Patrick Ponsaty:  “I buy fish from France like turbot and Dover sole, and I buy mushrooms from there."
  • Patrick Ponsaty: “I buy fish from France like turbot and Dover sole, and I buy mushrooms from there."
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San Diego is an ocean of pleasures, a paradise to live in or see. Only lately, though, has it started to be a great place to eat.

Chef Michael Stebner: "I don’t crave corn in December, I don’t want acorn squash in June."

Chef Michael Stebner: "I don’t crave corn in December, I don’t want acorn squash in June."

My assignment, should I choose to accept it, was to come down from San Francisco (where I’ve been a restaurant critic since the Bronze Age) and eat out anonymously until I’d identified and interviewed San Diego’s ten hottest chefs. All too casually, I accepted the challenge, expecting that in six or seven weeks I’d be able to find 30-odd solid candidates and winnow down from there. Little did I realize what a desert I’d be trekking.

Eduardo Baeza: "People look at a price tag of $25 or $30 for an entrée, they say, ‘I’m gonna pay that much for Mexican food?’"

Eduardo Baeza: "People look at a price tag of $25 or $30 for an entrée, they say, ‘I’m gonna pay that much for Mexican food?’"

The qualities I hoped to find transcend the ability to just put something pleasant on a plate. The secret spices of hot chefs are the imagination to create dazzling new combinations of ingredients and the palate to balance these flavors so the innovations will delight somebody besides the cooks and their dogs. Then, too, with such superb bounty available in California, the ingredients must be fresh and fine, or all the rest is in vain. Great chefs start their days as great shoppers — and then become great managers, so that all the sous-chefs in their kitchens neither spoil the broth nor overcook the fish but accurately consummate the bosses’ concepts with every order.

Doug Organ: “I owned my first restaurant when I was 21. I don’t know if that was stupid or smart either. It was called 926."

Doug Organ: “I owned my first restaurant when I was 21. I don’t know if that was stupid or smart either. It was called 926."

Even five or six years ago, finding ten such paragons in San Diego would have been near-impossible. San Diego’s most popular local eateries reputedly could all have been named Fill’er Up Regular by the Sea; diners expected soaring scenery and plodding fodder. The last few years, though, have brought an influx of fine chefs drawn by the benign climate and laid-back lifestyle, the ample spare money, the year-round local produce, and the sparsity of serious competition. That sparsity, though, is still a problem.

Bernard Guillas: “We would go to the market in Nantes about three times a week.  We had fishermen coming in with the wild salmon, with lamprey eels — live, everything live!"

Bernard Guillas: “We would go to the market in Nantes about three times a week. We had fishermen coming in with the wild salmon, with lamprey eels — live, everything live!"

I began the quest by scouring the Zagat Survey, where restaurant scores are based on reader responses. My “test dinners” at too many of the readers’ top choices fell short (who are those people?). The half-dozen guidebooks and several dining websites I consulted touted near-identical lists, and local magazines wandered only slightly further afield.

Martin Woesle -  he’s among the very few local chefs to serve squab properly, cooked medium-rare, instead of medium-well.

Martin Woesle - he’s among the very few local chefs to serve squab properly, cooked medium-rare, instead of medium-well.

Many of the recommended restaurants offered thrilling wine lists but discouraging menus. A frighteningly large proportion of the rave-reviewees proved to be faithful copyists of the French food of yesteryear, serving traditional dishes (whether of the haute cuisine or the bistro genre) that a conscientious home cook could replicate with a few hours to kill, some stocks in the freezer, and a well-worn copy of Julia Child Volume I. In my food-crazy hometown, a handful of similar restaurants still survive in one of the remoter neighborhoods, charging $25 for prix fixe dinners, not San Diego’s $60 to $70 à la carte versions of the same food. In both cities, they typically offer very tasty dishes in a charming ambiance — but “hot”? Not!

Takashige Satate: “I named Octopus Garden from the Beatles’ song."

Takashige Satate: “I named Octopus Garden from the Beatles’ song."

Significantly missing from local food-maven mantras was “the other great cuisine.” Vibrant and ingenious, genuine Cantonese/Hong Kong cooking bears only a passing resemblance to cornstarch-goopy “Cantonese American” (or cornstarch-goopy Mandarin, Szechuanese, etc.). Surely somewhere in San Diego there must be at least one chef-owned restaurant serving a credible rendition of the fare of the South China coast, and in a year or two I hope to find it. On the other hand, San Diegans think they love Italian food — but unlike the homeland, where even tiny trattorias do wonders with seasonal produce, most local candidates dish up stodgy red-and-white comfort food. (One famously “creative” Italian-with-a-view blew itself out of the water by wrecking their “signature” lobster with refrigerator-scented reheated spuds, while two other contenders shot themselves in the foot with cottony tomatoes in July.)

Amiko Gubbins: "Everyone had peanut butter and jelly on white bread, and I’d have, like, cream cheese and black olives on wheat bread. I’d hide it."

Amiko Gubbins: "Everyone had peanut butter and jelly on white bread, and I’d have, like, cream cheese and black olives on wheat bread. I’d hide it."

At the opposite extreme were the Cal-French foie gras–abusers, flinging luxury ingredients together in such manic, self-canceling profusion that the warring flavors finally subsided into high-priced sludge. A slight variation of this disaster, the lethally exotic sauce, sank a few candidates from the Fusion realm, that far country where mango-bearing Chilean sea bass drown in dreary ponds of chili-spiked soy. (Little wonder they’re an endangered species!)

Yukito Ota:  "Many local fishes are not oily enough and are too small."

Yukito Ota: "Many local fishes are not oily enough and are too small."

