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ROAD TRIP: Convivia

The Baja-San Diego food movement gets a permanent home


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Flor Franco.

Valle de Guadalupe is in a thrilling, vulnerable place. Ensenada’s wine region is attracting international attention. The Wall Street Journal is the most recent national media outlet to praise the region’s wine and food.

It now must make proactive decisions to foster the right kind of people—developers, architects, vintners, businessmen, restaurateurs and chefs —who understand the soul of the Valle. Golf courses named after grapes would be pretty devastating.

The owners of the Valle’s most renowned property—Encuentro Guadalupe Antiresort—believe Flor Franco is the right kind of person. Ask anyone about truly local, sustainable cooking in San Diego and her name comes up. As the chef-owner behind Indulge Catering, she’s present at every major food event. She truly cooks whole animal. She puts her food where her mouth is.

And this Sunday, she’ll start a new chapter as chef-partner of Encuentro’s new restaurant, Convivia.

You have to see Encuentro to believe it. It’s a gorgeous compromise between preservation and evolution in the Valle. Designed by Tijuana architect Jorge Gracia, 20 modern “eco-lofts” dot the desert hillside along the northern stretch of Ruta 3. There’s no “resort” to speak of. There is your giant modern room on stilts with its own terra cotta fire feature, overlooking the Valle. Fifty yards away, someone else’s room on stilts with its fire feature. To stay here is an exercise in collective, ecologically sound isolation—with an infinity pool and wine bar. You'll need the resort’s off-road vehicles to get to your loft. You'll also need a flashlight. Some call it glamping.

Partially carved into the rocky hillside below the main lobby, Convivia is half indoors, half outdoors. Ten-foot boulders rest inside (Gracia reportedly believes in moving as little nature as possible). The wine list, curated by Fernando Gaxiola of Baja Wine + Food, features over 100 labels exclusively from Valle (most likely Mexico's most extensive collection). Frankie Thaheld of Snake Oil Cocktail Company is designing the cocktails. Jack Ford of Taj Farms is making cheese. A friend of Franco’s from Spain will start the charcuterie program.

One of the region's most exciting movements in the last few years has been the collaboration between Baja and San Diego food minds. Convivia gives the cross-pollination a permanent home.

The restaurant is set up to meet Encuentro’s ecological standards. That means half of Franco’s menu is cold (ceviches, etc.) to minimize the heat burden. She’s growing all of her own organic produce and herbs on property. Livestock come next.

With Convivia, Franco joins the ranks of very good chefs—Jair Tellez (Laja), Drew Deckman (Deckman's), Diego Hernandez (Corazón De Tierra), Javier Plascencia (Finca Altozano), Roberto Alcocer (Malva)—who will tell the Valle’s story to all visitors, whether locals or tourists, media or otherwise, from this point on.

The Valle’s trust is tough to earn. As it should be, says Franco.

You grew up in Mexico?
I was born in Vera Cruz, educated in Guadalajara where I got my degree in PR and marketing. I came to San Diego when I was 23 and have been here until now. Since I was six, I wanted to be a chef. My dad promised to send me to France to train after high school… but he never did. Cooks didn’t make any money and he wanted me to survive. At my college, one of my teachers in college was owner of this big-deal restaurant. He let me work there nights to learn the restaurant business.

How did you start Indulge?
I was working as a PR director for two media companies in San Diego. One day at the magazine I said, “I’m going to start my own catering company.” So I did. I had zero money. The Harvard Club in New York asked to read my business plan. They read it, then sent me an email saying I wouldn’t last over 15 months. My first year Indulge did almost a million in sales.

Why Encuentro?
In my dreams, in five years my plan was to sell Indulge, buy land and open something casual in Valle. Last year, I went down to Valle to cook with Javier [Plascencia]. The owners of Encuentro emailed and invited me to stay in their eco-casa. I had no idea why. They showed me around, then said they needed a chef and they believed I was the one. They believed Encuentro needed a female. When you think of food, you think of mama or grandma. I’m also bilingual, which helps. I said to myself, ‘Well, they’re giving me the dream I have in my head. I need to do it.’ [Note: Franco still owns Indulge.]

