By: Jason Dean- Avant- Garde Weddings
Earlier this year, a chartered bus full of wedding business professionals, (myself included), were invited to experience what I look back fondly on and recall as life on the ranch at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. In my opinion, this place should be respectfully called “La Joya Escondida”, which means The Hidden Jewel. Don’t let the rather obscure iron and stone entrance fool you. The Ranch, it’s staff, the lush gardens and grounds, the tranquility of just being there in the moment and everything about it from start to finish impressed me beyond my highest expectations prior to arrival.
Rancho La Puerta, the original “fitness resort” and spa, welcomes some 140 guests each week to its 3,000 private acres of gardens, mountains, hiking trails and meadows in Baja California, Mexico. All of their facilities and land are for the exclusive use of guests who come for an entire week, (Saturday to Saturday), ensuring the delights of a warm and welcoming shared community. The climate is near perfect; warm and dry, with some showers and cold nights, in winter, and warm with very low humidity and no rain in the summer. Rancho La Puerta is located only about 25 miles “as the crow flies” from the Pacific Ocean, at an elevation of 1,700 feet above sea level.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted and warmly welcomed as if we were family by the sounds of a traditional Banda Mariachi. As the sounds of traditional Mariachi music filled the air, we were led into a courtyard with fountains and a cantina and were invited to treat ourselves to some freshly prepared libations and nibbles straight from the garden to our taste buds. It was truly an arrival fit for royalty. LA COCINA QUE CANTA—THE COOKING SCHOOL AND CULINARY CENTER AT RANCHO LA PUERTA: “The Kitchen That Sings” is a 4,500-square-foot facility set in the midst of a six-acre organic farm. Guests are invited to experience hands-on culinary classes that start with picking the day’s ingredients, and moves on to meal-making cooking classes that combine culinary technique with the joyous camaraderie of working side by side with top chef instructors and fellow guests. The center also hosts complementary learning programs, such as aromatherapy, herbal uses, organic gardening, and much more.
We were introduced to the head of the culinary team at La Cocina que Canta, whose name you’ll find out in my Q & A interview below; but over the course of the next few hours, we were treated to the most healthy and delicious, multi-course, family-style, farm to table feast fit for heads of state.
I was so impressed by the passion, charisma and knowledge for which she has for cooking and food, as well as for sharing and teaching what she’s learned to all that come to the Ranch. For these reasons, I asked her if she’d be willing to share just a bit of her story and be my first featured LGBT business professional. I’m so honored that she agreed.
Q: Where were you born? Grew up?
A: I was born in Mexico City and I grew up in Key Biscayne in Miami, FL.
Q: Have you always had such a strong passion for food/ the culinary arts and at what age did you know you wanted to be a chef?
A: Yes. I knew I wanted to be a chef at age 16. I didn’t like school and cooking came to me naturally.
Q: Who were your mentors or teachers?
A: My mentors were always my parents. My mom’s name is Deborah and my dad’s name is Carlos. My mom is a Montessori school teacher and my dad is a veterinarian. Their unconditional love has made me the person that I am today.
Coincidently, all of the most influential women in my life are named Deborah. Career wise, my mentors are Chef Deborah Schneider and Deborah Szekely [owner and co-founder of Rancho La Puerta]. Chef Deborah is my mentor and she showed me how to have balance – in the kitchen and in life. I worked with her while she was the Executive Chef at the Hilton La Jolla, and I was impressed by the way she elegantly balanced a strong marriage, raising children and her successful career.
Deborah Szekely is a true inspiration inside and outside of the kitchen as well. Deborah has taught me to have balance and in order to have balance, I’ve learned that I have to exercise, breathe, smile, love, drink water, laugh, meditate, dream, listen to music, sleep well, help someone else every day, learn, and believe in something bigger then myself.
Q: Where does your passion for teaching come from?
A: My passion for teaching stems from my belief that everybody deserves the opportunity to learn. When I was young I struggled in school due to a learning disability. I felt frustrated because I was singled out for not being the fastest reader or the best writer. Now, as a teacher I am able to help people who have different learning styles.
Q: How did you turn your love and passion for food into a career?
A: After high school I worked for my dad, who told me every day that unless I had a college degree that I would always have a job I wouldn’t like. I was living in Miami at the time and Johnson and Wales University had just opened up a college of culinary arts in the area. I heard their ads on the radio over and over again and finally decided to go. The minute I walked into the main building on campus I knew I wanted to work with food for the rest of my life. Johnson and Wales, plus my own hard work, gave me the strong foundation I needed to be a successful chef.
Q: From your perspective, how has your profession changed or evolved over the years?
A: When I turned 40, Deborah Szekely gave me the opportunity to work at The Ranch, and I really had no idea what that would mean for my professional mindset. In the last three years of my life, I’ve been able to find balance in my mind, spirit and soul. This has changed my perspective on my job. I used to think that food was just food, but my beliefs have evolved since I started working at The Ranch. Food is incredibly nurturing and fulfilling. Food is integral to who we are. It’s just as important as breathing, family, work and exercise. The better I eat, the better I feel and the better I cook. The more I respect what I eat, the more I respect myself. Eating nutritious food enhances the quality of life.
I also have the privilege of working with Salvador [Salvador Tinajero—Farm Manager of Tres Estrellas] in our six-acre organic farm. I am very fortunate to see the entire lifecycle of each and every plant we have – from seedling to the fresh produce we eat. I now understand what it means to grow food alongside Mother Nature, and this has completely shifted my attitude in the kitchen.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: The best part is living by the philosophies that The Ranch has taught me: making fresh farm-to-table cuisine that is delicious, wholesome and healthy for the mind, body, spirit, heart and community I serve. I love teaching people that healthy eating is celebration of life.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you on the ranch?
A: Every day is completely different based on the guests needs. One thing is for sure. I enjoy my minimum two walks in the garden with Salvador to see what produce is ready to be picked today, tomorrow and what will be available in two weeks. Mother Nature dictates our seasonal menus.
Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: The people I see in my daily life inspire me to do better. The garden inspires me to cook, and my mom and dad inspire me to always be my best.
Q: You’ve got the platform here and now! What are the things that you want to our readers to know about you…. Life…. Love…. and your work?
A: We recently opened La Cocina Que Canta and Tres Estrellas up for local and destination weddings. I cannot think of a more ideal location to get married. There is something magical about this farm and La Cocina, different than anything I have ever experienced before. It has a deep-rooted connection to the earth, to nature. It has fresh air, wildlife. It is physically gorgeous, but it also has its own spirit. There is a sense of peace on this property. Perhaps it is because it is at the base of Mount Kuchumaa, which is a sacred gathering spot for Kumeyaay Indians. Deborah Szekely has called the mountain The Ranch’s “Guardian Angel,” and I know that any union sealed here will be guarded with a lifetime of good health.
A Note from Jason
Naturally, when I was presented with the opportunity to be the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) “voice” for SDSW Magazine, my first thought was Wow! What an amazing opportunity. How exciting! My second thought(s) were what do I have to say? What am I going to write about? That was quickly followed by this voice that came from within me that said, you have been given an opportunity and a platform to be the voice for your community; how are you going to use it to serve a greater good? And what I know for sure about us all is that we just want to know that we are seen and heard by our loved ones, our families, our friends, our colleagues and the everyday world; that our lives, our stories and our experiences matter. So I decided that I would use this column to share with our readers the stories of the many amazingly talented and contributing businessmen and businesswomen of the LGBT community that strive their hardest and work tirelessly to bring something wonderful and creative to their profession, and thus all of our lives as well.