Weeks passed, months passed, and still I ate, by now running on intuition, good steers from local food-lovers and chefs who’d passed muster, and, in one case, a rave in the Reader. It took 13 weeks of tasting the creations of more than 50 local chefs to find the 10 hot ones.

Jean-Michel Diot: "When you are more comfortable, they give you the more complicated steps, such as the way to do stocks."

Jean-Michel Diot: "When you are more comfortable, they give you the more complicated steps, such as the way to do stocks."

Three of them cook modern, creative French cuisine; three others serve innovative Cal-French-Mediterranean (with Asian influences); one specializes in Franco-Mexican cuisine, another in a Franco-Sino-Japanese blend; one ventures into “world cuisine,” and one features super sushi. Unfortunately, sublime ingredients aren’t cheap, so neither are dinner prices. Sushi aside, dinner prices for two (for three courses, including tip, tax, and a lower-priced bottle of wine) ran from $130 to $228.

There were some distinguished runners-up: High on the list is Drew McPartlin of Savor Catering (if only he had a restaurant!). I also enjoyed the vivacious Italian cooking at Osteria del Pescatore in Del Mar, the fanciful sushi at Kazumi, the classic sauces and sexy desserts that Rene Herbeck turns out at Twins, and Fabrice Poigin’s honest regional French bistro cuisine at Vignola. Ed Moore of Thee Bungalow also deserves a special mention for his generosity in helping (and spreading the word about) fine chefs who are just getting started in this area; he’s played a strong, quiet role in the recent upturn in San Diego restaurant food.

The chefs who made the final cut were born in five nations and three continents and cook in divergent styles. Some of them actually slave over a hot stove; others are the final stop on the line before the food leaves the kitchen; yet others design the dishes and the menus but rely strongly on a chef de cuisine (“head of the kitchen,” answering to the executive chef) to actually execute the food and oversee the kitchen brigade. Nonetheless, they turn out to have a lot in common: Every one of them learned “on the job,” going straight from high school into restaurant kitchens, where as apprentices they peeled, chopped, and scrubbed for many months before they could get near a stove. (The few who attended cooking schools did so to enrich their skills once their careers were well underway.) None of them resembles the snobbish, effete stereotype of a chef we’ve seen in so many Hollywood movies — instead, they’re hard and joyous workers in a down-to-earth business that merges aesthetics and appetite. Exactly half own their restaurants, but six out of ten have been at their current restaurants for less than three years. This is partly because like all entities under the sun, restaurants have distinct life cycles, and “young” ones often have greater energy and daring than older ones — but it’s also a clear indication of the current change in San Diego’s restaurant scene. If this keeps up, like it or not, you’re on the way to joining the ranks of the “foodie” cities.

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.”

Still, not everything he’d like to cook appeals to local diners. “Squab and sweetbreads are two of my favorite things,” Stebner observes, “but any time that I’ve put them on the chef’s menu, it doesn’t sell — and usually our chef’s menu sells very well, but that’s because I keep it real simple, with lobster, salmon, beef, duck. Squab does not sell in San Diego, even though it’s so great-tasting! I’ll put it on the menu in the fall, we’ll sell a couple of them and I’ll be happy.

“My number-one goal,” he adds, “is to get as many people interested in cooking as I can. I think my next step will be to own my own place. I want to write books, I want to inspire people, I love teaching, I love talking about food and the passion that I have for food. I want people to cook, because food is so important, and sometimes it’s taken for granted. A lot of times people go out for dinner and they don’t expect it to be very good, so they’re not disappointed when it isn’t. When I go out to dinner, my expectations are up real high, and most of the time I’m let down. If I’m not let down, I get real excited. I want people to come into my restaurant expecting a great meal, and they’ll get a great meal.”

Lagniappe:

“The best thing I ever ate in my life was when I did some training with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Northern California,” Stebner recalls. “The last night we all sat down to dinner and we had a dish they call Oysters and Pearls — warm tapioca pudding with ossetra caviar and glazed oysters. As soon as I took the first bite I said, ‘I’ve never had anything this good.’ It was the full package — the mouth feel, the flavor! Everything about it was exactly perfect.” But would he choose it for his last night on earth? “No, that would probably be a hoagie sandwich from a deli in Phoenix that I used to eat at. I can still taste it, and it’s not the garlic either.”

EDUARDO BAEZA AT CANDELAS

Mexicans generally regard the ubiquitous tortilla-wraps that dominate north-of-the-border “Mexican food” as mere “fast food.” At dinner, even a marginally middle-class Mexican family usually enjoys a far wider, richer range of foodstuffs and sauces. And in restaurants in the fancier urban districts, in the spiffy new suburbs like Polanco (“the Rodeo Drive of Mexico City”), and in seaside resorts frequented by the moneyed class, richer Mexicans sample “la nueva cocina mexicana,” a luxurious, inventive update of traditional fare. This exciting new cuisine has barely begun to sneak across the border, showing up at a handful of restaurants in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco; luckily for San Diegans, we can enjoy one of its best exemplars here in the Gaslamp. On the handsome premises of Candelas, chef Eduardo Baeza combines French techniques with Mexican ingredients into a cuisine you’ve never tasted before but will want to taste again. Alberto Mestre, Candelas’s cordial owner and host, served as interpreter and co-informant during our “conference call” chat.

In the Beginning:

“How did I learn to become a chef? I think I’m still learning,” says Baeza, now 30. “When I was little, at home, my mother cooked all the time, and I had great respect for her. When I was 19, a chef who was a friend of my mother’s called me to the kitchen. I worked at his restaurant in Mexico City for a year, learning the basics, and then applied at Maxim’s, one of the best French restaurants in Mexico. I started there on the cold line, preparing the salads, and soon they realized I was capable of more. Over the next five or six years, I rose to a sous-chef and then a chef. Shortly before coming to San Diego, I was hired as executive chef to open a new restaurant in Mexico, Viña Gourmet, and then opened two others for the same owner, Saint-Honoré and Manzanillo.”