You’re growing ALL your own food?
I have a garden just for my two restaurants, maybe a swimming pool size. But I’m also using a lot of little corners here and there. It will grow a lot more than I need. The bartenders can handpick all the herbs themselves. Eighty percent of my seeds for my garden are coming from Suzie’s Farm. Monica Szepesy (chef of Encinitas restaurant, Q’ero) is giving me seeds for Peruvian chiles. El Campito is helping me with mushrooms.

I’ve got a box of chicken livers I’ll sell to you at cost.
I don’t believe in buying chicken breasts or livers. I buy whole animals. I had to learn to process and make them beautiful and tasty. Let’s say I do a mole. Instead of giving you a chicken breast, we process the whole animal and do a Napoleon. We vacuum seal and sous vide it, then pan sear it.

So you’re not so farm-to-table that you only use a hand-shovel as a cooking utensil?
I like molecular gastronomy. I studied it. As a farm to table chef, I’ve heard so many criticism against molecular. I said, ‘No way, there’s got to be a middle ground.’

It’s going to be a mix of local Mexican and U.S. food people?
Instead of importing and exporting things, I’m bringing my friends to my restaurant to make and sell the product. Jack Ford of Taj Farms makes amazing cheeses, but he can’t sell them in the United States. So he’s going to come down here and make them. I’m going to use [raw food specialist] Joy Hudson for my juicing program.

Have Valle locals been a little suspect of you, the ex-pat Mexican with all these American friends?
The Valle is very protective. They either love you or they hate you. I’m a very proud Mexican. But I’ve spent all my life in San Diego. Now I have a spot in Baja where I can share the talents of my American friends, as well as the talents of my Mexican friends. That’s why it’s called Convivia (translated: “to live together”). I’ve been working for a year to prove myself to the people of the Valle, being supportive of every single event. I feel right now I finally got acceptance that ‘Flor is OK.’ I’m not coming here to destroy Valle. I’m not coming to sell canned food. I’m just sharing what I know. I know I’m going to do something good for the community. Same thing I did in the United States. Right now you see a lot of chefs from Baja coming up to cook in the U.S., but you don’t see too many U.S. chefs going to Mexico. I want to help change that. 

Including a locals night?
Valle locals have never been able to afford the beauty of restaurants. Most Valle businesses close on Mondays, so that’s our window to give back to the community. We'll invite local winemakers, cheesemakers, beermakers to bring their employees to Encuentro and hang out with no corkage fee. They can bring whatever they make—wines, grappa, beer, cheese, etc. Drinks will also be half off.

Why Snake Oil Cocktails?
Snake Oil speaks my language. They believe in waking up things from my childhood. We have a raspados (shaved ice) on the menu. I know how to make all those syrups. It will be the first cantina in the Valle.

You’re waking up some old dishes on your menu, too?
Yes. Like the chilorio—it’s a dish born in Sinoloa, but you can really only find it in cans, which tastes like SPAM. So I read many recipes and came up with a 72-hour confit chilorio using the whole pig and a lot of dried chiles. Another dish is the zaragalla, a prehistoric dish from the little fish town of Veracruz. We’ll also have a cactus salad.

What is the bounty of Valle and Ensenada?
The Valle has a lot of olive oils. And yellowtail fresh from the sea that I’ll smoke for 20 minutes and then add sauce. The shellfish here are also so fresh—a lot of mussels and oysters. The Kumamoto oysters, especially. You can also get Sinaloa shrimp fresh, not frozen. We can find grass-fed beef whenever we want.

Is the fact that it’s NOT the U.S. another good thing about Mexico?
We don’t have an FDA department that’s so horrible. The government in Mexico makes things easier. We can make our own cheeses. It’s a lot easier to do all the charcuterie and chorizo. I don’t need the health department to do that. I have my friend Alvaro who's a huge distributor of Spanish meats and knows how to process all the meat and make Jamon Serrano, Iberico, etc. We will build a new charcuterie center in the Valle.

Tell me more about the menu…
Convivia is casual tapas. The menu is 60 percent cold, 40 percent hot—so a lot of ceviches and seafood. That was very conscious. If we’re going to build into a wine cave, we didn’t want all this heat and electricity. We wanted to build it as ecologically friendly as possible. How can we create beautiful food without using so much energy and the kinds of elements we don’t want here?

The grand opening of Convivia at Encuentro Guadalupe Antiresort will be held this Sunday, July 27.

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