Baja! Cooking on the Edge by Deborah M. Schneider. Photographs by Maren Caruso. Rodale, 2006, 274 pages, $27.95
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Chef Deborah Schneider first saw Baja in the '80s and fell in love with its cuisine. Light, simple, vibrantly fresh. This is her homage to the wild and beautiful peninsula, a love letter to a place and a people that transformed her approach to food. Ocean-fresh seafood dishes, exuberant salsas -- the dishes are marked by freshness, flavor, ease of preparation...and a genuine savoring of culinary surprise and solitude.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"A delicious journey into little-known southern California... really southern...to explore Baja's rich history and food lore. Vibrant recipes." -- Denver Post
"Schneider's fresh writing style and the vibrant photography and design -- in alternating shades of faded blue, avocado, terra-cotta, and pink -- capture the region's rough-edged beauty. The recipes were so inviting that I ended up testing lots of them. The fish tacos were the best I've ever had outside of Baja itself. -- San Francisco Chronicle
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Deborah Schneider is enjoying a splendid career in San Diego as a top chef.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Broil the oysters on a bed of rock salt. I salivate reading Deborah Schneider's wonderful recipes, nesting in a book beautifully designed by Ellen Nygaard and illustrated with Maren Caruso's artful photographs. Clams in Tequila. One-Pan Paella. Campfire Grilled Chorizo. Her cooking is quick and exact and expressive, her writing skills just as impressive. Her cookbook is as much fun to read as a novel."I understand you were a magazine editor in the early '80s, in Toronto. Are you actually Canadian?"
"I am. I was born and raised in Toronto and then spent part of my formative years in a pretty little town called Godish, just 45 miles west of Stratford Shakespeare Festival, on Lake Huron."
"Your magazine experience certainly shows in the book. It's terribly well written. I kept trying to find who ghosted it, but, except for Miriam Backes's perfect editing, it was all you."
Executive Chef Deborah Schneider laughs. "Thank you."
"Yet you gave the writing up, and the magazine editing."
"Yes. My boyfriend had a motorcycle that we crated up and shipped to London. We flew over and set out from there in December, heading south, down through France, through Spain, and on to the Canary Islands. We meandered through Italy, southern Morocco and North Africa, into Greece. You couldn't do it now. It was just the two of us on the cycle, with a small tent and a couple of sleeping bags. We cooked all our meals on a one-burner stove. I became master of the one-pot meal."
"Is that where you learned to cook -- on the road?"
"No. I'd learned to eat first. Toronto is and was a great food city, even back then. I taught myself from Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Cooked my way right through it. On that road trip, I learned to cook what you have. Cuisine isn't created; it's developed from what ingredients are at hand. I used whatever we picked up along the way."
"You were confident enough in your skills that you took on jobs working as a chef aboard chartered yachts sailing out from the Greek Isles."
"They were operated mostly by Englishmen. I worked eventually for the chairman of Mobil Oil, a lovely man. We also had a lot of Argentine junta on board at one time. A nice group and good tippers, even though they threw people out of airplanes into the ocean as it turned out. But my job cooking wasn't [about having] confidence so much as that there were plenty of openings. My boyfriend was a marine electrician and had lots of sailing experience. They snapped him right up. Nobody really wanted to cook; it was considered somewhat boring. But I wanted to because I hated cleaning, and if you were female, you were either a stewardess or a cook. And the cooking proved great fun."
"And then you crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean and Florida and sailed out from there."
"Mmm. And then on a yacht coming to San Diego."
"So you get off the boat in 1983 and fall into the arms of a surfer."
Deborah laughs. "Yeah, that was basically it. We married. He's still surfing. He was out there this morning."
"There may be a movie in this cookbook."
That gets a laugh. "Anyway, he introduced me to Baja. Back then you'd cross the border and there was nothing after Tijuana. Rosarito was just a couple of shacks. We spent a fair amount of time in Baja, and I just fell in love with it. I'd never been anywhere like that. You have to go further now, and try harder, to be away from people. Areas like San Felipe are due to get large airports within the next ten years, capable of receiving jumbo jets, which means the Mexican cartels will come in and build hotels and the slums will start. But for now you can still get away from it all if you have a Ford truck and a camping stove and you're dedicated."
