Conversation: A Chef Returns To His Border Roots
Only Here / April 8, 2020
Ruffo Ibarra Arellano is a pedigreed chef.
With his resume, he could be working at some of the fanciest Michelin-star restaurants in the world.
But he chose to be here, running a restaurant in Tijuana instead.
Because Ruffo loves his roots.
And he wants his food to be infused with them.
Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic is deeply impacting Ruffo’s work and his restaurant.
It’s impacting all of us. But restaurants are being hit particularly hard.
Ruffo’s team had just finished remodeling the restaurant a couple of weeks before the quarantine became the new normal.
Even as many restaurants layoff a lot of their staff, though, Ruffo and his partners have assured their team that they have their backs.
They’re committed to their safety and well being, even if that means taking a big financial hit.
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Hosted by Alan Lilienthal
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A picture of Ruffo Ibarra Arellano
Ruffo is a pedigreed chef with his resume, he could be working at some of the fanciest Michelin star restaurants in the world, but he chose to be here running a restaurant, empty Quanah instead, because the Rufo loves his roots and he wants his food to be infused with them. His memories of crossing the border to get fast food as a kid of eating his mom's takes on Chinese food and make it, golly, he lets all of those impressions shape his recipes.
At the end of the day. Rufo doesn't care if people think he's the best. He just wants to cook great food and make people happy. In 2015 RUFA opened his restaurant Orix capital, and it's speakeasy North Dakota. And now Rufo and his team are some of the leading voices of the Quanta's new culinary wave.
They're helping reinvent the city's cuisine and establish its reputation as a foodie Haven roof. Love for serving food extends beyond the walls of his [00:01:00] restaurant. He's partnered with local nonprofits to feed thousands of migrants in the Quanta. Obviously the Corona pandemic is deeply impacting Rufus work and his restaurant.
It's impacting all of us, but restaurants are being hit particularly hard. Rufus team had just finished remodeling this restaurant a couple of weeks before the quarantine became the new normal. Even as many restaurants lay off, a lot of their staff though. Rufo and his partners have assured their team that they have their backs, they're committed to their safety and wellbeing.
Even if that means taking a big financial hit.
Rufo welcome to the show via Mineo. Many people have no idea what they want to do in life. Some never even find out. But you, you it to be a chef since you were eight years old. Well, I don't know if I knew I wanted to be a chef per se, but, um, I was in the kitchen by the age of [00:02:00] eight.
I was already in the kitchen by myself. I mean, basic stuff. But everything revolved around the kitchen. There's no professional cooks in my and my family. I was the first crazy one to actually pursue this as a profession. What sparked that love for cooking? Do you remember? Was it the flavors, the actual eating?
Was it being around your mom. I think number one was being around my mom. But yes, definitely flavors and aromas have always been interesting to me, and that's something that, that I haven't let go. Like I'm, I'm like a little kid. If I'm very curious. So if I'm in the wilderness and I see a Bush, I smell it, I smell the leaves, and I always try to.
Imagine that if it, if has a good smell in a dish. So yeah, it's, it's, it's all the above, but for sure it's always the family, uh, tied to it. And what was the food scene in the Quanta like back in those days? Did you go out to eat a lot with your family? I mean, we did that. We ate a lot at home. My mom's a [00:03:00] very good cook.
Um, I mean, not everything was from scratch, but every, she made everything tastes good. I know everybody must say this, but I actually had cousins come to our place because they wanted to eat like my mom's spaghetti or my mom's a Chinese food. There's a big Chinese influence here in the state of, uh, of Baja because of when, um, a Chinese colony came here to build railroads and there's, there's a lot of influence.
So we would have very random eclectic dishes in our house. Did you cross the border at all when you were growing up? I've crossed the border since. I can remember since I was the baby. I even remember my first permit or card that had my, I had my baby phase put till I was like 10 it hadn't still had my baby face.
