Cabo San Lucas locals need no introduction to Alcaravea Gourmet, or to the face of the restaurant, Enrique Díaz. The downtown eatery and its extroverted owner-chef have been fixtures of the local fine dining scene for over a decade, serving up superb Italian and other Mediterranean style specialty dishes at exceedingly budget-friendly prices.
Díaz himself is instantly recognizable, always formally attired in white jacket, apron and trademark toque when he greets diners, which he unfailingly does with everyone who visits the restaurant. The Chef’s attention to detail and warm personality inform every aspect of Alcaravea Gourmet, from the service staff, who are among the best in Los Cabos, to the fine food and bohemian boutique atmosphere.
There are no other restaurants in Los Cabos with entrances garlanded by trained vines and flowers, with such an eclectic art collection, or that are as likely to play Edith Piaf as traditional Mexican balladeers. Alcaravea Gourmet is sui generis, one of a kind…just like its talented owner-chef.
I recently sat down and spoke to Chef Díaz about his journey to Cabo San Lucas, the history of Alcaravea Gourmet, and the art of creating a distinctive fine dining atmosphere.
Can you share a bit of your story with our readers, Chef? Where were you born? How did you become interested in cooking?
I was born in Mexico City, but when I was eight years old my dad took us to another city, because Mexico City was growing really fast at that time, and he saw the future and didn’t think it was going to be the best place for us as a family. So we moved to Toluca, which at that time was still somewhat small, but is now also a big city.
My dad was an accountant, but he also used to love restaurants. He was passionate about the restaurant business, and he started a career in restaurant administration. He learned to cook…he wasn’t a chef…but he learned all about food and beverage management. He studied it all, and became a specialist in helping restaurants that were not working very well.
I didn’t want to be in the business, originally. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I was thinking about studying communications. Then my dad retired, and he and my mom opened their own restaurant. I was still very young, but I started to work with them. My sisters and my whole family were involved in this restaurant. It turned out to be very successful. It was open for over 30 years in Toluca, serving really good Mexican food.
The first time I was in the kitchen and held a knife, I felt very comfortable. I started talking with my parents about recipes, but I wasn’t serious yet. Then I went to Ensenada. I had some family there, had vacationed there, and decided to stay for awhile. What made me decide to stay was at that time I didn’t speak English very well, and I was motivated to learn. But also it was a very beautiful place. It was totally different than what I knew, and I liked that. So I stayed and went to the university to learn English.
But I also had to work. That was my real beginning. I started working as a bus boy…I wasn’t fluent enough to be a waiter, and serve the many Americans that came in…but eventually ended up in the kitchen. The owner was half French, half Mexican. She was a master of the kitchen, and it was through her that I started to become really passionate about quality, preparation, all of the important aspects of cooking. I had been passionate, too, working with my family, but it was working at this restaurant in Ensenada that I became consumed with the craft and the creative possibilities. When I returned to Mexico City, I knew I was going to become a chef.
You started formal culinary training?
I studied at the culinary academy, and then I had the chance to start working in hotels, and also to travel in Europe. At that time I had friends in Italy and France. I loved Europe, and discovered a passion for the different cultures. At that time, many years ago, French food was considered the standard of excellence, and so when I returned to Toluca I decided to open a French restaurant, called Francachela. The restaurant was successful, but the partnership I had formed to start the business wasn’t. So I ended moving to Toronto, Canada, where once again I had an opportunity to study English.
This time I ended up working in Toronto’s Little Italy. At the beginning of my career I worked for years with Italians, and that’s how I learned to cook Italian food. We originally started here, at Alcaravea Gourmet, with international food and a few fusions. We had a prix fixe menu, different every day…sort of like what we do for lunch now. For example, there would be one Mexican dish, one Spanish, one French, one Italian, etc. But people responded to the Italian food more than anything else, and that’s really why it started to become such a big part of our menu.
How did you get from Toronto to Cabo San Lucas?
When I spent two years in Toronto, I was married. She was Mexican also, but she had worked in Toronto before, and she helped motivate me to want to move up there. I developed a really good relationship with the owner of the restaurant where I was working, a very real friendship. So I was going to have some great opportunities.
But at a certain point my wife wanted to come back to México. The weather up there was cold much of the time, and we had just had a child, and I think she felt a little homesick. She had studied in the tourism industry, and at that time had some friends in Cabo. They were telling her to move here. Ten years ago, of course, this place was booming. It was before the economic recession slowed everything down.
One day she asked me, “Do you want to stay here in Toronto?” I said “Yes, I would like to stay.” Well, she wanted to leave, and of course I wasn’t going to stand in the way if that was what she really wanted. I was going to support my family. I started researching Cabo and became really excited about what I learned, so we moved here in 2006.
How soon after moving here did you open Alcaravea Gourmet?
I had been living in Toronto, which is an expensive city, and I couldn’t believe at first how expensive it was here. We were living in an expensive neighborhood when we arrived, and I was surprised how much everything cost. I’d be having a taco, and be shocked at how much it cost. I went to the market, and food was a little high, but I didn’t understand why dining out cost so much at that time. It was mainly taquerías and fast food. I wanted to do something healthy, something different, something more affordable.
I talked to people and they told me that if I wanted to open something I need to do it in the tourist area. I thought the best thing to do then was to go and work for a hotel, but then I saw a small place, asked about the rent, and it wasn’t that expensive. It was a tiny place, with a fraction of the space we have now, but it was only a few blocks from the main road. I decided to do it, and I did. Since the beginning we’ve had a lot of people come, and they always appreciated that we had very good food, but we were also very affordable, with really reasonable prices.
