I can still see him there, the serene, solitary Asian man walking the beaches of the Sea of Cortez with his fishing rod in one handand his wok in the other. He was my husband, and he was living his dream.Afew months prior, in the spring of 1976, Archie had decided to leave his position as chef at the reknown San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara. He packed his most valued treasures—his wife, son and daughter, favoritefishing equipment and trusted cooking utensils, starting with his wok, into his Dodge van. And our family headed south under sunny skies into Mexico on a journey of exploration, “to see how the rest of the world is living.”
In midsummer we crossed the Sea of Cortez on the ferry from Baja California to the Mexican mainland and cruised into the small port of a small fishing village called Puerto Vallarta. It was a yawning, somnolent town then, with barely a dream of its future as a highly prized tourist destination. Community life centered around the plaza near the small city jail, where the Presidencia now stands. The malecon was lined with an assortment of family-owned hardware and dry goods stores supplying the local fishing and agricultural industries, with a restaurant or two in between them. There were few cars, no traffic signals; and telephones were a rare luxury, although news always rippled quickly through the closely knit community.
Deciding to hold over through the stormy, unpredictable tiempo de lluvias, the tropical rainy season, we ventured by boat to Quimixto, a tiny remote fishing village of about 15 native families, where we were able to rent a small casita on the beach. There Archie would reap unusual delectables from the ocean every day, and his culinary skills were dedicated to preparing the daily catch in appealing ways with little variety of ingredients. There were-- and still are--no roads to the local market: most cooking ingredients were derived from our small garden, and from native edible plants from the jungle. On an occasional boat trip to Vallarta we would supply ourselves with the limited standard ingredients used by the locals—ajo, cebolla, jitomate, cilantro, and a variety of potent chiles.
One steamy morning a small boat pulled up on the beach carrying another “foreign” family, the Von Rohrs, who had homesteaded a couple of coves south in Majahuitas. Our shared taste for adventure soon bonded us in a lifetime friendship. Archie was especially attracted to their expansive 2-acre orchard and vegetable garden, a magnificent spread carved out of the jungle, with a horticulture reminiscent of the north. Cathy Von Rohr’s two paintings, “The Path to John’s”, and “Waterfall at Quimixto”, on exhibition at Archie’s Wok, evoke a nostalgia for those times.
Von was overseeing the construction of Playa Caletas, which was to become film director John Huston’s retirement hideaway at this small crystalline cove between Quimixto and Majahuitas. John, the epicure, would need a chef out there in the jungle, and Von conjured a perfect match when he introduced John to Archie. John asked Archie to cater his poker parties held at Elizabeth Taylor’s home in Gringo Gulch, which soon led to Archie’s becoming chef at Playa Caletas. There, in that remote cove where the sea lapped up to salt the jungle, Archie prepared a table for the full spectrum of humanity entertained by John: the occasional indigena bringing him an ocelot or coatamundi from the mountains…Mexican entertainers including the great Lola Beltrán…his eclectic family...Hollywood friends and film collaborators…Mexican filmmakers…French winemakers…English nobility.
At the end of the day Archie would relax in his hammock at our new palapa home high on the hill in Quimixto as the sun set over the Bay of Banderas, and another dream began to brew, a restaurant dream, with aromas of his favorite Asian cuisine. In the mid 80’s John was forced by declining health to spend less time at Playa Caletas, and eventually he returned permanently to the U.S. Then, inspired by his new dream, Archie scouted out a location comfortably near the beach in the Zona Romantica, and in 1986 we opened the doors at Archie’s Wok, a small Asian eatery, and one of a handful of foreign-run restaurants. It was all quite experimental, serving Asian cuisine in what was then a quiet and unsophisticated neighborhood, but Archie had always claimed that life’s most valuable lessons were learned “in the school of hard knocks.”
The knocks came, in wide variety, the most serious being Archie’s passing in April of 1993. Suddenly we felt hurled into an unforeseen future in which Archie would not participate. Or would he? I think the familiar aromas occasionally draw him in to observe and supervise. His grace with a knife shows magically in son Sergio’s skillful hand. His warm hospitality is felt in daughter Kiyoki’s glowing smile. His uncomplicated business philosophy…“remember, Archie’s Wok is a family restaurant, always. And the whole world is our family.”
Written by John Huston to Archie at Playa Caletas, 1981