As soon as I was in Tijuana, I was wanting to Kigali, but I was here before I was one. As soon as I got to Tijuana, I'm pretty sure I was crossing already. And obviously now a lot of people are crossing into Tijuana for [00:04:00] food, for food tourism. Dwana is very popular now. Do you remember what it was like where people crossing for food or what was, what was the, the kind of food vibe in the cross border region?
Well, not, not back in the day. Back in the day, uh, we as Mexicans on this, at the border in Tijuana, we would cross the San Diego. To do all our shopping, clothes, toys, and food. We would go to price club, which is now Costco or other stores and get, get our produce there and then cross the border. We would get vegetables and that stuff here locally because it was fresh and cheaper, but everything else we would get in the States and the people from the States would come to Mexico, especially like downtown Tijuana or Rosarito and it's another like hops in me.
It was like a party city. Anything. Anything you couldn't do in the States you would do at the one at Rosarito and Sonata, but especially between 18 and 21. All right. And you moved to San Diego [00:05:00] for a little while, right? In high school? I was in high school for a little bit in San Diego. Why? Why did you move?
Why did you move there? I always had this attachment to, to the States. I don't know. Um, this, you know, American dream. I don't know if I, I thought about it that way when I was a kid. But I grew up watching a TV and English. Our local TV stations were mostly American because of the range. We will only get a couple of Mexican channels here in Tijuana, and I grew up, you know, watching saved by the bell, fresh Prince from Belair.
Even Sesame street, not less accessible. So, so I was, I was, I was very intrigued and very into American culture from a very young age. And I remember, I, uh, they would put on, I would fall asleep. So, um, I grew up, I was in junior high here in Tijuana. Uh, some of my best years. Uh, in school and I decided to, I wanted to go to the States.
[00:06:00] It wasn't easy for my family cause I was going to take a brother that, that was a year younger than I, and we would stay at a. At a house that belonged to my dad's friend. has a very unique position in that it has access to not only cultures within TaeKwonDo, but obviously being able to cross and have access to a whole different world.
How do you think being able to cross from such a young age and explore all these different worlds in different, in a different way that people from other parts of Mexico don't really get to do? How did that influence you, your perspective and your cooking? Well, it becomes. It becomes a region. We don't think about it that way when we were growing up, because it's the normal, back in the day, I didn't have a lot of friends that I knew from like Mexico city or or any other place, and it was a, it was a normal for us, especially because also in Mexico we're not considered like Mexican Mexicans.
I don't know if it makes sense. We're so far away from everybody else. [00:07:00] Our culture is. It's just, it's like the border, you know, it's the biggest border crossing in the world. And that's us. We are a mixture of, of, of cultures. We have, uh, obviously different, different Mexicans. And when I say different Mexicans is, Mexico can be like five different countries.
It's so different from Yucatan to Monterey. Wherever LA. Um, when I cruise a Sonora and it, it, it just changes the food changes incredibly. So we were detached from all of that, and we were a lot more, a lot closer to, let's say, San Diego, but also LA, you know, Hollywood, Disneyland, uh, Las Vegas, San Francisco.
It's, they're a lot closer than Mexico city. Fast food was big back in the day. Before it really hit me, a Mexico. So, uh, you know, the burger scene, uh, the pizza. All these fast food joints, hot dogs, and [00:08:00] whatever were or big when I was kid, and that's all he wanted to eat. And there was a point here in Tijuana where the food trucks that started coming up was a, a blend of what we used to think of junk food, but with quality products.
It's this willingness to experiment with things other chefs might scarf at. That gives the Quanta, it's unpretentious deliciousness. The fact that it has no ties to longstanding food traditions like the rest of Mexico. Gave chefs like Rufo the Liberty to really try anything.
When did he start formally training to be a chef? Well, when I was 17 I told my dad I wanted to be a chef. It is a good story cause I was like that. I know what I want to study. And he's like, great. So I was like, let's go to grand bistro, which was, um, at the grand hotel, do you wanna which is across the street from [00:09:00] Orix right now.
