Learning to Cook in Todos Santos, Mexico
On the Baja Peninsula, Chef Iker Algorri Camacho teaches travellers about the most important ingredient in his Mexican classics: love.
WestJet Magazine, August 2019
I peer into the saucepan of hot corn oil waiting, tongs in hand, for the right moment to remove the fresh totopos, corn tortilla chips. “Make sure they’re brown, like after two days in the sun, then shake off the oil,” Chef Iker Algorri Camacho instructs me. When my fledgling chips approximate the tan I hope to get on my Mexican vacation, I pull them out and give them a rigorous rattle. Without missing a beat, Algorri Camacho blasts “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band, and his six cooking students—myself and teenage daughter included—do a little shimmy.
We’re gathered in the kitchen inside Iker’s Colibris Cafe in Todos Santos to learn how to make homemade tortilla chips, fresh guacamole and rajas de poblano con crema, a dish of onions and poblano peppers simmered in rich cream sauce and served over rice.
For the adults, there’s an endless pitcher of margaritas blended with Algorri Camacho’s secret ingredient, Damiana, an herbal liqueur that helps get us into the cooking—and dancing—spirit.
Our gregarious host, author of Cooking Adventures in Baja California Sur, is a patient teacher who peppers our class with cooking tips. He shows us how to slice avocados crossways with two spoons, instead of mashing them with a fork, to ensure optimal chunkiness for our fresh guacamole.
He’s also eager to share the unconventional story of what motivated him to trade a job as a federal agent for an uncertain career in the culinary arts.
“I love food and I love cooking,” Algorri Camacho explains while measuring out margarita ingredients for round two. The irony, in Algorri Camacho’s case, is that his mother didn’t like to cook.
“I always joke that, with my mom, it was like an eternal picnic day. So it was tuna salad, sandwiches, burritos, something really simple.”
Fate intervened when Algorri Camacho was nine. An Indigenous woman from Tlaxcala state knocked on the family’s door in Mexico City looking for work. His mom hired her to help around the house—and to cook. She made traditional food such as chipotle meatballs, chile rellenos and mole, a spicy, chocolaty paste typically served over meat.
“I started to fall in love with the flavours,” says Algorri Camacho, who began to recreate the dishes and add his own flair to them.
In 1983, he moved to Baja California Sur to finish high school. He worked in various government roles around the peninsula as a motor vehicle inspector, tax agent and translator. But he never forgot his first love: food.
Ready for a new challenge, Algorri Camacho opened a small café in Todos Santos in 2000. Back then, the tiny town, located an hour’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast, was no more than a mission, the iconic Hotel California, and a collection of towering palms that seemed out of place against the rocky, cactus-strewn landscape of the surrounding desert.
“I liked this town. I can’t explain,” he says. “It was a small, small town, but it was something that trapped me.”
Over the years, a growing wave of surfers, yogis and foodies, looking for more offbeat Baja experiences, also became enraptured by Todos Santos. Soon, farms growing strawberries, cantaloupes, zucchinis and cilantro sprouted up in neighbouring village of El Pescadero. More restaurants soon joined the burgeoning food scene. And there are now more than 50 eateries in the town, which boasts a population of 6,500, Algorri Camacho says.
Increased tourism led Algorri Camacho to open a new location for his café, and he began making what he calls “simple food.” Around the same time in 2002, he also forged a partnership with Todos Santos Eco Adventures. The tour company was looking to add a more sedate activity to counterbalance its roster of horseback riding, surfing and snorkelling trips. They decided on small-group cooking classes, like this one I am taking part in, where an ever-changing menu reflects guests’ diets and seasonal ingredients.
Algorri Camacho closed Café Brown in 2014 after Hurricane Odile and moved over to Iker’s Colibris Cafe, the on-site restaurant at the Los Colibris Casitas hotel, where he runs the café and hosts regular cooking classes.
Now, nearly 20 years into his new career, the mostly self-taught chef still loves cooking and teaching. He continues to source organic produce from local farmers and fresh seafood from fishermen, but the main ingredient, he maintains, is love.
“I do not say ‘love’ like a cliché,” he explains. “I mean, for me, when I cook with somebody, I’m not cooking for clients or guests. I’m cooking for members of a new grown family.”
By the end of our evening with Algorri Camacho—three margaritas and numerous heaping mouthfuls of guac-and-chips later—we’ve turned from strangers into a food-loving family. We laugh like old friends, share stories around the dinner table, and dance unabashedly to “Shake Your Booty.”