A year ago, Mestre’s brother brought Baeza to San Diego to open Candelas, a new kind of restaurant. (Incidentally, in contemporary Spanish, candela doesn’t really mean “candle” — vela is the modern word — but a candlewick or a torch; however, Mestre chose the name because it’s easily pronounced and it aptly evokes the romantic image of a candlelit dinner.) “I wanted to be part of the project so as to bring some of our Mexican flavors to this country,” says Baeza. “It was a challenge. Coming from Mexico, I know that many of our ingredients and kinds of food aren’t known here. I wanted to show a little bit of what we have in our country.”

In the Kitchen:

“My cooking is a fusion between French and Mexican,” Baeza says. “When we started talking about the concept of bringing upscale Mexican cuisine to San Diego, I thought that this would be an easier way to get it into people’s mouths, using refined techniques to bring out all the flavors of the food. It’s about 60 percent very traditional Mexican flavors and about 40 percent French-fusion.”

Baeza works on the line in Candelas’s kitchen every night, as well as designing all the food served there, including the three intriguingly varied rolls in the bread baskets, the accompanying cumin-spiced butter, and the luscious desserts. The restaurant’s most popular dish is his “signature” Lobster Baeza, featuring a Maine lobster tail so tender it seems made from pure butter, set off by a bold stuffing of mushrooms, onions, and bacon touched with aged tequila and a hint of jalapeño. Food like this deserves a serious wine list, and Candelas offers one. Baeza and Mestre devised it together, shaping it carefully around the cooking. “We have wines from all over — California, France, several Mexican selections,” Mestre notes. “We started tasting a few months before we opened the place. We were opening bottles of wine like crazy, at all price ranges, and discussing which dish would be complemented by which wine.”

In San Diego:

“The one thing that bothers me,” says Baeza, “is I sometimes get the impression that in San Diego, people pay more attention to quantity than to quality. I do just the opposite. Sometimes I waste food by serving just the best parts. I won’t use ingredients that are more than one day old. I’ve been using only prime-quality products, and that goes along with the prices. But as soon as people hear it’s Mexican food, they’re already blocked. Obviously they know burritos and tacos, and when they think about food like that and then look at a price tag of $25 or $30 for an entrée, they say, ‘I’m gonna pay that much for Mexican food?’ For Italian food, they’ll pay prices like that, for French food — but not for Mexican food! That’s one of the tough parts.”

Lagniappe:

“I need to develop my customers’ confidence more, so they’ll trust me and try some very typical Mexican dishes that aren’t served in the U.S., like ant eggs — they’re like caviar, really nice, and if nobody told you what you were eating, you’d enjoy it. But as soon as you knew what it was, you wouldn’t like it anymore.”

PATRICK PONSATY AT EL BIZCOCHO

Ensconced at the deluxe Rancho Bernardo Inn, some 45 minutes north of downtown, for food lovers El Bizcocho is worth both the trek and the considerable tab. Although the room is stunningly beautiful and rather formal (jackets are required), a genuinely considerate room-captain ensures an atmosphere of pleasure, rather than hauteur. The menu also rides a fine line — manifesting a literal split personality between royalist and revolutionary cuisines, for old faithfuls and new foodies. Contrary to normal political symbolism, the menu’s left-hand side features the traditional French haute cuisine favored by the local prosperous golf-and-tennis set. The right side is where nearly-new chef Patrick Ponsaty, aged 32, struts his stuff, and his stuff can revolutionize your taste buds. Every dish seems to have some shockingly wonderful surprise, whether the salty-crisp sea-beans decorating a John Dory, the strong floral note in a honey-lavender sauce for duck breast, or, most astonishing of all, an object resembling a roast turnip that, upon tasting, proves to be a large, luscious hunk of crisp-tender porcini mushroom, garnishing a squab.

In the Beginning:

“I’m the fifth generation of chefs in my family,” Ponsaty relates. “My grandfather was a chef, my great-grandfather was a chef, and my father continued the tradition in a family restaurant called Le Cochon du Lait in Toulouse. As a young man I was given the opportunity to work with a famous chef, Darroze, at his one-star Michelin restaurant.” (France’s Guide Michelin lists restaurants nationwide in a thick little red book issued by the Michelin Tire Company, with ratings based on the findings of reviewers eating anonymously throughout the country. Most listed restaurants get no stars; the best receive from one to three stars — the first star is for outstanding food, the next two are for even better food plus excellent service and decor.)

“I did my apprenticeship there for two years,” Ponsaty adds, “and then I continued at Alain Ducasse and Oudill. Then I went to Spain to work at Martín Berasategui, where I was chef. It’s expected to get a third Michelin star next year. Then I went to New York and worked for Jean-Michel Diot [now of Tapenade] for two years. He wanted to move to California, and so did my wife, and I wanted a better life too. I worked with Jean-Michel at Tapenade for the first several months. Jean-Michel was consulting for El Bizcocho; they wanted him to come but he recommended me, so they called me and I came. I still live one block from Tapenade, so on my nights off I often go to eat there with my wife and my little girl.”

In the Kitchen:

“My role in the kitchen is to work on the line everywhere. We have a tasting menu that we change every two weeks, and I work only with seasonal produce,” Ponsaty explains. “I buy fish from France like turbot and Dover sole, and I buy mushrooms from there. The turbot and sole are the most popular dishes. I serve them as specials, and I play with them — every week I change the garnishes, the accompaniments. The best produce makes the best food. And I do pastries too. I love it!