And we sat down and I was like, that. I want to be a chef.
So, Ruffo’s family knew he loved food and cooking...but when the 17-year-old sat his dad down to tell him he wanted to seriously pursue his dream and become a chef, his dad didn’t take the news well.
And I remember his face like it just dropped in in shock cause my dad's an accountant is he? He's worked his whole life. He came from and all that when he was 13 and he was a janitor photo for a liquor store. Then he was the cashier for the liquor store and he paid his, his studies.
And became an accountant, that accountant for the store, then got into a firm then, then, uh, opens his, his firm, then got into politics. So I had like a big, big shadow over me with the same name. And I told him I wanted to be a chef and he's like, you gotta be, you gotta be crazy. Like this is already laid out for you.
You already know my clients and my friends. And you actually good at this because we would do exercises or whatnot. When I was in junior high and, and it was easy for me, but, but so boring. Uh, I'm [00:10:00] very hyperactive, so yeah, I would never picture myself behind a desk for more than three hours to see just how badly Rufo really wanted this or maybe to try to dissuade them from it.
Rufus dad got him a job at a classic Italian restaurant in San Diego. But his day job wasn't and his dad wouldn't let him quit. So every day roofer would work in dequava Quanta from 6:30 AM to three drive to San Diego, work at the restaurant from 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM then drive back and do it all over again.
17 years old and doing almost 20 hour days. Me through through hell. There I was. I was very ecstatic. I learned a lot and. After like four months. He's like, okay, I believe you. I believe you want to do this. Let's start looking for a school. Wow. That's, I mean, apart from those crazy hours, it seems from the outside, like being a chef in general, it can be super high pressure [00:11:00] as a job.
Was there ever a time during those days or later that you thought you might want to go into a different career? I don't know if I, I wanted to go into a different career. But, uh, there definitely were definitely days that I was like a while, why am I doing this? Like, it's so many hours. My back was killing me, my feet were swollen, and I was like, I.
I wanted to give up. I didn't, but I was very close and I'm pretty sure this goes through most cooks minds at some point. Hmm, sure, sure. Yeah. Like I mentioned before, you, you've had the privilege, I guess, of working at a, uh, several Michelin rated restaurants, and you've learned under some of the best chefs in the world, like, cause who Sanchez in Spain and Massimo Bottura in Italy.
What do you think it is about you. As a person or you're cooking that allowed those doors to open for you? Uh, one of my philosophies in life or, or the way I like [00:12:00] to, to approach life, uh, is just being as humane as possible. Be as humble as possible. I mean, we all get distracted every once in awhile, but I was raised to be, to be hardworking and humble.
Uh, with high moral values. And I think that opens a lot more doors than, than just talents by itself. I've always been very competitive also. So whenever I set foot anywhere, I would try to be the best, try to be the first one there, try to be the cleanest, trying to be the, the absolute best I could do and then be.
As open as I could to learn everything and just get immersed into that world I was stepping into because we think we know it all right? And we step in and we try to show off. I think that's the wrong approach. I know. If you remember from elBulli. [00:13:00] Uh, one of the biggest chefs in the world. And he used to say, whenever a new season came in, it's like, don't come in thinking you know, something, because none of us do.
This is all new for all of us. This is a new menu. This is a new service. So just try to adapt and, and absorb all the information you can as fast as possible and be as precise as possible. And I, and I think that's how I approach. Everything. If I walk into a kitchen, I don't know, then I don't assume I know anything.
I just ask whatever I need to ask, write it down. So I don't ask it twice cause I know the, the path that bat goes. Uh, I don't know how that goes. Um, but yes, it's hard work an d, and, and making friends, man, uh, you never know who's, who's gonna, who's gonna help you in the long run. So you might as well be nice to everybody.
