viernes, abril 19, 2024

What The Water Gave Me: The Story of Angel Carbajal

by M. P. Bulnes

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The story of Chef Angel Carbajal and Nicksan begins underwater. It was the eighties, and there were only a handful of boats in the bay. Beneath the surface, the sheer diversity of life, from the tiniest crustaceans to the magnificence of pelagic species like marlin and dorado, made Los Cabos’ waters so abundant and alive that anyone lucky enough to behold it was inevitably drawn to it. Angel Carbajal, originally from Michoacán (a state in western Mexico), is among those to whom the ocean revealed itself and its treasures. Surrounded by fish, he found his calling.

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The Early Days

When he wasn’t scuba diving or fishing, Angel worked as a kitchen assistant. Back then, you could count the restaurants in Los Cabos with one hand. It was a time when the fishing culture was unique; there were plenty of fish, and it remained untainted by massive commercialization.

As guardians of the ocean’s grace, the community cared for it and in return they received the freshest of treasures. What was caught by locals during morning dives or fishing excursions early in the morning was prepared and served on diners’ plates by nightfall. Being immersed in these practices laid the foundations of how Angel would run his restaurant later on.

Fateful Encounters

“Becoming a chef or cook, as I prefer to define myself, wasn’t in my initial plans,» he shared. In 1985, his life took an exciting turn. Fate brought Angel Carbajal and Masayuki Niikura, a Japanese restaurateur, together. At that time, Angel had worked his way up to become the manager at Señor Sushi, an international restaurant in San Lucas, and Niikura was a frequent visitor during his vacations. One day, when Niikura’s friends arrived at Señor Sushi, he approached Angel with a special request. Niikura asked if he could step behind the bar and prepare sushi for his friends. Without hesitation, Chef Carbajal agreed.

A year later, Chef Niikura suggested the business idea of exporting fish to Japan to Angel. The potential impact of such a endeavor on the ecosystem was concerning and he had no option but to decline. Although it was a promising deal, his love for the ocean was bigger.

Angel was later offered a partnership in a project called «La Terraza,» previously situated in Plaza Bonita near the marina. When he extended an invitation to Chef Niikura to participate, he quickly agreed and generously offered to provide the restaurant with everything it required. Having recently dismantled a restaurant in Los Angeles, Chef Niikura supplied La Terraza with an abundance of kitchen supplies, uniforms, plates, and cutlery. Angel embarked on the mission of making it a hit and successfully achieved it. Given the triumph of La Terraza, Chef Niikura proposed a new venture to Angel: a Japanese restaurant, and thus, Nicksan was born.

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Opening a restaurant in Los Cabos presented its challenges, Baja California Sur might as well be an island, but Chef Ángel has always approached his work with passion. From the beginning, Nicksan stood as a pioneer in the restaurant industry of Los Cabos, marking an era in the region. This restaurant distinguished itself as one of the first in the area to introduce the novel concept of an open kitchen. It also earned the title of being the first restaurant in Los Cabos with air conditioning. For those who have experienced a scorching August day in Cabo, know this achievement was nothing short of an oasis.

On the other hand, there’s no better place to source fresh seafood for a restaurant than Los Cabos. Angel learned to take what the water gave him with the utmost respect by adopting practices that align with the principles of sustainable fishing. Embracing a philosophy of responsible sourcing, he carefully selects local and seasonal seafood, supporting the region’s fishermen and promoting a healthy balance within the marine ecosystem. Is it harder to go the extra mile with these practices? Yes, but much like the firm stance he took in rejecting the deal to export fish to Japan, Angel had no option—he had made an oath to the ocean.

Breaking Rules, Shaping a Legacy

The signature of Nicksan lies in its distinctive fusion of Japanese and Mexican culinary traditions. Under the guidance of Chef Niikura, Angel learned the principles of traditional, authentic Japanese cuisine. He mastered the rules before daring to break them, bringing innovation and creativity to its traditions. The idea to blend these two rich heritages emerged from the scarcity of ingredients in the region 30 years ago, transforming a challenge into a defining strength. In the infusion of Mexican elements like cilantro, avocado, chilies, onions, garlic, and mango shaped the legacy of Nicksan.

The Heart of Nicksan

The majority of the dishes served at Nicksan are Chef Ángel’s own creations. Joy is found in its sauces, crafted with the desire to evoke the magic of specific moments and places. These sauces are made every day by the same person to ensure the exact same flavor every single time. However, the true heart of Nicksan lies in its people. If you pay close attention, you might spot Angel’s sister, Carmen, impeccably dressed and running around to ensure everything is in order. Her meticulous attention to detail and work ethic is part of what makes Nicksan such a special place. As a family business, Ángel has included his siblings in every aspect possible. If Chef Ángel were to choose a favorite dish, it would undoubtedly be the Tuna Tostada – a creation crafted especially for his mother.

Enduring Success

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Nicksan continues to shine as a culinary trailblazer in Los Cabos. It has expanded its legacy beyond its original location, boasting its presence in Palmilla. This growth signifies not only the enduring success of the restaurant but also its ability to evolve and adapt while maintaining a commitment to excellence and sustainable practices. Who knows what our oceans would look like if all the restaurants adopted the same values as Nicksan by going that extra mile.

When looking at Nicksan, bustling with customers on any given night and at Chef Angel Carbajal’s impressive 30-year career and numerous awards, there’s no denying it’s a success story. However, we must remember how it all began, beneath the waves, in a silent dialogue between a man and the ocean, where trust was placed in him to care for its treasures. In return, Angel has dedicated his life to give Los Cabos his very best: honest and hard work, amazing food and unwavering devotion to what brought him here in the first place; the ocean.

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