“I set out food for the staff to taste, and I work a lot with the sommelier. Every time I change the menu, try a new dish, we sit together and we work on the wine, deciding which one would go best with the new dish. The wine list was already in place when I arrived. It’s very impressive; you can find almost any wine in the world, bottled in the best years.”

Ponsaty insisted that I tell him in detail what I’d eaten for dinner at El Bizcocho. (Luckily, I had pages of notes at hand.) One dish I loved especially, I told him, was a duck breast garnished with an unannounced, almost casual round of perfectly sautéed duck foie gras (as though foie gras were no big deal). “I’m from the southwest of France, and we use foie gras a lot,” Ponsaty laughed. “There we put it into every dish. We even have it for breakfast sometimes.”

In San Diego:

“There are so many dishes I would like to cook here that people don’t order,” Ponsaty observed. “Sometimes I like to work with sea urchin. I put it on the menu last week but nobody ordered it. And squab — we’re doing squab more and more now, but when I first tried to put it on the menu, we didn’t sell any. The rabbit doesn’t sell, so I stopped cooking it, and of course tripe doesn’t sell. But I think the customers here are growing more interested in trying new foods. I hope they’ll understand, more and more, the food that we’re serving here. When we cook something special for the first time, if the customer tries it and likes it and orders it again, then we can keep cooking it. That’s how the food in San Diego can become more and more interesting. All my life I’ve wanted to give pleasure to the customer, and introducing new dishes is very much part of my pleasure.”

Lagniappe:

“The last meal of my life? I’d eat half a pound of caviar, some foie gras, turbot, a nice côte de bouef [beef tenderloin], or perhaps squab.”

DOUG ORGAN AT LAUREL (AND WINESELLAR AND BRASSERIE)

Doug Organ, who at 38 has been cooking spectacularly in San Diego for nearly 20 years, has become so skilled that he can even make rhubarb taste good — and not just mixed with pepper-sprinkled balsamic strawberries at dessert but blended with port as a sauce for a foie gras appetizer. With its chic, dramatic architecture and sophisticated menu, Organ’s Laurel Restaurant could have been transported intact from downtown San Francisco to downtown San Diego. Southern France and northern Italy (with hints of North India and North Africa) furnish the core of a subtly venturesome bill of fare.

In the Beginning:

“I started cooking in restaurants while I was in high school,” Organ reminisces. “I needed a job and fell into it and found it was something I really liked a lot. It was a short-order type restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe called Quimby’s. From there I just started going at it — reading a lot and learning on the job. The first real restaurant I worked at, a place in Solana Beach called Frederick’s, was very small, with no menu choices, just a single prix fixe menu that changed every night. I don’t know if my boss was very smart or very stupid, but he let me do what I wanted to do. When I left three years later the restaurant had tripled in size. It kind of grew with me as I learned and became a little more confident — and it became a little more expensive as well. I think that not being schooled makes you kind of fearless. You’re too stupid to know not to do things. If they turn out, they turn out; if not, you start over again.

“I owned my first restaurant when I was 21. I don’t know if that was stupid or smart either. It was called 926. I had it from 1984 to ’86, then I sold it. I was just too young, I wanted to do other things, to go to Europe. Meanwhile, there was a restaurant called Gustaf Anders that’s up in Orange County now. Ulf Anders, the chef, is a good friend of mine, and I worked there for a couple of months right before I went to Europe because I was just bored out of my mind. When I finally got to travel, I spent most of my time in France at a two-star restaurant in Burgundy called La Côte St.-Jacques, in Joigny, north of Dijon, at the northernmost tip of Burgundy. I got there right when they got their third Michelin star — they were on the rise, it was great. I was there for a couple of months, working all over the place — meats, fish, garde-manger [pantry ingredients, e.g., soup stocks]. They were really nice. Then I worked in Taillevent [a longtime Michelin three-star] in Paris, which was kind of difficult — I didn’t get to see a lot because the kitchen’s very small, you know Paris real estate prices, so I had to work downstairs in the cave. I was down there with the guy who handed up the wines, it was like a catacomb. I used to hear the Metro trains run by a lot.

“I didn’t learn about wine there. The French don’t drink all that much great wine, they drink a lot of bad wine. It’s amazing how bad their supermarket wine is, with the little pop-tops on it. All the good wine comes here.”

In the Kitchen:

“Everything on my menus is based on the raw products that I can get,” Organ notes. “That’s the core of everything. We buy from organic farms — not Chino, they don’t deliver and I don’t have time to go there every day. There’s one in the Rancho Bernardo area, Be-Wise Ranch, and they deliver. I buy our fish from a lot of different sources — some comes from Hawaii, some from some local companies, some from the East Coast. There certainly is nothing off the coast of San Diego that is worth putting on a menu.

“Wine plays a really important part in my restaurants, especially WineSellar. I try to make most of the dishes wine-friendly. I try not to overpower things, to get too intense with all kinds of weird flavors because wine won’t go with it. At Laurel I use a lot bolder flavors, more Provençal and Italian, while at WineSellar the food is a lot simpler, more basic modern French cuisine. My partner Gary Parker handles the wine end of things. He used to work for me at 926, and he was always more ‘front of the house,’ dealing with customers, while I was ‘back of the house.’ He’d opened a wine store, we hooked up again when I got back from Europe, and we opened WineSellar together.

