VALLE DE GUADALUPE, B.C. Taste memory is an integral thing when preparing regional cuisine. The best chefs and restaurateurs have it and constantly tweak ingredients until their dishes taste just like their mothers' and their mothers' before them. Recipes can be transcribed and handed down through generations, but as people migrate elsewhere and take their cuisine with them, ingredients change and it's taste memory that allows traditional food to flourish in a new place.
Antonin Chabannes grew up in the countryside of Valence eating his mother's and grandmother's French country cooking. Attending school in Grenoble as a young man, he met a girl from Tijuana and landed in Ensenada where he opened Le Pinche Francés, a food truck in the city specializing in the preparation of authentic French country dishes.
Enjoying success with the new concept, Chabannes opened a smaller truck, Le Petit Pinche Francés, in the Valle de Guadalupe this season on the grounds of the Torres Alegre y Familia vineyard.
"The Valle is a great place for this kind of concept. There's a lot of international food and great cuisine here," Carlos Mariscal, Torres Alegre y Familia sales manager shared with us during a recent visit. "Valle chefs Martin San Roman and Ryan Steyn are French trained, but their dishes usually have a Mexican or Baja addition to them, which I love. The menu here though is pure French country."
Owner Chabannes hired Chilean chef Nicolás Tapia to run the small kitchen in the back of the truck at Le Petit Pinche Francés. Tapia comes with an impressive culinary resume and a well-stamped passport. He's worked at Valle de Guadalupe restaurant Corazon de Tierra with Diego Hernandez, and staged at Quintonil in Mexico City with Jorge Vallejo both Peligrino 50 Best Restaurant winners. Additionally, he's worked in Central America, Germany, Spain and Turkey.
"Coming from the world of high cuisine, it was difficult at first for me to work with these simple country recipes and ingredients," chef Tapia recalled. "Antonin taught me all of his home flavors. He and I worked to achieve the tastes he remembered as a child for a couple of months, until everything was just right. Though he trained me here in Baja California, it felt like I was in the countryside of France - living through his experiences and taste memories."
As Marsical poured us some of the family's excellent sauvignon blanc on this warm July day on the vineyard's patio, chef Tapia brought out several starters. The Escargots á la Bourguignonne are served with a locally baked loaf of pan rustica. The dish was a spot-on combination of garlic, herbs, butter and large, succulent land snails.
Next was a plate of imported French cheese; Brie, Camembert, Port-Salut, San Andre and Roquefort. "The Roquefort is my favorite for pairing with red wine, especially the wines of Torres Alegre," chef Tapia shared. "But the San Andreas is my favorite just to eat by itself. It's a selfish cheese. It takes over the entire flavor in your mouth." As demonstration, our glasses were filled with Torres Alegre's 2005 Cabernet Franc Merlot, a deep and complex wine that pairs perfectly with the Roquefort.
Tapia then brought out a succession of three dishes from Le Petit Pinche Francés "French Specialties" menu. Each dish is served with traditional potato au gratin and a fresh Spinach salad. These plates are big, almost too big for one person. The generous entrees are affordable as well at $190 pesos each (around $12 US).
As the chef served us, he emphasized, "We're not really focused on the presentation as much as we are the taste of the food." Indeed, the entrees are simply plated and arranged, the sizeable portions heaped onto ordinary flatware. Not unlike what a French country grandmother might serve in her rustic farmhouse a century ago. The focus is on the sustenance and flavor, not visual fussiness.
The Bouef bourguignon features moist chunks of beef, mushrooms and local carrots swimming in a thick red sauce of Torres Alegre's Llave Tinta. This simple meat and potatoes dish seemed to be the table's favorite and we dabbed up the remaining sauce with bits of our bread.
The Mijoté de porc aux arachides (pork stew in peanut sauce) is a rich combination of meaty chunks of pork and a nutty, sweet peanut sauce. The dish is finished with a slight sprinkle of dried chilis on the meat, which may belie a subtle Mexican addition to this otherwise authentic French-Congolese favorite.
After the first two hearty dishes, our party of four foodies was pushing the limit on our digestive systems. We didn't quite finish the Terrine de curvina "au beurre blanc" (terrine of curvina white butter sauce), but it was just as good as the other two dishes. The terrine was served warm and the flavor of the local sea bass provided a nice taste of the ocean and played well with the egg base of this dish.
As we emptied our glasses and prepared to leave, I asked chef Tapia what he would do once the food truck closes for the season at the end of September. "I'm moving to Austria, about an hour outside of Vienna to work at Taubenkobel, another of the World's 50 Best Restaurants. There will be a new chef at this truck next season."
In addition to a new chef, Le Petit Pinche Francés as well as the larger Le Pinche Francés in Ensenada and the express truck will be changing ownership by the end this year as Chabonnes lets someone else take the wheel and he hops behind the wheel of an old Renault to travel the world with his wife. Hopefully, he'll pass on his taste memory to the new owners and chefs as he did with Tapia - and continue the tradition of delivering an authentic French country meal that's truly unforgettable.
The Le Petit Pinche Francés food truck is located on the grounds at Torres Alegre y Familia vineyards. Ejido El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, 22760 Ensenada. Heading north, turn left in the town of El Porvenir toward Adobe Guadalupe, and follow the signs to Torres Alegre y Familia. +52 646 102 9625. www.facebook.com/LePincheFrances. Open Fri - Mon 12:00PM 6:00PM. Closed Tue Thu.