Baja chef competes in prestigious contest

Marcelo Hisaki, owner of the restaurant Amores in Tecate, is among 24 finalists in the Bocuse d’Or competition, which takes place in France this weekend

By Estefany Maya

Chef Marcelo Kenji Hisaki Itaya symbolizes being a Baja Californian: He was born in Mexico City of Japanese descent but has put down roots on this border region, with a local trajectory between Tijuana and Tecate.

These days, the 33-year-old chef is fulfilling what for him has been a dream since childhood.

Hisaki and his support team will represent Mexico at the Bocuse d’Or, the most prestigious international competition in which a chef can participate.

This year, the Bocuse d’Or will take place in Lyon, France, on Sunday and Monday, with 24 international chefs participating.

Hisaki’s journey in fine cuisine began in 2012 when he was awarded a scholarship by the Turquois Foundation in Mexico City to travel to Monaco to complete a French cuisine specialization. There he met his now wife, fellow chef Reyna Venegas, with whom he has run the restaurant Amores, Cocina de Inspiración in Tecate since 2013. Hisaki also teaches at the Culinary Art School in Tijuana.

The rocky road that began as a childhood dream for Hisaki took shape in 2017 when he started to win international awards. He first won the Bocuse d’Or Mexico 2018 competition, then the Bocuse d’Or Americas 2022 in Chile, which would finally qualify him for the Bocuse d’Or France this year.

In this competition, which dates back to 1987 with no Mexican ever winning, the chef with the highest score is awarded a golden statuette of chef Paul Bocuse as well as $21,500.

Once there, Hisaki will have 5 hours and 35 minutes to express in one single menu all of his creativity, innovation and technique.

Hisaki will travel with a 15-member supporting entourage.

The people working alongside Hisaki are Alexis Collaso and Israel Da Silva, who will serve as commis (junior chefs), plus chefs Pepe Salinas and Fernando Martínez, who will provide their expertise as coaches. Also included is fellow Baja California chef Ruffo Ibarra, who will make his debut as part of the Bocuse d’Or jury and will assist as the team’s president. Each team provides a judge for the event, hence why he won’t be cooking.

“There is no more important savory cuisine competition in the world,” Ibarra said, “and we love the fact that Marcelo will represent not only our country but also Baja California, since normally these types of contests remain in central Mexico.”

High-performance cooking

Because of customs regulations and agricultural sector issues, it is very difficult to travel with certain products when entering tourist ports. For example, the slaked lime that Mexico uses to nixtamalize the corn used in its tortillas can not be brought into France, as it is considered a highly toxic chemical. For this reason, Hisaki will travel with 40 kilograms of nixtamalized corn in his suitcase.

“You can execute the same recipe in Mexico and in another country with the same ingredients, but in the end, they will be two different dishes, identifiable by name but not by taste,” says Hisaki.

For this reason, Hisaki flew to France 10 days before the competition to train, get acclimatized, and settle into the kitchen while his team finds the best ingredients and practices the star dish for the umpteenth time.

In this edition, contestants will be asked to cook a hot dish of angler or monkfish with vegetables for 15 diners; angler is a fish known for its unattractive appearance and is not available in Mexico.

“We carry the flag of Baja California a lot, as it is the cuisine where we have the most freedom. One of its characteristics is that it does not have strong cultural roots or tradition, so creativity is broader. It has European and Asian influences, justifying the use of soy sauce or seaweed,” explains Hisaki.

The contestants will also have to prepare a three-course children’s menu that reflects Mexican identity; for this, Hisaki will be inspired by the legend of the rabbit in the moon and Quetzalcoatl’s journey to earth.

Hisaki’s purpose

Fortunately for him, Hisaki always had a clear idea of his ikigai (life purpose). Since he was a child, he has desired to be on the French podium, to give his all not only for personal reasons but also because Mexican cuisine deserves to be in the competition.

“I thought I was going to complete my professional career, but in the end the important thing is to show that Mexico is already one of the greatest international cuisines, and I hope that the following talents will have a space to continue sharing it with the world.”

Maya is a freelancer writer.