After working in Spain and doing a stint in San Diego [00:14:00] under fame, chef caveated Placentia RUFA opened his restaurant in Tijuana in 2015 a year and a half later, he was invited to do an apprenticeship under Massimo Bottura, the world famous chef and owner of Osteria Francesca. In Italy, though Arctics was still a baby learning to walk.
Rufo and his team were able to figure out a way to make it work. It was the learning opportunity of a lifetime, and he knew that being at what was then the number one rated restaurant in the whole world would make his own restaurant that much better. And he was right.
I evolved the restaurant after being after I was with Masimo because I, I noticed how, how the culture is his culture.
His roots were very. Very deep in his, in his menu, in his approach, uh, to service everything was, was an experience. And it was specifically for the, for the, the client. It wasn't, it wasn't about the food. And then that moved me a lot, uh, because I, like I said, I'm, I'm all about service. Helping others, um, and, and cooking for others and making other people happy.
And that's the biggest thing I learned at . Franchescana it wasn't about, yeah, all these techniques in one dish, it was about making people happy. If a client wanted to go into the kitchen, they could. And as soon as they walked in, if they wanted a photo. Uh, one of the sous chefs, uh, or the chef, the party would go a photo and then everybody from every single station would stop.
Like the pastry chefs would come out, everybody would come out to take that [00:16:00] photo and thank them personally, and then everybody would rush back to the station and get service running again. So imagine a three Michelin star basketball best restaurant in the world, stopping for a photo. It was just nuts for me.
So I wanted to come back and do that and just like give back to all the people that walked in our door now with a warmth that I learned since I was a kid from my mom and my grandma after having so many opportunities. Open for you. What was it about coming back to the Quanta? Even going back to when you did open the restaurant, what was it about to quantum that made you want to open here as opposed to, I don't know, cause back in those days wasn't celebrated as a food city like it is now.
What made you not want to maybe open it in Mexico city or maybe somewhere in the States? What was it about the Quanta that really made you be like, no, this is where I'm doing it. The roots [00:17:00] roots being proud of where you're from. Um, I'm not from Mexico city. I've gotten offers from, from different cities in Mexico and the States.
But it was very important to, to make a statement in my hometown, um, to surround myself with family, with friends, and get, get those roots really deep and strong who we are, our identity. Became clear or clear because I was, I was still still young ish, and, and it's, it's not easy to, to come to an identity, to, to a very clear identity when you're starting at least as a restaurant owner or a restaurant tour, it, it's, it's a different ballgame.
There's something that I love to trigger. Um, with my cooking
\…….. and that's memory. Um, nostalgia. [00:18:00] I used to have a, an alphabet soup in the menu and everybody was like, alphabet soup. Are you, are you kidding me, chef? Like this, like this I can make in my house or my mom makes it, and I'm like, exactly. Like, I want to trigger that.
It's not, it's not, uh, uh, us, they, or like some other few they, or like, you know, or it's chicken noodle. It's. It's alphabet soup. As soon as you see those letters, you would immediately go back to like grandma's or moms or your aunts and, and the, the only way I could do it is starting where I learned everything, which was here.
Man. I haven't had one of those alphabet soups in decades. That's crazy. If I serve you one, you'd be like, Oh my God, this reminds me like being in my, yeah, exactly. I'd dude it. I'd be so happy. Yeah, I know. I know. I really wouldn't be an LCO. You the truth, that was also the hardest dish to nail because it had [00:19:00] competition in every house.
so everybody, which I knew everybody was going to. Just critique it and, and, and, and, and, and find something wrong with it because it wasn't their moms or their grandmas or were their whatevers. So getting to that mid point of every recipe, it's like me. It's like, yeah, more than a couple of tries, but I was, when, when we, when we had it, everybody that tried that alphabet soup walked in and immediately ordered it.
That's awesome. How does it feel to have seen the Quana. Transform from not being a food capital at all, to now being kind of revered for its food scene. It's a very emotional thing for me and for, for a lot of people here in Tijuana, because as we all remember, unfortunately, 2007 2000 through 2009 we went through one of the worst moments [00:20:00] in, in history here in Tijuana with the violence.