“Having two restaurants is probably like having children. They kind of dictate to me where I need to be, and I go where I’m needed. I have very good people in both restaurants. At Laurel the chef de cuisine is Felipe Gonzalez. He and I ran the kitchen at the WineSellar for years; he came on board as a sous-chef about a year after we opened. He was moved to Laurel to open that restaurant. The chef at WineSellar and Brasserie is Scott Diehl. He started at Laurel and I brought him up to run WineSellar for me. I’m lucky to have two good people who understand my style and know the restaurant. I don’t work the line very much. If I did, I’d no longer have the freedom to go where I’m needed. When I opened WineSellar and Brasserie, I was 27, and I’d go in at 8:00 in the morning and work until 11:00 at night and never leave. I’d go in and make pastries, and then make lunch, then cook the dinner and close up. I could not do that today, it would be horrible.”

One of Organ’s best and most popular dishes is duck confit (duck stewed and then preserved in its own salted fat); unlike most, the duck-meat in his rendition remains moist. “It’s a classic duck confit,” he says, “and it’s not the easiest thing to make. Getting that technique down was something I was happy I could do. We also do a clay-pot chicken marinated in herbs that’s very simple but it comes off very nicely, and we sell a lot of pork tenderloin wrapped in pancetta too. Often I put things on the menu that I know are not going to sell very well, but I just want to have them on the menu. I do kidneys sometimes. We actually sell a lot of sweetbreads. There’s nothing that’s necessarily off-limits.”

Organ designs his restaurants’ desserts as well as appetizers and entrées. “That came out of necessity,” he says. “I couldn’t afford a pastry chef, and I wanted to have desserts that were made on the premises, so I just did ’em. So dessert is just part of the repertoire now. I’m fortunate that I have people who can produce my desserts from my recipes on a day-to-day basis. Pastry takes a lot of concentration and exacting measurements, and I don’t have the patience for it anymore.

“Food is such a wonderful thing, as far as designing menus. When I was younger I was going to be an architect, but I realized that I couldn’t, because if I built a building and had to drive by it every day and I couldn’t change it, it would frustrate me. I’d find faults in it all the time and want to change it. The great thing about food is that it’s moldable and bendable and if it doesn’t work, you can throw it away and start over again. A dish will change throughout the course of a night sometimes. From what it started out up to what it ended up as, it might go through a few different variations — the same flavor, the same sensibility, but it might be presented differently. I’m fortunate to have a couple of venues to be able to do that. People ask me, ‘Why don’t you write a cookbook?’, but that goes back to the whole building thing. I’d look at it in two years and ask, ‘What was I thinking?’ and I’d want to just burn it and start all over again.”

In San Diego:

“San Diego’s tough,” Organ admits. “I’ve seen it grow, I’ve seen it stagnate and grow again. I’ve seen a lot of good people come and go — a lot of good chefs have come in from out of town and not made it. The public is tough. Another thing that’s odd is that we don’t have a lot of neighborhood restaurants, and I don’t know why — not the nice, small neighborhood restaurants that you have all over the city in San Francisco. I don’t think San Diegans are quite ready to support them. I look at a restaurant like Laurel and I know that in addition to local people, I also need the convention business to make that restaurant go. Being located where it is, on weekends it’s difficult to get people in there, if not for the convention center. And at Brasserie on weekday nights, the whole restaurant’s populated by guys in suits on expense accounts.”

Lagniappe:

“I need to develop my customers’ confidence more, so they’ll trust me and try some very typical Mexican dishes that aren’t served in the U.S., like ant eggs — they’re like caviar, really nice, and if nobody told you what you were eating, you’d enjoy it. But as soon as you knew what it was, you wouldn’t like it anymore.”


PATRICK PONSATY AT EL BIZCOCHO

Ensconced at the deluxe Rancho Bernardo Inn, some 45 minutes north of downtown, for food lovers El Bizcocho is worth both the trek and the considerable tab. Although the room is stunningly beautiful and rather formal (jackets are required), a genuinely considerate room-captain ensures an atmosphere of pleasure, rather than hauteur. The menu also rides a fine line — manifesting a literal split personality between royalist and revolutionary cuisines, for old faithfuls and new foodies. Contrary to normal political symbolism, the menu’s left-hand side features the traditional French haute cuisine favored by the local prosperous golf-and-tennis set. The right side is where nearly-new chef Patrick Ponsaty, aged 32, struts his stuff, and his stuff can revolutionize your taste buds. Every dish seems to have some shockingly wonderful surprise, whether the salty-crisp sea-beans decorating a John Dory, the strong floral note in a honey-lavender sauce for duck breast, or, most astonishing of all, an object resembling a roast turnip that, upon tasting, proves to be a large, luscious hunk of crisp-tender porcini mushroom, garnishing a squab.

In the Beginning:

“I’m the fifth generation of chefs in my family,” Ponsaty relates. “My grandfather was a chef, my great-grandfather was a chef, and my father continued the tradition in a family restaurant called Le Cochon du Lait in Toulouse. As a young man I was given the opportunity to work with a famous chef, Darroze, at his one-star Michelin restaurant.” (France’s Guide Michelin lists restaurants nationwide in a thick little red book issued by the Michelin Tire Company, with ratings based on the findings of reviewers eating anonymously throughout the country. Most listed restaurants get no stars; the best receive from one to three stars — the first star is for outstanding food, the next two are for even better food plus excellent service and decor.)

“I did my apprenticeship there for two years,” Ponsaty adds, “and then I continued at Alain Ducasse and Oudill. Then I went to Spain to work at Martín Berasategui, where I was chef. It’s expected to get a third Michelin star next year. Then I went to New York and worked for Jean-Michel Diot [now of Tapenade] for two years. He wanted to move to California, and so did my wife, and I wanted a better life too. I worked with Jean-Michel at Tapenade for the first several months. Jean-Michel was consulting for El Bizcocho; they wanted him to come but he recommended me, so they called me and I came. I still live one block from Tapenade, so on my nights off I often go to eat there with my wife and my little girl.”

