Ed Bedford 6:31 p.m., May 25
Since the first time I tasted Luke Johnson’s food, I’ve openly and vocally touted him as one our city’s most innovative chefs…and one worth holding onto. I was worried the young talent would up and leave town when I heard the restaurant he helmed—Little Italy’s Red Velvet Wine Bar—had folded last year. In the short term, I was most disappointed that I wasn’t able to get in one more meal at Red Velvet before it was shuddered. In the long term, I hoped Johnson wouldn’t move away, taking his interesting and beautifully presented culinary creations with him.
I reached out to him. To my surprise, even in the wake of such bad news, he was very open to talking and sharing his ambitions for the future. He was firm about the fact that he wanted to stay in San Diego, though he did express concern about the fact he had no idea of any local eatery that was suited for his style of cooking: posh, cutting edge gourmet cuisine presented in a tasting menu-only format.
His plan was to start his job search, but be selective. Whoever he worked for next had to be open to the food he was interested in creating, and ready to let him have his way with the multi-course methodology. If that didn’t work out, he supposed that would dictate a move to another market with restaurants more geared toward his style. I crossed my fingers and started to wonder about venues that would have interest in or use for a chef like him. The list I was able to assemble was alarmingly short, and every place on it already had an executive chef they were happy with (or so it seemed).
Months went by, during which Johnson and I communicated off-and-on. We both lamented the fact that it seemed the vast majority of restaurants opening across the county were casual venues pumping out menus made up of upscale takes on comfort food or bar snacks. I enjoy such places, but the fact such a high percentage of the new places to open over the last year fit into this mold was a bit disheartening and a setback for the scene as a whole. As much as I love San Diego, it has traditionally been a town of trend catchers. If a dining establishment strikes it big using a particular theme or business model, you can bet there will be scores of restaurateurs who take notice and get busy bringing to life their own version of it in order to cash in on what looks like an easy road to success.
As the one-year mark approached since Red Velvet's demise, it was starting to look as if there was no hope. Yet, even through a brief stint cooking for an experimental pop-up supper club venture (one that quickly proved unworkable and unprofitable…for him, anyway) and months of frustration, Johnson stuck it out and stayed in San Diego. Then, it finally came—a status report email with promise. He had been sought out by representatives of La Jolla’s La Valencia Hotel, and asked if he would like to vie for the open position as executive chef at their fine dining restaurant, The Sky Room (1132 Prospect Street).
As I reported last month, Johnson got the job and, two weeks ago, his first seven-course tasting menu was put out as the sole dining option at the luxurious tenth story haute spot. As one would expect, I got my name on the books as fast as I could. After well over a year since my last trip to Red Velvet, I was eager for another taste of the food that so forcefully and instantaneously won me over and led me to believe Johnson could play a major role in working with San Diego's existing collection of top shelf chefs to advance our county's culinary standing.
But would it be as good as it was? Would over a year of rust slow the chef down? Would the venue and its constraints lead to food that didn’t measure up to the glorious dishes of the past? Check back tomorrow for a course-by-course rundown and find out.