"Is San Felipe your favorite community there? I got that impression from your vivid description."
"As far as towns, it probably is. But generally I try to stay away from populated places and restaurants. I like the street stands and home cooking and being away from people."
"Do you have a favorite secret spot?"
"Ahh, ha! There's a trick question. Yeah. The favorite-secret-spot is still pretty remote and hard to get to. There's no real coastal road, so it's safe from most visitors. It's not that much of a secret, though, if you talk to people who go off road down there. You can get to it in a regular car; you don't have to have 4-wheel drive. It's four hours north along the coast."
"Four hours. Wow. With surfboards clanking on the roof."
"Constant jolting, yes. Extremely uncomfortable. But once you're there, you stay for a week, ten days."
"And you're just out there, living in the open."
"In a tent. Occasionally a truckload of fishermen will go by, and they'll ask for a beer and to use your tools...and bring you a couple of lobsters."
"So you settled in San Diego for the next 23 years and cooked at various establishments."
"I started out working for a local group of restaurants that were the first to bring California cuisine to San Diego -- Piret's. Then moved to Dobson's, a classic place, a great little restaurant [that won Zagat's top spot in '95]. And another of the owner's restaurants, La Gran Tapa, one of the first Spanish restaurants in the state (along with the Ballroom). After that, I was the first female chef at the Grant Grill, which didn't used to allow women in at lunch until a famous standoff in the late '60s. [It won the DeRona Award.] From there I went to the Hilton Torrey Pines right on the coast in La Jolla, followed by another hotel, the Solamar and its Jsix/Jbar. Presently I run ten kitchens for Premier Foods, a catering company at the Del Mar race track."
"No wonder Bon Appetit called you 'the reigning queen of San Diego chefs.' How many meals do you supervise each day?"
"Eight to ten thousand during the two months of the racing season when the thoroughbred meets are held by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club [founded by Bing Crosby]. And we'll do enormous parties, like the one for 9000 this past October. I like to do big projects. Restaurants are almost too easy now."
"Do you eat out locally?"
"I tend toward ethnic. I like Vietnamese, so I go to places like Phuong Trang on Convoy, which is terrific. Some of the Mexican places we haunt are excellent, very authentic, like Las Cuatro Milpas [on Logan]."
"Do you dine at high-end establishments, like the Ken-sington Grill or Laurel?"
"At times. I'm so impressed by the chefs in San Diego. Carl Schroeder, Amy DiBiase at Baleen.... They're all so talented. I was just at Laurel, and it was very, very good, and we're going to Blanca after Christmas. But it's kind of like -- what would it be like all the time? It would be like going to fashion shows every day. I'm sort of into noncompetitive eating."
"Eating that doesn't involve your work; that makes sense. Which prompts your interest in Baja and ethnic."
"Yes. Also I have a child headed for college, so I'm not about to drop $200 on dinner every week." Sounding mischievous, she adds, "Besides, I'd rather buy shoes."
"Saffron on India gets a lot of praise."
"Oh, it's wonderful. Su-Mei Yu's food is Thai, of course. She did a wonderful cookbook: Cracking the Coconut. What makes a great eating town are affordable restaurants; low key and casual, neighborhoody places close to residential areas where people come and support them and that aren't super competitive."
"Are your two teenagers as adventurous as you seem to have been in your youth?"
"I think my daughter would go off in a heartbeat. She goes to High Tech High. She was just in England her sophomore year, with her classmates, and she's going to China with them in the spring for three weeks."
"So, if your daughter announced, 'I'm going off on a motorcycle across Europe and Africa,' you'd be fine with it?"
Deborah laughs with delight. "I'd do what my mother did, which was buy burial insurance, to be sure the body made it home, and make her sign it. Then just say, 'Honey, go have a great time.'"
"What a smart mom."
Sounding wistful, Deborah says, "How many chances do you have. You know?"