Tijuana restaurateur demonstrates Mexican cuisine for Day of the Dead

When the Spanish court accepted Napoleon's brother, Joseph, as king of Spain in 1808, the common people coined the term afrancesados out of contempt for the collaborators. It means "Frenchified dandy" today in Latin countries. When I inspected Mexican chef Martí­n San Román's bio, in which he labels his cuisine as French/Mexican fusion, I wondered.

On the phone from his restaurant, Rincón San Román, in the hotel/golf complex of Real del Mar in Tijuana, San Román had that familiar chilango lilt. He enthusiastically explained how he will be promoting his special brand of Mexican cooking in a series of events to be held at the Westin Bayshore Resort and Marina from October 30 to November 4. San Román will be hosting a five-day course there for our local chefs. I have a feeling we will all be shortly joining the ranks of the mexicanizados.

San Román was born in 1961 to a wealthy family and lived in the fashionable Mexico City district of Coyoacán. He soon developed an awareness of culture and good food. At 12, he told his grandmother Lucí­a that she had overcooked the green beans. "When I was 14," he said, "I brought home some bean sprouts from a school assignment. I planted the seedlings. I harvested three beans, boiled them, and made myself a bean taco. It was delicious.


» Chef Martí­n San Román's Cream of Black Bean Soup

"I almost became a soccer player. My friends said, 'You are crazy, Martí­n', when, at 15, I opted for being a chef. While they were drinking in bars, at 16 I had my first job in Cuernavaca at Harry's Bar. On weekends I experimented in the kitchen. I had enough pocket money to take my girlfriend to the movies."

With his mind made up, San Román travelled to Paris and studied at the LeNí´tre school. He worked at Fauchon in the Place de la Madeleine and at the Paris Intercontinental Hotel, then rounded out his culinary education at Michigan State. In 1989, San Román opened his first restaurant in Tijuana, La Tour de France.

San Román understands that to convince people to try authentic Mexican food, one must wean them from Tex-Mex fare. "From the media, few suspect that Mexico is a modern country with a modernized gastronomy. In 10 years of travelling the world to teach [including the Paris and London Cordon Bleu in 1999] I find that few know what Mexican cuisine is. One of the reasons is that the schooled Mexican chefs have stayed in Mexico. Now many of us travel regularly, promoting what is one of the richest cuisines of the world."

San Román sees an awareness of Mexican culture as key. "You don't need to know or understand anything about eating a burrito at Taco Bell. It's good and it satisfies your hunger. But when you try an authentic mole, knowing of its origins in a Puebla nunnery adds to its enjoyment. This is why I am giving my demonstrations in Vancouver in conjunction with the Mexican Tourism Board's celebration of the Mexican festivities of el Dí­a de los Muertos."

San Román now lives with his wife, Marion, and four sons in San Diego. He drives to his Tijuana restaurant every day. It attracts not only the San Diego crowd but also clientele from Phoenix and Los Angeles. In the 1930s, Clark Gable would cross into Tijuana for caesar salad at César Cardini's restaurant. (César was an Italian-born Mexican.) Now the likes of Russell Crowe and Laurence Fishburne have enjoyed San Román's creations in Tijuana.

So did Bill Gates, at the 2000 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Gates told San Román that his black-bean soup was the best he had ever had and demanded a second helping. The soup almost got San Román in trouble in 2003 at an exclusive dinner in Baja, California, where the governor hosted Edward, the Duke of Kent. The gathering was a serious affair, but when it was announced that the chef had burnt the soup, "My accident broke the ice and everybody laughed. They thought it was a joke. But I had really burned the soup!" (San Román's recipe is available at www.straight.com/.)

I asked San Román to define himself. "I am a creative chef who can think of a recipe without working in an experimental kitchen. I obtain a virtual taste with all the ingredients in my head. When I prepare it, it tastes as it does."

Chef Martí­n San Román will be participating in weeklong activities sponsored by the Mexico Tourism Board, the Consulate General of Mexico, and the Mexican Trade Commission. From October 31 to November 5, there will be many opportunities to savour Mexican food in daily events at both the Westin Bayshore and the Mouse and the Bean. For more information, call the Westin Bayshore (1601 Bayshore Drive) at 604-682-3377 and the Mouse and the Bean (207-B West Hastings Street) at 604-633-1781.