In the Kitchen:

“My role in the kitchen is to work on the line everywhere. We have a tasting menu that we change every two weeks, and I work only with seasonal produce,” Ponsaty explains. “I buy fish from France like turbot and Dover sole, and I buy mushrooms from there. The turbot and sole are the most popular dishes. I serve them as specials, and I play with them — every week I change the garnishes, the accompaniments. The best produce makes the best food. And I do pastries too. I love it!

“I set out food for the staff to taste, and I work a lot with the sommelier. Every time I change the menu, try a new dish, we sit together and we work on the wine, deciding which one would go best with the new dish. The wine list was already in place when I arrived. It’s very impressive; you can find almost any wine in the world, bottled in the best years.”

Ponsaty insisted that I tell him in detail what I’d eaten for dinner at El Bizcocho. (Luckily, I had pages of notes at hand.) One dish I loved especially, I told him, was a duck breast garnished with an unannounced, almost casual round of perfectly sautéed duck foie gras (as though foie gras were no big deal). “I’m from the southwest of France, and we use foie gras a lot,” Ponsaty laughed. “There we put it into every dish. We even have it for breakfast sometimes.”

In San Diego:

“There are so many dishes I would like to cook here that people don’t order,” Ponsaty observed. “Sometimes I like to work with sea urchin. I put it on the menu last week but nobody ordered it. And squab — we’re doing squab more and more now, but when I first tried to put it on the menu, we didn’t sell any. The rabbit doesn’t sell, so I stopped cooking it, and of course tripe doesn’t sell. But I think the customers here are growing more interested in trying new foods. I hope they’ll understand, more and more, the food that we’re serving here. When we cook something special for the first time, if the customer tries it and likes it and orders it again, then we can keep cooking it. That’s how the food in San Diego can become more and more interesting. All my life I’ve wanted to give pleasure to the customer, and introducing new dishes is very much part of my pleasure.”

Lagniappe:

“The last meal of my life? I’d eat half a pound of caviar, some foie gras, turbot, a nice côte de bouef [beef tenderloin], or perhaps squab.”


DOUG ORGAN AT LAUREL (AND WINESELLAR AND BRASSERIE)

Doug Organ, who at 38 has been cooking spectacularly in San Diego for nearly 20 years, has become so skilled that he can even make rhubarb taste good — and not just mixed with pepper-sprinkled balsamic strawberries at dessert but blended with port as a sauce for a foie gras appetizer. With its chic, dramatic architecture and sophisticated menu, Organ’s Laurel Restaurant could have been transported intact from downtown San Francisco to downtown San Diego. Southern France and northern Italy (with hints of North India and North Africa) furnish the core of a subtly venturesome bill of fare.

In the Beginning:

“I started cooking in restaurants while I was in high school,” Organ reminisces. “I needed a job and fell into it and found it was something I really liked a lot. It was a short-order type restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe called Quimby’s. From there I just started going at it — reading a lot and learning on the job. The first real restaurant I worked at, a place in Solana Beach called Frederick’s, was very small, with no menu choices, just a single prix fixe menu that changed every night. I don’t know if my boss was very smart or very stupid, but he let me do what I wanted to do. When I left three years later the restaurant had tripled in size. It kind of grew with me as I learned and became a little more confident — and it became a little more expensive as well. I think that not being schooled makes you kind of fearless. You’re too stupid to know not to do things. If they turn out, they turn out; if not, you start over again.

“I owned my first restaurant when I was 21. I don’t know if that was stupid or smart either. It was called 926. I had it from 1984 to ’86, then I sold it. I was just too young, I wanted to do other things, to go to Europe. Meanwhile, there was a restaurant called Gustaf Anders that’s up in Orange County now. Ulf Anders, the chef, is a good friend of mine, and I worked there for a couple of months right before I went to Europe because I was just bored out of my mind. When I finally got to travel, I spent most of my time in France at a two-star restaurant in Burgundy called La Côte St.-Jacques, in Joigny, north of Dijon, at the northernmost tip of Burgundy. I got there right when they got their third Michelin star — they were on the rise, it was great. I was there for a couple of months, working all over the place — meats, fish, garde-manger [pantry ingredients, e.g., soup stocks]. They were really nice. Then I worked in Taillevent [a longtime Michelin three-star] in Paris, which was kind of difficult — I didn’t get to see a lot because the kitchen’s very small, you know Paris real estate prices, so I had to work downstairs in the cave. I was down there with the guy who handed up the wines, it was like a catacomb. I used to hear the Metro trains run by a lot.

“I didn’t learn about wine there. The French don’t drink all that much great wine, they drink a lot of bad wine. It’s amazing how bad their supermarket wine is, with the little pop-tops on it. All the good wine comes here.”

In the Kitchen:

“Everything on my menus is based on the raw products that I can get,” Organ notes. “That’s the core of everything. We buy from organic farms — not Chino, they don’t deliver and I don’t have time to go there every day. There’s one in the Rancho Bernardo area, Be-Wise Ranch, and they deliver. I buy our fish from a lot of different sources — some comes from Hawaii, some from some local companies, some from the East Coast. There certainly is nothing off the coast of San Diego that is worth putting on a menu.

“Wine plays a really important part in my restaurants, especially WineSellar. I try to make most of the dishes wine-friendly. I try not to overpower things, to get too intense with all kinds of weird flavors because wine won’t go with it. At Laurel I use a lot bolder flavors, more Provençal and Italian, while at WineSellar the food is a lot simpler, more basic modern French cuisine. My partner Gary Parker handles the wine end of things. He used to work for me at 926, and he was always more ‘front of the house,’ dealing with customers, while I was ‘back of the house.’ He’d opened a wine store, we hooked up again when I got back from Europe, and we opened WineSellar together.

