The envelope, please:
The Hot Ten (alphabetical by restaurant name)
Michael Stebner — Azzura Point
Eduardo Baeza — Candelas
Patrick Ponsaty — El Bizcocho
Doug Organ — Laurel
Bernard Guillas — Marine Room
Martin Woesle — Mille Fleurs
Takashige Satate Octopus Garden
Amiko Gubbins — Parallel 33
Yukito Ota — Sushi Ota
Jean-Michel Diot — Tapenade
MICHAEL STEBNER AT AZZURA POINT
At Azzura Point, the view-blessed luxury restaurant in the Loews Coronado Bay Resort, the food is an ebullient leap forward from standard hotel fare. Chef Michael Stebner’s inventive combinations of top-quality seasonal ingredients, along with fresh herbs grown on the premises, allow every element on your plate to taste emphatically like itself — but somehow magically better. Along with à la carte selections, there are three nightly changing tasting dinners: one luxury-class, one vegetarian, and a Menu En Vogue that may be based on a single region or the latest diet fad (carbs yesterday, protein today). This year, Stebner was honored (along with several other of the “hot ten”) with an invitation to cook at James Beard House, a greatly respected culinary education foundation in New York City.
In the Beginning:
“I pretty much knew from the time I was little that I was going to be a chef,” says Stebner. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother. She cooked from recipes — she has thousands of recipes — and she’s very organized. Her sense of organization taught me a lot, gave me good habits as a chef, but I can’t cook from recipes — for instance, I can’t bake to save my life.
“It wasn’t until I got my first job in a restaurant, as a busboy when I was 16, that it occurred to me that I’d had a passion for cooking from a very young age. I did my serious training under Alex Strada at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I worked in three of the kitchens in three years. He taught me how to cook, technically — feeling food, knowing how food reacts. From there I took my first chef’s position at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in the gourmet restaurant there, almost six years ago. I moved here to San Diego to be chef at the Market Cafe in this hotel. Jimmy Boyce, who was executive chef here before me, was my mentor — we actually left the Phoenician together and went to Caesar’s Palace, then came to San Diego together to cook here. (He’s currently back at the Phoenician.) Since then I’ve had four chef positions in this hotel, ending up where I am now. I’ve always worked in hotels.”
In the Kitchen:
“I have a position on the line at Azzura Point, where I finish every dish — I see every dish before it goes into the restaurant, and I’m in the kitchen every night,” Stebner explained. “I feel that that’s important — not that I don’t trust my people — but it’s not the number-one part of my job. The number-one part is to inspire the people that work for me, to train, and to keep the fire hot and keep coming up with new dishes, new concepts.
“I’m 100 percent influenced by the seasons in my cooking,” he adds. “My tastes are driven by the seasons, by the weather; that’s why the menu changes every day. I don’t crave corn in December, I don’t want acorn squash in June. We spend a lot of our time — myself and the pastry chef, Jack Fisher — buying products. We go to the farmer’s market every Tuesday, and we utilize those products Tuesday through Thursday. Then I have a chef who goes to Chino Farm for me every Friday, and we use those products Friday, Saturday, Sunday. That’s what keeps our finger on the pulse of the season.
“My seafood isn’t usually local. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t like most Southern California seafood. Ninety percent of the fish, I have flown overnight from the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan. Sometimes I get fish from France that’s still alive, fresher than anything I can get from San Diego. The fact is that the seafood companies in Southern California haven’t figured out what ‘dayboat product’ is.” (“Dayboat” refers to boats making single-day fishing trips, rather than larger vessels where the catch may be held on ice for a week or longer.)
“My pastry chef, Jack Fisher, has been with me for two years, and he’s going with me to the James Beard House. He’s the best pastry chef I’ve ever worked with. This is a very rare thing, but our food matches. He’s not serving anything that I wouldn’t serve. He’s very talented, very driven. He’s young too — I’m 27, he’s 28, in fact our restaurant manager is 23. We’re a young crew.”
The most popular dish, and a mainstay of the Azzura Point menu, is a “signature” lobster warmed in butter, served on top of a rich risotto that’s infused with white truffle butter, truffle oil, and porcini mushrooms.
With a menu that changes wholly every day, it would be logistically impossible to give the waitstaff a taste of everything before the dinner hour. Instead, Stebner explains the evening’s menu to them, and since they understand his style, they can anticipate what the dishes will taste like. “I like to think that my cooking is based in real standard flavors — you know, a carrot tastes like a carrot,” he says. “It’s just based in trying to make each product taste like it should taste.” When he starts using a new ingredient, though, everybody on staff gets a nibble.
In San Diego:
“I think San Diego restaurants are improving,” Stebner says. “They’re getting better chefs. But for too long, restaurants here didn’t have to be good to be busy, because it’s a tourist town — you have a view, food is a secondary thing. For too long, there were no good chefs pushing the envelope here. Now there are a few, and it’ll get better.”