ultimately grief, when their hope, money and even the firewood that fuels his outdoor restaurant’s wood-fired grill run low.
“Ingrediente” is the second self-funded documentary produced by Bond and Sawhney through their content production company Virtual Advisor Inc. Their first was “We Served Too: The Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII,” a Gracie Award-winning film that has been airing for the past four years on PBS stations. Married 30 years and the parents of three grown children, the couple began splitting their time between Coronado and Ensenada about four years ago and fell in love with the vibrant restaurant and wine scene in Valle de Guadalupe, which is about 90 miles south of the San Diego/Mexico border.
After consulting with PBS producers, they agreed on the concept of filming a six-part series on Mexico’s sustainable food, wine and architecture industries with Deckman serving as series host and guide. The Georgia-raised chef spent 10 years cooking in France, Switzerland and Germany, where in 2003 he earned a coveted Michelin star. From there, his culinary journey took him to Asia and Hawaii before he landed in Mexico and opened a now-closed restaurant in Los Cabos in 2010 followed by a second location in Valle de Guadalupe in 2011.
In “Ingrediente” Deckman says he felt an immediate sense of “home” in Mexico, particularly in the Valle, where he met his wife, Paulina, and they now live with their two young children. He arrived in the Valle at a time when it was rising into prominence as an international culinary destination. His presence in the Valle brought many American food critics, chefs and tourists to the Valle and the familial relationships he built there with its farmers, fishermen, winemakers and restaurateurs made him a beloved adopted son of Mexico.
Bond and Sawhney first encountered the chef years ago while dining at his restaurant. As fans of Deckman’s cooking and their appreciation for his fame on both sides of the border, they thought he’d make the perfect host for their series. They were about two years into filming what would have been the debut episode of their series when the pandemic struck. They had to decide whether to quit and go back to Coronado or to dig in south of the border and keep their camera rolling. They stayed, but without the assistance of a full production crew, so all of the scenes the two of them captured during quarantine have a more informal guerrilla filmmaking style.
After a 120-day closure, Deckman’s en el Mogor reopened in July 2020. Since then it has gradually rebuilt its capacity and business has been good. In the film, Deckman says that despite all the suffering he and his wife endured in 2020, the experience was ultimately a positive one. It allowed them more time with their children, taught them new ways to economize and use their farm and reignited his passion for cooking and feeding people.
“We were victims of our own success. This place had become this factory,” he says in “Ingrediente.” “It wasn’t the intimate experience we wanted ... The closure was a gift in disguise to re-set and go back to where we started.”
Bond and Sawhney turned what was going to be the debut episode of their series into the stand-along documentary “Ingrediente: A Restaurant Uprooted.” But now that it’s been released and the pandemic is waning, they’re planning to relaunch plans for their six-episode Mexico series soon. With Deckman, they’ll start filming in other regions of Mexico in November.
Through their pandemic experience, Bond said Deckman went from being a work colleague to a friend, who she hopes viewers will know and understand better when they watch the film.
“When we first met him, he came across as this very large man who’s grumpy at times, but he’s really a very nice guy who walks the walk, cares about people and sustainability and he’s really funny and very much a family man,” Bond said.
To see a preview of “Ingrediente,” visit kpbs.org/news/2021/aug/12/ingrediente-restaurant-uprooted/.
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