“Having two restaurants is probably like having children. They kind of dictate to me where I need to be, and I go where I’m needed. I have very good people in both restaurants. At Laurel the chef de cuisine is Felipe Gonzalez. He and I ran the kitchen at the WineSellar for years; he came on board as a sous-chef about a year after we opened. He was moved to Laurel to open that restaurant. The chef at WineSellar and Brasserie is Scott Diehl. He started at Laurel and I brought him up to run WineSellar for me. I’m lucky to have two good people who understand my style and know the restaurant. I don’t work the line very much. If I did, I’d no longer have the freedom to go where I’m needed. When I opened WineSellar and Brasserie, I was 27, and I’d go in at 8:00 in the morning and work until 11:00 at night and never leave. I’d go in and make pastries, and then make lunch, then cook the dinner and close up. I could not do that today, it would be horrible.”

One of Organ’s best and most popular dishes is duck confit (duck stewed and then preserved in its own salted fat); unlike most, the duck-meat in his rendition remains moist. “It’s a classic duck confit,” he says, “and it’s not the easiest thing to make. Getting that technique down was something I was happy I could do. We also do a clay-pot chicken marinated in herbs that’s very simple but it comes off very nicely, and we sell a lot of pork tenderloin wrapped in pancetta too. Often I put things on the menu that I know are not going to sell very well, but I just want to have them on the menu. I do kidneys sometimes. We actually sell a lot of sweetbreads. There’s nothing that’s necessarily off-limits.”

Organ designs his restaurants’ desserts as well as appetizers and entrées. “That came out of necessity,” he says. “I couldn’t afford a pastry chef, and I wanted to have desserts that were made on the premises, so I just did ’em. So dessert is just part of the repertoire now. I’m fortunate that I have people who can produce my desserts from my recipes on a day-to-day basis. Pastry takes a lot of concentration and exacting measurements, and I don’t have the patience for it anymore.

“Food is such a wonderful thing, as far as designing menus. When I was younger I was going to be an architect, but I realized that I couldn’t, because if I built a building and had to drive by it every day and I couldn’t change it, it would frustrate me. I’d find faults in it all the time and want to change it. The great thing about food is that it’s moldable and bendable and if it doesn’t work, you can throw it away and start over again. A dish will change throughout the course of a night sometimes. From what it started out up to what it ended up as, it might go through a few different variations — the same flavor, the same sensibility, but it might be presented differently. I’m fortunate to have a couple of venues to be able to do that. People ask me, ‘Why don’t you write a cookbook?’, but that goes back to the whole building thing. I’d look at it in two years and ask, ‘What was I thinking?’ and I’d want to just burn it and start all over again.”

In San Diego:

“San Diego’s tough,” Organ admits. “I’ve seen it grow, I’ve seen it stagnate and grow again. I’ve seen a lot of good people come and go — a lot of good chefs have come in from out of town and not made it. The public is tough. Another thing that’s odd is that we don’t have a lot of neighborhood restaurants, and I don’t know why — not the nice, small neighborhood restaurants that you have all over the city in San Francisco. I don’t think San Diegans are quite ready to support them. I look at a restaurant like Laurel and I know that in addition to local people, I also need the convention business to make that restaurant go. Being located where it is, on weekends it’s difficult to get people in there, if not for the convention center. And at Brasserie on weekday nights, the whole restaurant’s populated by guys in suits on expense accounts.”

Lagniappe:

“The best food I’ve ever eaten was when the owners of Frederick’s took me traveling with them, and they went to New York City. I was all of 19 and we went to Lutèce. I’d never eaten food like that in all my life. There was a crab soup that was truly incredible. That was the turning point for me. And years ago, when Spago first opened on Sunset Boulevard and Wolfgang Puck was actually in the kitchen, ten of us went there together and sat there right in front of the kitchen, trading plates around. That was revolutionary, food like I’d never seen before. But the last meal of my life? I don’t know, it’d probably be something simple, maybe an avocado sandwich.”

BERNARD GUILLAS AT THE MARINE ROOM

With Bernard Guillas as top toque, the Marine Room has probably become the ideal San Diego restaurant — it’s got that awesome ocean view, that relaxed-but-romantic ambiance, and best of all, it has a chef of boundless, exuberant energy and skill. His high-adventure cuisine stands with one foot firmly rooted in France and the other dipping into the Pacific — while a finger or two stretches toward Mexico. It’s an impressive balancing act, but balance is the signature of Guillas’s cuisine. Each dish reads, in print, like a whole tasting dinner (or a parody of an overprecise California menu) — until you taste your food, and it all comes together into a coherent, delight-full dance of flavors. Guillas, 37, has not only been honored with an invitation to spend this September cooking at James Beard House, but he was also named San Diego magazine’s “Chef of the Year.” Although it’s hard to choose just one, I’m inclined to agree.

In the Beginning:

“My family is in the food business — I have an uncle who’s a butcher, I have an uncle who’s a baker, and my mother has been involved in the restaurant business,” Guillas recalls. “But what really made me become a chef is that we have a career day in France once a week from age 12 to 14. Every two weeks, we had two hours — I did the welding, the woodworking, the mechanic shop — and one day I looked around and said, ‘Eh, where are the girls?’ They were doing cooking, sewing — ‘Perfect, I’m going to do the cooking, forget about that grease stuff!’

