This month our VIP is Jan Benton
Jan is married to Mark McMahon, owners of Mark’s Bar & Grill in Bucerias – he was our VIP last month, so if you missed it, just go back and read that first. He’s easy to find at the bar, but you don’t see much of Jan as she is so busy in the kitchen and her Boutique.
Where did you live before Bucerias?
I lived in San Francisco California for 20 years but I am from Auckland, New Zealand. I grew up there but left when I was 18 to travel to Australia. There was nothing in New Zealand at that time for young people, we all wanted to get away. Now of course it’s fabulous with great scenery, wine and food – I go back every other year or so and it’s great to visit. I’d go more often but it’s the timing – their best season is our busy season. It would be nice to go back for Christmas but with a restaurant full of people – it’s not going to happen! And it’s a long journey – 13 hours from Los Angeles and then they are 19 hours ahead.
What did you do there?
In New Zealand I was a lab technician at a women’s hospital, and in Australia I became a makeup artist for a cosmetic company. I travelled all over Australia with them, which was great – Alice Springs, Perth, etc. New Zealand and Australia are different – yet they are also the same. So when I was about 21, I went to England with a girlfriend – we were so starved of knowledge and culture. It was an 8 weeks sea voyage via the Panama Canal with 9 ports of call. I am still in touch with some people I met on that ship. We travelled all over England and Europe, backpacking, it was a wonderful time experiencing such freedom that we had not previously had.
Did you prefer any particular country?
Well yes – Spain. It was really nice – I liked it for the climate, the culture – and the food.
But you didn’t stay?
No, I stayed in London it was time to get a job. I worked for charter flight travel agency and after a few years booked myself on a flight to America where I worked for the makeup division of the Mary Quant company, she was the British fashion designer responsible for hot pants and miniskirts and lots of other fashions, haircuts and makeup. I became a Manager in charge of five States introducing the new cosmetics lines. When the company was sold I moved to a fragrance company. I learnt the marketing side of business, which has paid off for our restaurant, how to promote, how to train, booking numbers, and administrative skills and so on.
When did you first come to Mexico?
That was back in the 70s – my friend’s mother had a hotel at Conchas Chinas so we came down often from San Francisco.. At one point I looked after the hotel for a month and my real love of PV started. Friends had a boat and I was out there waterskiing, what a life! And over the years I learnt Spanish – it was silly not to! The fragrance company I worked for sold various products, which I sold into department stores, like Macy’s & Nordstroms. I finally made a sale and earned enough commission to think about moving to Puerto Vallarta. I had been exploring the idea of opening a shop, wondering what products were not readily available here. I came up with good soap, lingerie – lace body suits! – and perfumes. I knew I could merchandise these lines. So I opened the shop in PV – coincidentally on Lazaro Cardenas! – for one and a half years, in fact for a while I had two shops. What is now a walkway was where my shop was – with no roof and guys dropping in from the big tree overhead and stealing.
And that’s when you met Mark
I had actually meat him earlier in May of 1991 – here at Table Five! I’d come in looking for something to drink other than a beer and a table of Germans asked me to sit down and Mark came in from running on the beach. We got to talking and discovered we were the same age, had no children, and had both recently moved to Mexico. We hit it off immediately.
We know you opened up a little shop at Mark’s and the changes you started making to the restaurant, and that you went for lovely walks on the beach collecting stones and shells for your pizza oven – did you have a nice romantic proposal?
No! We were having margaritas in La Cruz – the place isn’t there anymore – and one of us said – actually I don’t know which one of us! – but it was on the lines of: “I think we should get married” and Mark said something similar and I said: ”Well you should say Jan Benton will you marry me?” No, not romantic at all – actually Mark is a very romantic – and shy – guy. He does bring me flowers, buys me nice gifts and when things get stressful suggests we catch the sunset.
But the wedding was more romantic?
