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Queen of Baja Cuisine
Jerry Hicks | Photo: Robert Benson | March 7, 2014
Deborah Schneider wrote her own culinary story, and it’s all about the food of Mexico.
Foodies know chef Deborah Schneider as the culinary artist who wows us with her healthful gourmet Mexican cuisine at Newport’s Sol Cocina (solcocina.com) and, now, her new Solita Tacos and Margaritas in Surf City. (She opened Sol Mexican Cocina in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2012.) How—and why—did she come to concentrate on Mexican fare? Read on to find out.
How does someone named Schneider wind up specializing in Mexican food? I’ve been in kitchens with a lot of Mexican workers, and I loved hearing about family recipes. Plus my husband and I would travel down the coast of Baja—he’s very much into surfing-so I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico. And you loved the food? I really love the Mexican culture. I’m a nut on culinary history, and Mexico has such a rich story. And I loved the coastal food on those trips. It tasted like home to me. You were a writer before you were a professional chef… I was a magazine editor in Canada. The Toronto Blue Jays, the Winnipeg Jets hockey team, the Canadian Opera—I ran their magazines and many others. But I hated office work, and I’ve always loved cooking. We had a garden on the farm where I grew up-it had been in our family dating back to 1820. We ate everything fresh. Then I had a chance to train with Beverly Burge, who had been an assistant to the great chef Anne Willan. It was a six-month, accelerated Le Cordon Bleu course. You worked aboard yachts at first, right? Many private luxury yachts—in Europe, Florida, the Caribbean. So how’d you end up in California? I came to San Diego in the ’80s to meet up with a guy who wasn’t as serious about me as I thought. But soon after, I met the man who’s now my husband. I started working in French and Italian restaurants, became head chef at the Hilton Torrey Pines and then head of dining at the Del Mar racetrack. How’d your first restaurant come about? One of my partners read a cookbook I’d written and asked if I’d like to go into business. It was called ¡Baja! Cooking on the Edge. Is each restaurant unique? Newport and Scottsdale were influenced by coastal Baja—a lot of seafood dishes. But Solita is more like mainland Mexico, with a lot of food over wood grills. The sauces are a little different. A lot of rotisserie chicken, slowly simmered. We use oak and charcoal on our grills. And you say this is all healthy? That’s right. Everything is from scratch. Very little is fried. Name something we’d love. A tequila shrimp and avocado sundae—it’s got chipotle, lime juice and salsa fresca; a creamy avocado sauce with blanco, a white tequila; all served in a sundae glass. People love it.