At the time Derrick and Anastasia Grahn were the owners of this place. They had the Hangout Café here, and there were some other small shops as well, including a beauty shop. Maybe 10 years before then, there was a bus depot, too. Anyway, in those days Derrick and Anastasia published a magazine called Cabo Noche (later Cabo Social), and they had the magazine office upstairs. After we had been open six months or so, they decided to move to a larger building about a block away. Derrick wanted me to take over his space here. I didn’t really have the money, but he told me not to worry, that we’d work something out. And we did.
It was very challenging. We didn’t really even have a wine list back then, just a few bottles from domestic producers. We didn’t have a liquor license for awhile. But we stayed focused, kept the quality high, and kept putting everything back into the business. It was a simple place, but we had a smile for everyone. We were on a mission. We grew into the space, and kept the focus on the food and service.
Speaking of service, you have one of the best wait staffs in Los Cabos. How much training do you do with your people?
Well, you just saw people leaving after training. Typically, we have a training session about once a week. Sometimes twice. It depends. The important thing is that we’re always looking for opportunities to get better. Next week, for example, we’re going to be training with some baristas from Starbucks, to help upgrade our coffee service.
Those things help, but the key to our food and service is how long some of our staff have been here. There are people who have been with us from the very beginning. Two of our cooks just finished culinary school, young people, who are comfortable with us because we treat them well, and offer opportunities to learn and advance.
One of the things I always try to do is to identify the strengths and skills of my people, and to put them in advantageous positions. Sometimes a person might be very good at something and not even know it. You have to let them know, and also help them explore and improve in other areas. At the beginning I had two cooks in pastry. That’s all they thought they could do. I had to show them that they could do so much more, and they have. One has been here eight years, the other nine. I’m very proud of them.
In the beginning I didn’t have a lot of tools, so our strength had to be our staff.
Were you the only place in the neighborhood making Italian food in 2006?
Yes, there was nobody else. I was out front in my toque, my apron, my jacket. I used to be out there every night with food on a tray, telling people “Try this! I’m the Chef here. I just came from Canada.” It took some time. People are sometimes reluctant to try something different. But we kept growing, and I made a lot of friends. For example, there’s a lady bringing a big party in later, 25 people. She was one of my first customers. She doesn’t come all the time, but she recommends us to a lot of people, and we get some big parties that way.
You have a passionate local following. I would imagine a lot of your new business is from recommendations. True?
It was the local people who first brought the tourists. They brought them in. They saw that visitors wanted to try something different at a reasonable price. We had to make a decision at that time, because we had very little staff. Tourists didn’t really want to come for lunch, but for dinner. So we closed for lunch because I didn’t have the people or the money for two shifts.
The locals didn’t like that, of course. They said: “Oh, you’re like everyone. You start doing business with tourists and you forget about the locals.” I said, “No, be patient. We’re growing.” Then three years ago in the summer we opened for lunch again, and it’s been a fantastic success ever since.
You have what I think is the best lunch deal in town (soup or salad, entrée with pasta or veggies, plus a dessert and drink, all for under $10), and an air-conditioned dining area that’s like an oasis during the summer months. Are you working on anything new for lunch?
We’ve been doing great offering five or six choices per day, but I think we’re also going to have an à la carte menu. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been successful with, but there are regulars who would like some consistent options.
So it will be a little bit like the situation with the dinner menu when you first opened. You’ll gradually figure out what exactly people like and tailor the menu accordingly.
Exactly. We’re analyzing what is working. This season we broke records with how many people we’ve had.
That has to be rewarding, particularly how difficult last season was after the destruction from Hurricane Odile.
Well, you remember the damage we had here, particularly in the back dining area. But we were very lucky, and ultimately were able to reopen only 26 days after the hurricane. And we were very lucky to have loyal locals who supported us when the tourists had not come back yet. They didn’t really return until December, nearly three months after the storm. So that helped a lot, and it was a very special time in the community. Everyone helped each other.
It was also really emotional. Everyone felt it. We would see people every year here, and of course we were friendly but maybe didn’t say too much. But this situation gave us a new perspective and feeling of gratitude. It strengthened our friendships and relationships in the community, and with the people who return to Alcaravea whenever they visit Cabo. Now, we have a stronger connection with our clientele than ever before.
When we saw the city afterwards we thought it was going to take months and months and months, but it was very fast. The military and CFE were our heroes.
One of the things I love about Alcaravea Gourmet is the ambiance: the climbing vines, the eclectic artwork, the great background music. It’s a mix of Mexican and European influences. What was the inspiration or the idea behind the atmosphere you’ve created here?
I love art. Every time I travel I get some new ideas. Once I was traveling for a month and a half all over the Mediterranean. I went everywhere in the region: Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, and Greece. I particularly loved Greece. I was in Athens, Mykonos, different islands, and different environments. I saw a lot of places that…well Alcaravea isn’t exactly a copy…but I tried to capture the same sort of atmosphere as I saw in Greece. That’s why when we started here I tried to do some of the things I had seen there, like training vines to make the entrance more beautiful.
What new elements can people look forward to seeing at Alcaravea Gourmet in the near future?
We’ve increased our focus on organic ingredients, and are striving to provide healthy, artisanal foods. We’re going to open up more space, and have waiters making some pastas tableside. We’ve always been interactive, but we’ll do more of that.
I don’t want to give too much away. There are new things on the horizon, but we’ll continue to focus on the things that have made us successful so far: quality food, great service, and affordable prices.
Alcaravea Gourmet, Calle Ignacio Zaragoza at 16 de Septiembre, Cabo San Lucas, (624) 143-3730. Open Mon. – Sat. noon – 11 p.m. All major credit cards and vouchers accepted. $ – $$$