Before the boom of Baja California cuisine, along with its wines, local produce and fresh seafood, the food that best represented this region was fish tacos. And before pioneer chefs such as Benito Molina and Solange Muris started making an appearance, Ensenada’s fishing industry paved the way for Baja’s culinary road to success. It was in the kitchens of those fishing boats where this unique culinary culture began, which today is known as Baja California cuisine and which is represented, recreated and reinterpreted by Benito Molina’s and Solange Muris’ Manzanilla restaurant in Ensenada, Mexico.
According to Benito, “Baja California is like a white canvas; it has the ingredients, and it has the quality, but not the culinary tradition. It’s not like Oaxaca, which has an ancient heritage. This allows me to be in a constant search of our own identity.” Benito has plenty of culinary experience, including working with some of the best chefs in the world, like Mikel Alonso, Enrique Olvera, Juancho Sánchez, Roberto Solís, Alejandro Ruiz, Federico López, Antonio de Livier and Aquiles Chávez. He was also inspired by celebrity chefs like Mari Arzak, Alain Ducasse, Marco Pierre White, Tsutsur Lee, Todd English, Ferran Adria and Santi Santamaria, among others.
Benito and Solange founded Manzilla restaurant on July 31, 2000. Manzanilla is considered one of the best dining destinations in the country, according to reviews in Mexican and international industry publications. Besides Manzanilla, the Molina-Muris duo also owns a rustic diner that only opens during the summer. Silvestre is an open-air restaurant located in the heart of Valle de Guadalupe, an area known for preparing dishes in wood-fired ovens. But the two chefs are much more than their restaurants: they’re also part of the daily show called “Utilísima en Fox Life,” where they show the camera what they cook when they’re not working, how they handle house chores and some of their favorite recipes.
Qué Rica Vida had the privilege of sitting down to talk with Benito and Solange recently. Here’s what they had to say:
How would you define ‘Benito y Solange’?
We’re two chefs who are passionate about fresh ingredients and Baja Californian produce, who share a great interest in Mexican culture and in promoting Mexico.
How was Manzanilla born? What makes your cuisine so unique and a source of inspiration for young chefs and food lovers?
Manzanilla was born in 2000, after we worked together at a vineyard. Without a second thought, we looked for a place and decided to start our business. It started off as a small restaurant with a menu of local ingredients, and two tasting menus of six and eight courses paired with local wines, dark beers and mezcal. It was tough at the beginning, but now we look back and feel it was totally worth it. Manzanilla was the first Mexican restaurant to base its cuisine on local Baja California ingredients.
Would you say Manzanilla has marked a turning point in the culinary evolution of Valle de Guadalupe?
When we opened Manzanilla, there was no other restaurant that represented Baja California cuisine, and very few used local ingredients in their menus. So yes, I’d say Manzanilla was a pioneer in using local produce, particularly because those ingredients were usually exported and didn’t remain at home. That’s also when the creation and promotion of local wines began.
How did Benito and Solange end up in FoxLife? What’s the message you want to get through?
Originally, it was Benito who went to a casting. After talking about his experience as a fisherman in a tuna fishing boat, he caught their attention. Then they found out that Solange was also a chef, and they came up with the idea of creating a duo show. The message we’re trying to get through is that you can cook with a partner; that cooking is fun and brings families together; that people should devote more time to (homemade) food; and that they should not be afraid to experiment and try new things.
What best represents your cuisine?
Fresh ingredients, the best fish and seafood in Mexico, the best wine in Mexico, the best olive oil… That’s why we’ve made Ensenada our home.
Who inspires who? How do you work together to create a recipe?
Our inspiration is a series of ideas we work on together; one of us will be the dreamer while the other tries to be more down-to-earth.
If you hadn’t been chefs, what would you be?
Solange: theater actress. Benito: painter.
What are your favorite herbs?
Which three ingredients are always part of your dishes?
Olive oil, chiles and salt.
What are your next projects? Will you open a Manzanilla in the United States?
I’ve always considered the possibility of opening a branch in Los Angeles or San Diego… who knows, maybe one day. But we also believe in something we heard from Chef Alejandro Ruiz form Casa Oaxaca: “Let the world come to you.” Our future projects include writing a book about Baja California ingredients, creating a line of gourmet products, and continuing to promote Mexico and Ensenada.