By Kyle Hargrave
His leisurely stroll, casual attire, and lack of an appropriately sized entourage make him almost unnoticeable. As he approaches the corner of Beech and Kettner in Little Italy where his newest project is set to open in June of this year, his identity becomes unmistakable. The opening of restaurant Bracero: Cocina de Raiz is one of the most highly anticipated events in San Diego for the year 2015. For Mexican culinary master and gastronomic trend setter, Javier Plascencia, the opening of Bracero marks what will be considered his most ambitious project in an already illustrious career.
Hailed as one of the leaders in amidst an ongoing food revolution, Javier continuously deconstructs accepted ideas of food, ingredients, and its preparation. Javier is not only a master of his craft, but is completely redefining what it means to be a modern culinary genius. What is most remarkable, yet at the same time baffling, is the fact that Javier’s work on reshaping not only what we eat, but how we think about eating, is only just beginning.
Food ethics isn’t a class I remember taking when I received a degree in Philosophy. Furthermore, Food ethics wasn’t a concept that is commonly broached at the dinner table until very recently. For Javier, his commitment to food ethics started in the inverse: ethics and food. Born into the Plascencia dynasty, it isn’t hard to understand how Javier found the path to greatness through cooking. The Plascencias are responsible for some of the most notable restaurants that grace Tijuana turf: Giuseppis, Villa Saverios, Caesar’s, just to name a few. Although the prominence of the Plascencia family is strong, even they were not immune to the struggle and strife which nearly brought the entire city to its knees. Forced to relocate to San Diego, when the violence nearly claimed one of their own, the Plascencias became estranged from a city to which they owed everything. While nervously waiting for the situation to better itself in Tijuana, the family opened Romesco. Romesco was their effort to bring the best dishes from their Tijuana restaurants to San Diego, and also served as a positive avenue to exert their anxiety caused by isolation from their home. The establishment quickly became a hot spot for patrons looking for authentic Mexican food, outside of Mexico.
The opening of Romesco in San Diego, did not have the same reception for those living across the border. Some Tijuana residents saw the opening as an acknowledgement of the Plascencia’s intent to leave Tijuana for good. With food sales suffering catastrophic losses for almost every establishment, rumors that the Plascencias were intending on closing their restaurants in Tijuana added a new level of hopelessness to an already deflated community.
It was during this time, while Javier was working at Romesco when a long awaited beacon of light emerged from the darkness across the border. A group of young professionals from Tijuana committed on saving their city from the dregs of drug violence and dedicated to revitalizing Tijuana’s image, approached Javier with an idea. The idea was risky, however Javier was instilled with a deep ethical responsibility to his community, and he served this responsibility the only way he knew how- through food. This grand idea would lead to the opening of Mision 19 and would be the mark of a changing tide in a city desperately needing change. The success of Mision 19 served to be two fold. Not only did it ignite the fire which grew into an inferno of change in revitalizing Tijuana, it proved to be the stage where Javier would establish himself as an authority in the global culinary arena.
Mision 19 would be the first opportunity for Javier’s ideas to be concretized in plates which became recognized as small works of art. These small works of art were the products of a larger movement which relied heavily on the concept of food ethics. Javier’s personal confrontation with food ethics started with an argument with his Father about salmon. Salmon is a dish which is served at almost all of his father’s restaurants including Romesco. The problem with Salmon, Javier explains, is that it is not indigenous to this region and must be outsourced from long-distances or raised in fisheries which have a devastating impact on the environment. Furthermore, the integrity of the fish is compromised due to the fact it has to be shipped, frozen, and re-thawed before it can be prepared. Thus, the quality of the salmon deprecated, and for a chef obsessed with quality, such a process is not a viable option. Mision 19 embodies the idea that utilizing local ingredients not only produce a tastier healthier dish, but also decreases the impact on the environment.
Most chefs associated with the food ethics movement at this time place responsibility on the consumer to engage in heightened awareness in terms of where to eat and what to purchase. Javier, however, claims the responsibility falls primarily on himself as a chef. He believes that it is his duty to show how local ingredients just plain taste better and are healthier for the consumer. Once the patron eats a delicious meal- with organic and locally sourced ingredients - he or she will harbor a tangible understanding of how eating better is better for the community itself. Javier’s personal mission and underlying message in his ongoing projects can be boiled down to one word: sustainability. His primary concern is spreading awareness and addressing sustainability through his craft. There is no place where this is better exemplified than in his restaurant in the Valley de Guadalupe - Finca Altozano. Finca Altozano represents a completely novel dining experience where almost 98% of his ingredients come from the Guadalupe Valley. This restaurant is a genuinely refreshing experience where one can taste delectable dishes, relax in a rustic environment, and sleep comfortable knowing they were ethical eaters. It is the perfect union of sustenance and sustainability.
Javier’s humility is striking and surprising given his recent ascent to super star status. He is not self-obsessed nor conceited, which would be forgivable considering his talent. On the contrary, most of interview consisted of Javier attempting to steer the conversation to surfing or golf. I promised I wouldn’t reveal his favorite surf spot, but I can share that he did learn to surf in Carlsbad, CA. Surprisingly, Mr. Javier Plascencia is a product of the Army Navy Academy here in the United States, which he does not regret, because it exposed him to surfing. His enrollment in military school occurred after his parents made good on their threats concerning Javier’s behavior in school. Javier was packing his bags and learning the proper way to salute while the sulfuric smell of his cherry bomb lingered in his former Tijuana classroom.
Javier believes that Tijuana is back on track but has a long way to go. His commitment to food and the residents of Tijuana did not end with Mision 19. Between opening restaurants and creating new dishes for his establishments Javier continues to work with the local government in Tijuana on pertinent issues such as nutrition in schools and urban farming. During the interview his exhaustion is apparent, yet his determination is relentless. Javier’s schedule leaves little room for free time due in part to a recent appearance on ABC and future appearances on Bravo and more. He spends less time in Tijuana at the moment, leaving Mision 19 in the competent hands of local and emerging Chef Adria. Javier not only relies on local ingredients for his restaurants but also depends on local talent when he staffs his restaurants.
When asked how to eat a dish prepared by the hands of Javier Plascencia he states that at Bracero from June to August he will be on the line most days preparing food. If you want to catch him on his home turf, visit Finca Altozano during the annual wine harvesting event. When asked about his future plans a glimmer appears in his eye as he proclaims that he is at his most creative point in his life and his work has only just begun.
First photo courtesy of Mariana Hargrave. All others courtesy of Grupo Plascencia.