And, and there obviously it got, it got rid of all the tourism. So it wasn't a party city, it was a ghost town. It was really tough. It was really, really, really, really tough. So what happened was, um, everywhere, every business that started, uh, growing or opening after, after those, those tough years. Uh, there were, there, there was dots there, there would made for locals.
They were made for like if you opened a torta shop or a taco shop, or, um, my boutique, it was for your family, for your friends. So you were a lot more thoughtful of every detail because you wanted to be proud of that business. So we, we all. Changed this city. We took the city back making it for locals when it [00:21:00] wasn't, and then, and then the tourists started taking notice of this and then appreciating it, appreciating it.
And then visiting us for that, which was a lot better. Our tourism changed. It wasn't, it wasn't a party city anymore. It was more of, I want to go there and I want to eat and I want to have some cocktails and I'll come back. So there was a saying back in the day, uh, the best thing of the, uh, about the hanai San Diego, and now I think it's the other way around.
I agree. I actually saw it on a shirt like a year ago. It said, uh. The best part of San Diego is the one. Yeah. That said, because back in the day it was the other way around. Sure. I'm curious how Tiguan has history, obviously Kwan is very unique in that it was kind of created for America, almost like as an American playground in the prohibition era in the 1920s when people couldn't drink in America, they would, they would come over to Tijuana to get drunk.
Um, how has that history shaped or influenced Orix [00:22:00] or it's speakeasy. That's right next to it in North eco. Well, it, it, it fully, um, inspired the speakeasy being being a local kid and knowing that the golden era of the, one of the golden age was while prohibition was going on in the States, uh, that culture was, was everything for it.
Do you want to, that's when the economy started growing and. With the casino and all these, these urban legends and stories behind all the bars and casinos and the city. So I want, I want it to, to make an old modge to that era.
So that's why the whole bar like this, the ceiling, the floor, everything's covered in gold, like the golden days, like the golden days, roaring twenties 2.0 the 20s started Peter pretty rough.
Uh, hopefully, hopefully we get there. Yeah, I mean, it's only the first year. We have time. Hopefully. Hopefully we turn it [00:23:00] around. Yeah, it actually is a good transition. I wanted to ask about how, how this, this pen, this Corona pandemic and the quarantine is affecting the way you run your restaurant and the way you're going to run your restaurant in the coming in the foreseeable future.
Well, a short term. We, we turned a a newly renovated restaurant. We had just renovated everything. I was working on a new menu, working on a tasting menu for the first time, making it more like a lot more off scale. We turned that into a to go and pick up restaurant with more comfort food in a week. And, and I think that's gonna that's gonna work for probably two more weeks and we'll have to evolve again because, uh, we are at least three weeks behind you guys.
Three to four weeks behind the, the, the [00:24:00] people in the States, everything has been very slow. Uh. But non-strategic and it's gonna. It's gonna have really, really big consequences. And the, the, the, the time that, I don't know, countries like Spain, Italy, that are going through really tough times, and it's, it looks like it's going to be like a four month hold for Mexico.
I think it's going to, it can make me be even more so we definitely have to evolve. I'm working on giving classes online. We're going to sell the. We're going to be working with our local farmers and all, everything's organic, all the beautiful produce that we get, and we're going to sell the baskets, the recipe baskets already so they can have a private class with me online.
Afloat. Yeah. [00:25:00] Yeah. I mean, and that's all being donated to my staff too, to having them in their homes. Um, and we're very strict about that too. Like they can't leave. We sent, uh, 70% of our staff to their homes and they can't leave their homes will, and the staff that's actually working with us, um.
