As the cream-puff story shows, PCG hasn't yet reached its height. There's work to be done, but now there's also every reason to believe that this restaurant is finding its way up again.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Hanis Cavin is a big, friendly huggy-bear, the perfect choice to bring a formerly fractured kitchen together. When he had to interrupt our phone interview to handle a momentary kitchen crisis, I overheard him giving a staffer directions in lucid, rapid-fire Spanish. "Spanish is mandatory here -- in most kitchens, actually," he says. "Every day, if I'm not sure of a word, they help me. I think it's my job to be able to explain and teach, whether in English or Spanish. I bought these CDs at Costco for learning the language, and that's helping. A lot of people don't take the time to teach their cooks, or even to deal with them. I work the line five or six nights a week -- I expedite, I fill in for anybody who's out, I work the broiler or the grill -- and that's fine, and the staff sees it and respects it. It's up to me to try to blend the flavors correctly, and to educate them -- 'It needs a taste, like mustard' -- and if the cooks know what the end result should taste like, that's what we're going for here. I guess that's called being a chef -- and why I'm losing my hair at 38."
Before coming to Pacific Coast Grill, Hanis was a fixture at Dakota Grill in the Gaslamp Quarter, and then he moved to A New Leaf in the Gaslamp Hilton. I asked him why he'd left Dakota Grill after so many years and A New Leaf after so short a time. "Well, if you look at the style of food they're doing at Dakota now, it really isn't the kind of food I was doing when I was there. That was a big reason I left. You've got to understand that all owners have priorities, and I think they really wanted to focus on food costs. They wanted the costs lower than they had set for me, and to get it lower, you have to use a lot of frozen ingredients. Here, my freezer is not much bigger than what I have at home. Everything's fresh. It makes it more of a challenge, knowing you've got three or four days to use it up or lose it, but you're starting out with a better product. Here I have a 30 percent food cost [i.e., 30 percent of the restaurant's total expenses]. Over there, they're trying to keep it to 25 percent, and that's really hard.
"When I went to the Hilton they told me, 'Oh, yeah, you'll be able to do whatever you want.' But I found they had more input into it than I thought. All owners want to have some say; that's realistic. But if they aren't present on a daily basis, it's harder for them to understand why decisions are being made. So around that point, Jeffrey Strauss over at Pamplemousse told the owner here to give me a call. That's all it took. I was ready. Here, I can do what I want, and I think that's what a chef needs. They trust me. I do samples and feed everybody on the staff, and they really listen to what the servers say. They [the owners] come in and say, 'I hear you did a great special last night. Why don't we see about running that again, and if it works out, let's put it on the menu.' That makes it fun for me.
"I have to stay with a 'Pacific Coast' theme, but I can do anything within that. If the Pacific Ocean touches it, I can do food from that area. A lot of what we're doing includes food from south of the border, and a lot of Hawaiian stuff, and a little Asian -- we're not wasabi-oriented, but Hawaiian has an Asian-fusion aspect to it, and we use some of those flavors -- soy, sweet soy, sweet chili sauce. And we're trying to develop some local organic sources for our produce -- not Chino, but some of the struggling smaller farms.
"I've been trying to clean out the menu and put on items that set a little better. When I got here, the sauté guy did pretty much everything. Now it's divided evenly between him and the grill guy. There's a really good group of cooks here. We've got a lot of prep guys who could be line cooks, but they stay prep cooks because they work two jobs. They're a little better skilled than most, and that pays off for me. They're having to learn with me, too. There's just been so many chefs here in the last year, it's been a nice challenge for me to get everybody on the same page. I'm happy and I feel like we're making some progress."
I asked him about the smoker he uses for the "Bag o' Bonz." "We have a beautiful Southern-style digital electronic smoker. You punch in how hot you want it and how much smoke you want. I can even do a cold smoke. We save all the trimmings from our salmon and do different things with them -- for instance, my sous chef makes a really good salmon burger -- but the trims we don't use right away, we freeze and then cold smoke them. We had that for Easter, and we're hoping to have it again on Mother's Day. With a digital smoker, you can turn end-pieces into centerpieces!"