Yes, it was lovely, it was out at the house owned by the Germans who had first brought us together, at Punta de Burro. My mother, sister and brothers came from N.Z. with the wedding cake – with real royal icing on it! My girlfriend loaned me an antique lace gown which she’d worn when she’d been presented to the Queen; my younger brother who had driven down with me when I moved here walked me down the stairs; and my elder brother, an Episcopalian priest, married us.
What did your mother think about your permanent move to Mexico?
Well by then I was older and I’d done a lot of travelling. She didn’t get it at first, New Zealand to Mexico – why? Later she said “I think you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, and I think you are where you should be.” She also said that I’d made my own way and she was so proud of me. She visited us several times and liked it.
We know the early days of Mark’s Restaurant was beer and hotdogs – you have certainly changed that around!
It did not happen overnight! After reorganizing the kitchen, we found that we were very short on equipment and had only one refrigerator, which I needed for food, but what were we to do with the beer? Mark was: “What – we have to take some beer out so you can put in salads? Who eats salad?”
We then tiled the cement floor in the restaurant, put out white table clothes and napkins, lit the candles and it made all the difference. That’s when we started the blackboard outside, and guests from Casa Manana and Casa Linda would come and I’d ask them what kind of food they wanted to see on the board, and they’d sample and critique. It was very difficult to find fresh produce back then. We put dishes together, varied them, practiced, it took a while to get the taste and presentation. It was a few years later that we could afford to buy new chairs. We are always reinventing ourselves.
It was a lot of work.
Yes of course, a great challenge, but for me it was very exciting. Mark would just amble along, he’s totally laid back, in a good way. I said we had to open up and he needed to write out a list of the basic things in order to do so – like go to Tepic to meet the Governor for a liquor license! We had very little money so he had to sell his truck to buy the license. There were days with no water and electric was not something you could depend on. Kitchen equipment just did not exist. Guests back then were very forgiving of Mexico, it was part of the charm. That has all changed now, service and good food with a great atmosphere is expected.
You have built Mark’s Restaurant up to be the winner of many awards – did you go to catering college at all?
No, I am self-taught. I did have four years of cooking in high school so I knew method. As a family my Dad saw to it that we ate from his amazing garden, so I had an early start knowing how food should taste- I could cut chickens and filet fish when I was ten. I study a lot, read magazines, articles online, and I have loads of cook books. I see how my favorite chefs do it, absorb it, develop it – and it becomes mine. My favorite show this summer was Master Chef Australia – they do amazing challenges and concentrate on product and technique. It’s very informative and very critical. Mark and I also learnt about food as we both like to travel, we’ve been to various places, learning – Italy to learn about making pizza, food and wine tasting in France, Spain. While we were in Bangkok and Laos I took some cooking classes in classic Asian food which I loved.
In Mexico we have been to Baja the source of the oysters and the mussels and the salmon that we serve in our restaurant – knowing they’re as fresh as can be. We have been out on the boat with the biologist to see the lines and how they grow them. They are flown in from Ensenada Tuesday and Friday arriving at 6.30 and when they’re gone they’re gone! I was invited on the BBC cooking show called “An Italian in Mexico”. They wanted a dish from the area so the Italian chef and I made Caesar salad and the classic dish, fish on a stick cooked over a fire. It was filmed at Majahuites. To sum up about food I insist on the freshest and give thanks to Rancho Limon (who grow so many of our organic lettuces and vegetables) and our 3 guys who bring us our tuna and fresh fish, lobster and shrimp from the area.
Are there any regulations here in Mexico regarding the shellfish?
Definitely. The marine farms we buy from have biologists who have to conduct tests on the water’s purity and PH, and complete paperwork every day which has to be handed in or they would get closed down. So we know we have secure oysters and mussels. I’m not sure about the oysters you see sitting on the tables in the sun on the highway though!
How should an oyster be eaten – swallowed whole or chewed?
You’ve got to bite it – it’s not just the taste, it’s also the texture. I prefer to eat them raw with a little shallot and a drop of champagne vinegar. Some people prefer fried as in the panko crusted dish we do. As a kid we collected them off the rocks and slipped them down. In New Zealand there are oysters everywhere – and they are so good for you !