We, we bring him to the restaurant, we'll be picked them up. We drop them back home, and we are, we were taking very good care of them. Everybody's getting paid. Uh, I have a great, great group of people working with us, so we're trying to help them, uh, um, as much as possible. But we, we definitely need to be very creative in, in how to get the resources to them.
not just school, but they, they got to pay the brands. They got to pay services. I mean, it's, [00:26:00] it's hard for everybody. So we're trying to make it as, uh, as easy as possible through like through, through this whole pandemic. Right? Yeah. A lot of people, I know, friends of mine that work in the service industry are worried because the places that they work at, it doesn't feel like they have their backs.
It seems like you really are wanting to make it seem like, I want people to feel like it's a team and that, that, that. That you do have their backs. Well, they, they, they, they've always had mine. Hmm. There's no way I would've been able to be at Osteria Francescana, uh, cook, uh, and then have, be at an interview at the Superbowl or cook at, um, South beach food and wine this year.
What Teleflora and st Jose Andres, like, there's. There's no way I would've been able to do so many things in the past years if I didn't have, if they didn't have my back. So I, the very least that I can do is my best to make sure, um, I can take care of them at this point. Uh, it's beautiful. And, uh, how do [00:27:00] you think, you had mentioned that you think this will drastically shift the way restaurants and the restaurant industry is run in the coming years?
Uh, can you expand on that a little bit to me? It's, right now we're trying to survive so we can plan ahead. But we definitely have to think about a luxury. The luxury market is going to be very, very, very small, so I think we're going to try and do special things at lower costs. Thinking about everything.
Every business owner today knows so much more about running a business than we did. Two months ago. So I think we're going to be a lot smarter about how we run things, how we train staff from the high need, a hygiene point of view all the way to how we operate. Are you guys at Orix doing anything to, to help the other thousands [00:28:00] of migrants in Tijuana who, who are especially vulnerable right now?
So we work with two organizations with, this is about humanity, which is based in LA, and they help families that have been separated at the border and unaccompanied minors. And we work with a world central kitchen who's a host Andreas in Nate's organization, and they feed in in what we're, whenever there's a.
Uh, chaos in the world. Any, any, any big situation. There's always a team from both central kitchen helping feed people without asking. So, uh, we work with them. They have a kitchen, Wilson little kitchen here in Tijuana, feeds I think six shelters. And then this is about humanity, helps with funds specifically for some of those shelters and or world central kitchen.
To to feed. So we, uh, we do, [00:29:00] um, fundraisers in LA for these events and whenever we can, when that kitchen, unfortunately with would these times it's been super complicated because, because there can only be so many people in that kitchen and it's feeding 1200 people daily outside of the restaurant. How is this pandemic affecting you personally?
Uh, um, yeah, that, that, that hits the spot. Um, definitely not being able to be with my son cause, um, my son lives with his mom and with his grandma and, and we, we are very, very, um, cautious and we're, we're trying to be as responsible as possible. And even though it, it, it hurts a lot not to be with your son, especially the type of relationship that I have with him.
Which is very, very close. And we are, we're very alike. We're very similar. Um, it's hard cause I know it's also hard for [00:30:00] him. Um, so that I think, I think I can overcome almost everything. Else economically, we'll work it out. Like I'll, I'll, um, I think I'm creating creative enough to where I can manage everything else.
But being away from my kid that that definitely has, has, is a toll. And this just started, so I, I can't even imagine how it's going to feel not having him. Clothes or being, I mean, I can, I can see him at a certain distance, but not being able to just hug him and give him a kiss or play with him. That's, that's just heartbreaking.
Yeah. I can't imagine. I really hope you get to see him soon. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Well, roofer, thank you so much for the interview. I can't wait to come try the alphabet soup when this quarantine is over. I'll bring it back. I'll definitely bring it back. I, I think [00:31:00] people need that, that, um, that comfort these days.
I think it's, it's time to be very empathetic. It's time to be, uh. Strong, and, and think about others. Uh, there's still Mexico, a lot of people that, that are not taking this, this pandemic seriously, these measures. Seriously, they're outside their home. And I would hate for them to like go through a rough time, them or one of their family members or friends because of negligence. [00:32:00] .
“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.