Miguel Angel Guerrero is Tijuana’s culinary renaissance man. He grew up roaming his family’s Baja California ranch land and learned to hunt, dive, fish and farm at an early age. He holds a law degree, but instead of practicing, opened his first restaurant, La Querencia, 11 years ago. Last August, the man behind Baja Med cuisine added El Almazara in northern Baja’s wine country, Valle de Guadalupe. We spoke with him on July 25 at Rivera restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, where he was promoting the second annual Baja Culinary Fest.
Did you always plan to become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
Actually, I’m a lawyer. I studied law. My wife studied law too, and that’s where I met her. I’ve been cooking since I was a little boy. My two families are Spanish descendants. One of them used to be a [shepherd]. They used to have more than 10,000 lamb.
In Baja, yes. In the ’50s, ’60s. I’ve always been on the ranch. My grandfather built a big house for the whole family. Three daughters, one son, and like 20 cousins. The two months we were on vacation, we lived there, and we had motorcycles. We had a couple ranches where we’d go to see the lamb, the cows. On vacation, my uncles came from Spain and we’d make chorizo, morcilla, cheeses, butter, we got our own milk. I grow up on that one with a garden and all the vegetables and the fruits. That was my beginning. Since five years old, my father took me to hunt. Then my uncle took me to Baja when I was eight, nine years old, for 20 days at a time, doing fishing and diving and hunting. All these things come together to a place, the kitchen. It’s come very natural to me. I like to go where the things are, where they’re alive, and bring them to the table, to my customers. It’s a way of sharing my passion for live with them. In the kitchen, I share my emotions with my customers.
What sort of law did you practice?
I didn’t practice. I studied and continued another business in Tijuana. Then I decided it was time to go and study cuisine in Mexico City. I came back and started this idea that Baja should have its own cuisine, so I put in Baja Med, Baja Mediterranean. I wanted to start to figure out all the things that I do. I do hunting, I do diving, I do fishing. Everything started coming together as Baja Med cuisine.
What’s your favorite thing about operating restaurants?
Being able to share my emotions with the customers. When I bring things from my garden – I have gardens for my restaurants – the vegetables and the spices and herbs and the fish, or the deer, the venison, the quails, then try to cook it and share it with them. For me, there’s nothing better.
When did you open your restaurant in the Valle?
I opened it last year in August, only for Vendimias, one month, then I opened it in November. Since then I’ve been open. It’s open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
What’s the difference between La Querencia and your other restaurant?
I try to do different dishes. All the lamb come from our farm in the Guadalupe Valley. It’s a lot of focus on the lamb. We have a couple dishes of lamb, and I try to change it depending on how I’m feeling that day. The Valle, it’s a different feeling than in the city, but I’m very happy in the Valle. I try to buy more things – all the olive oil is from our olive trees – the cheeses are from over there too. I try to work with everything local.
What was the most recent dish that you developed, and what was your inspiration?
I make a ravioli filled with lamb and local cheeses, and this lamb was baked in the oven, flambee with brandy, and we make a wine sauce with Baja California reduction of white wine and blue cheese, we put bright parsley and fried leeks, it was nice.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
I like to try everything.
When you first opened La Querencia 11 years ago, what do you remember about that very first night?
I remember telling my mom, who passed away – she was the one who helped me – I said, “Tell my brother that I do hunting and fishing and diving” – and he was telling me that, “You’re a great chef. Not many chefs can do that.” I was thinking to bring the name of Baja California cuisine to the world. That was my main purpose. I told my wife, “I’m going to do that. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. If I don’t do it, it’s okay, but I’m going to pursue it.” Right now I think we’re doing a very good job of promoting the product, promoting Baja and being ourselves, being honest. That’s a good way of being, no?
What more do you have to do to promote Baja cuisine to the world?
Probably we have to travel more. These types of events are promoting a lot. Probably my trip through Baja, I’m very excited. I’ve been doing it all my life, but I’m very excited because I’m going to be videoing and photographing underwater. The thing I’ve been doing all my life, for the first time I’m going to show it to the world. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. Probably I would like to have a kitchen segment or a TV show, but on my own terms. I don’t want to be in back of the kitchen cooking. I go to the places where the things or the animals or the plants are, bring it to the table by myself, I cook it. That can be by my own terms, Probably after this travel, this event that I’m doing, 20 days, it’s going to change everything. For instance, I’m very excited because it’s the way I am. I’m riding all the time, motorcycles, diving, spearfishing, fishing, drinking wine, beer, sharing, that’s very important. I’m bringing my son on this trip. He’s already a hunter and fisherman. I’m bringing my friends, and being able to share with everybody, this kind of emotion, is very important. After this, I don’t know.
How old is your son?
Is he a future chef?
He can be. Yes. He’s already making dessert for one of my restaurants. I pay him good. I’m very excited because he pays for all his equipment. He bought his speargun, the line, his fins, so I think I’m making a good guy and also teach him so people know the sustainability of things. The hunters or the fishermen or the divers are the ones that keep the balance. Probably it’s contrary to say, “This hunter is killing,” but sustainability is there. You just have the big ones and you have enough to eat. Right now, in this moment, in life, that kind of work is appreciated. I grew up with that, my father and grandfather tell me about it. Probably they didn’t say that word, but I learned it, and the good thing about hunting and diving is to pass to the next generation. It’s not an easy sport to get into alone. If I pass that thing to my son, it would be nice for him.
What do you look for when you’re hiring people to work in your kitchens?
They need to be hungry. Hungry in Spanish is hambre. I don’t like when people come here, to a restaurant, and see themselves as an artist, or, “I’m the one,” just out of school. You have to be humble. To be humble, you have to work and understand that the kitchen and cooking is not about being famous or a TV star. You have to serve somebody and share your emotions. That’s what I do.