From just serving beer, you have an extensive and interesting wine list – another learning curve?
Yes! Mexico has an up and coming culinary influence – and wines are very exciting now with five growing regions. We are pleased to have 17 different Mexican wines on our list, getting the best quality we can. We both love learning about them and take photos and share this knowledge with our waiters. Like us they are very proud to know we are serving wines and food from their own country. There are 50 wineries in the Baja – the revolution has just begun! Unfortunately as they are still small boutique wineries the low production is keeping the prices a little high. But they are producing many blends – reds being the main production such as Grenache, Tempranillo. We sell wines by the glass so that people can try for themselves, and last year we had a big tasting of Mexican wines with two sommeliers explaining the stories behind them.
There is the teaching school of Hugo d’Acosta in Ensenada, Baja California – he is the Mexican equivalent to Mondavi who took the Napa Valley, California, wine scene to new levels. There’s also a great food scene in Baja with organic growing and high end Mexican products – and amazing accommodation too!
What were the two bedrooms originally have seen some changes!
Twenty years ago we had it as an ice cream shop – that wasn’t too successful – kids would come along and want to buy one ice cream between ten of them! I had to stop Mark giving the kids free ice cream. And then I sold clothes there from my PV shop. Later we learnt of a guy who sold talavera and was going out of business – we bought everything he had. It proved very popular so then we sourced where it was made – Puebla – and went there and dealt with them directly. And for a while we had AC installed and it was an optional place to sit and eat and drink in the summer – but everyone wanted to still be in the main part of the restaurant! And then we were selling mango chutney, dressings, sauces – they were all hard work, we sold them for 60 pesos but the jar alone cost 20 pesos ! We think we’ve got the best use for the space now as the Jan Marie Boutique with smaller ornaments, ceramic and dinnerware – some of which we also use in the restaurant. For example , these onyx plates are very popular and provide the perfect presentation for sushi !
You also have the Jan Marie Boutique Gallery filled with amazing pieces– the shop alone is a beautiful addition to the street.
Thank you! We opened that in 2008 and it contains larger pieces, again sourced from all over Mexico, creating work and revenue for the artisans. And some of their children are following in the trade so the craftsmanship is not lost.
When you drove down to stay in 1991 – did you have any problems with the journey?
There was just the one stressful event. My brother drove a white van loaded with my favorite pieces and I drove my Toyota sports car. I remember it was a Friday when we were approaching Los Angeles and there were huge winds – and I could see he was not behind me anymore, so I pulled over and waited 45 minutes and still no sign of him. So I turned back to look for him, there I was on the over pass going north and I looked down, there was Jeff on the under pass going south ! We finally met up at the Nogales border police station 72 hours later! There were no cell phones then so driving two vehicles it was easy to lose contact. We were crying and hugging each other.
Your Spanish is excellent
Really! I don’t know about excellent but it’s very necessary being in business here to be able to communicate well with our staff and suppliers. Conjugating verbs and learning tenses is an ongoing job.
When you have some spare time – What are your personal interests or hobbies?
Walking, swimming, going to the movies. Reading, design, and art. Sometimes I just like a day to myself, when I don’t want to see anyone. And I am the worst person to go out and eat with – I’m always checking out the menu, the service, presentation etc.…!
Looking back, anything you wished you had known about or anything you would have changed?
No – it was all meant to be as it happened.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
We will be celebrating our 23th year at Mark´s this year and would like to thank all our wonderful customers and friends who have made this all possible. There were many days that we wondered if we had done the right thing, but we have met such wonderful people over the years, it has been very rewarding. We look forward to seeing everyone this season.
And I’d just like to remind people to check our daily specials on the blackboard! And of course visit our website for detailed menus, music, special events and so on: www.marksbucerias.com Telephone: 329) 298 0303 and like us on Facebook. www.janmarieboutique.com
Thank you Jan – we’re sorry you couldn’t be with your family for Christmas, but wish you an excellent season !