Courtesy of Rancho La Puerta

Denise Roa

Denise Roa’s culinary career began at Johnson & Wales University in Miami. Once in San Diego, Roa held positions at top restaurants in the area including Pacifica Del Mar, Crescent Shores Grille, Del Mar Racetrack Turf Club, and Hilton Torrey Pines. She was also the Executive Chef at La Trattoria, a restaurant she owned and operated for six years.
Today, Roa is the Executive Chef of Rancho La Puerta and La Cocina Que Canta in Tecate, Baja California. In collaboration with Rancho La Puerta’s 6-acre organic farm, Rancho Tres Estrellas, Chef Denise’s cooking style inspires people to rethink how they see and eat food.

Rancho La Puerta is known for its collaboration with Rancho Tres Estrella’s 6-acre organic farm in scenic Tecate, Baja California. What produce can we find during the summer season? What are some of your favorites during this season?

I love summer because of our strawberries, honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon. I also love the chilies and basil. We always have five varieties of lettuce (head lettuce and baby mixes), eggplant, carrots, onions, corn, garlic, and tomatoes.

Your cuisine has been described as vibrant and season inspired. How do you keep your healthy farm-to-table meals relevant to the trends we see in the culinary scene?

Fruits and vegetables dictate the method of how I cook. I built my pantry with different flavor profiles so that I can cook the same things many times with different flavor profiles, and this allows me to adopt to trends. For instance, if melon is in season, I may use it to create a meal with Asian flavors. I may cook melon with soba noodles and use sesame oil and mint to create a cooling and refreshing noodle dish. Or, if I want to do something Mexican, I may add melon to my salsa with cilantro, jalapeno, and lime.
I stay relevant by surrounding myself with people who are interesting and who inspire me to be creative. I study cuisine and network with all different types of chefs. I read magazines and stay on top trends so I know what’s hot.

“I am influenced by the locals and the food movement of Baja California,
and feel privileged to be a chef here.”

In addition to being the Executive Chef at Rancho La Puerta & La Cocina Que Canta, you also teach cooking classes with the main focus to inspire others how to see and eat food. How do you inspire others to rethink their relationship with food?

I invite Ranch guests to play in the dirt, explore the garden, and harvest food. I encourage people to go to farmer’s markets and talk to farmers. I try to cook well and simple in my cooking demonstrations and classes, so that students can easily learn how to do it on their own.

How do you practice sustainable operations at Rancho La Puerto & Cocina Que Canta?

Mother Nature dictates our menus. I change our menus according to the season; based on what’s available from the garden and local suppliers. I work closely with the Tres Estrellas Head Gardener, Salvador Tinajero. When we walk around the garden we plan what to harvest for the next three days, what it will be available in two weeks, and even plan six months out.

Your Mexican heritage plays a major role in your style of cooking. Have you had to reintroduce your cultural cuisine to those who might have a different stigma of what Mexican cuisine is?

I am not 100% Mexican. I am influenced by the locals and the food movement of Baja California, and feel privileged to be a chef here. I incorporate Mexican flavors into a light and fresh style of cooking. Most guests are familiar with Mexican cuisine, but are not aware that there are so many styles of Mexican cuisine; each state has a distinct flair. I introduce guests to Baja California cuisine, which is all about using local and sustainable flavors.

Do you have any planned trips this Summer?

In July I’m going to a food festival in Oaxaca, specifically to taste as much food as possible. I look forward to being inspired by this event!

How has your thought process of food evolved throughout your career?

When Deborah Szekely gave me the opportunity to work at The Ranch, I really had no idea what that would mean for my professional mindset. Since working at Rancho La Puerta, I’ve been able to find balance in my mind, spirit and soul. This has changed my perspective of my job. I used to think that food was just food, but my beliefs have evolved since. Food is incredibly nurturing, fulfilling and integral to who we are. It’s just as important as breathing, family, work and exercise. The better I eat, the better I feel and the better I cook. The more I respect what I eat, the more I respect myself. Eating nutritious food enhances the quality of life.
I also have the privilege of working with Salvador in our six-acre organic farm. I am very fortunate to see the entire lifecycle of each and every plant we have – from seedling to the fresh produce we eat. I now understand what it means to grow food alongside Mother Nature, and this has completely shifted my attitude in the kitchen.

What are your career aspirations for the near future?

The Ranch motto is “Siempre Mejor.” which means, “always better and always changing.” I strive to continually educate the cooks on my team.

Do you have any last words?

“Support organic farmers.”


The original “fitness resort” and spa, Rancho La Puerta welcomes some 140 guests each week to its 3,000 private acres of gardens, mountains and meadows in Baja California, Mexico. All facilities and land are for the exclusive use of guests who come for an entire week, Saturday to Saturday, ensuring the delights of a warm and welcoming shared community. Rancho La Puerta is located only about 25 miles “as the crow flies” from the Pacific Ocean in Tecate, Baja California at an elevation of 1,700 feet. For more information please call (858) 764.5500 or visit