“Everything that we’d make in class would be the best. My family noticed that I was really interested, and the superintendent of the school wanted me to go to a cooking school, but I didn’t want to go to school anymore, I wanted to really learn the fine art of cooking. We had a great-aunt who worked as a maid in a two-star Michelin hotel restaurant, Georges Paineau, so she asked Mr. Paineau and he said yes, of course, because all my grades at school were really high and I was one year ahead of the class. So starting at 15, I did an apprenticeship for two years. It was really, really neat. I was living in his hotel, and I’d go home once a week on a bicycle, about 20 kilometers. In an apprenticeship in France, you have to be very cautious, because this is how restaurants get some great help at a very cheap price and everybody works like dogs — you pay your dues. But George Paineau was a great master and teacher at the same time. He was teaching us like schoolchildren. My mom told him, ‘Treat him as your son. If he doesn’t behave, do what you’d do to your son.’ But I was a good boy.

“This was in Brittany, very close to the ocean, 20 minutes from the beach. We would go to the market every Wednesday in Nantes, about 100 miles away. We would take the car and leave at about 11 o’clock at night, arrive at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning at this huge market that was open at that hour. He selected at the market not only for appearance, but flavor. He was pretty much The Man over there, the chef in Brittany, and he’d get the best over there — the fraises des bois, the fish. When you start from scratch that way, you really get respect for food and understanding of ingredients.

“I have been very blessed to work with only maîtres de cuisine in France — I think there’s only about 100, 110 of them in the world. The maîtres de cuisine in France are like trainers — they keep their eyes on the kids who have potential, and they continue to talk to each other and follow what we’re doing and where we are.” As he advanced through the ranks, Guillas learned pantry and pastry duties at Abbaye de Villeneuve, an acclaimed restaurant-hotel in an old monastery near Nantes, and then worked all stations at L’Auberge Bretonne in Nantes itself. “We would go to the market in Nantes about three times a week,” he recalls, “so everything was fresh. And we had fishermen coming in with the wild salmon, with lamprey eels — live, everything live!

“Since I was a kid, I’d wanted to travel all around the world,” he continues. He started to get his wish when he went to work in French Guyana, near the European space shuttle launch facility. Every time a shuttle crashed, the restaurant would close. “Overall, I think I worked for nine months and was off for three months,” Guillas recalls. “I traveled to Brazil and to Suriname, and I was really able to learn a lot. I became friends with a Saramacca Indian dishwasher at the restaurant and lived with him and his family in the Amazon for about three weeks. I was 20 at that point, and when you’re 20, know what? You’re not scared of anything.

“Then I came back to France and worked in a one-star Michelin, Les Maraichers. It was located 200 yards from the big market in Nantes, so every day we would go to the market. But I was 22 and wanted to travel more. A maître de cuisine in France heard somehow that I was looking to move, and one day I received a letter from the Restaurant Maison Blanche in Washington D.C., right across from the White House. That was Monsieur Chambrin, who became the chef for President Bush and then Clinton. The most organized kitchen I ever worked in was the Maison Blanche. It was incredible — the cleanliness and structure. I learned a lot from that and from the high sanitation standards they held. Here I have three kitchens — the Marine Room, the Sea Lodge hotel, and the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. I have about 70 people working for me, so I have to be really structured.”

After working at the Maison Blanche for three years, and putting in another two at the Mayflower Hotel, Guillas was fully expecting that his next posting would be Manhattan, as executive sous-chef at Petrossian, the caviar restaurant. “I went there, did the interview, everything was good,” he recalls, “but the very day that I came back from New York, another maître de cuisine in France called me and said, ‘You’re going to San Diego.’ I said, ‘What? Do I have a say in this?’ He says, ‘Not really. It’s best for you to step up and take a position as chef de cuisine now. You’re ready for it. And you’re going to love it here.’ So I packed up my big convertible and drove cross-country and arrived at the U.S. Grant Hotel, where I was executive chef de cuisine at the Grant Grill for five years. This is where I was able to learn to run a restaurant, instead of running only the kitchen — to do the profit-and-loss statement, to make a budget, to be really involved in the accountability. In America, it’s not only cooking but it’s also ‘What is the bottom line?’ ”

In the Kitchen:

At all three restaurants where he’s executive chef, Guillas oversees every detail from shopping for produce to creating pastries (executed for him by an off-premises pastry chef, since the Marine Room kitchen is somewhat cramped and has nowhere to expand but into the sea). He designed the cranberry bread, which is baked by a company in Escondido and served at the restaurant with a slab of Plugra, a premium European butter. He chooses dinnerware and crystal, scouts worldwide for wines, and is even helping plan the renovation of the Marine Room’s interior that’s scheduled for next January. (He’s also working on a cooking show and a book and will do a guest-chef stint in Australia in October and November.) Yet he shows no sign of weariness.

“Chefs should always do their ordering themselves,” he says. “They should receive every product, so they can check on quality, consistency, and also develop a dialogue with the vendors and with farmers, so you really are getting the best, freshest, tastiest, and most consistent quality. At the Marine Room, my freezer is the size of your refrigerator. We get deliveries every day, even Sundays. The product stays at the Marine Room no more than 36 hours, then we discard it.

“The menus have to be changed seasonally. Restaurants sometimes keep the same menu for three, four months, even after ingredients run out because they’re no longer in season. I think that when you change ingredients, you should reprint the menu — you can’t be stuck on a piece of paper. And I believe in truth on the menu. What’s on the menu is on the plate. This is where you can see what the chef and the company he works for are all about and whether they really do what they say they are doing.”

Guillas ranges far afield for his ingredients. “There’s not much fish in San Diego waters,” he observes, “so my fish come from Northern California, from the East Coast, from Hawaii. I work with some fishermen in Fiji — God bless America for the cell phone! — guys call me and say, ‘I have 300 pounds of opakapaka, do you want it?’ They put it on the plane, and next day, boom! it’s in the kitchen. Same thing with tuna from Hawaii. The giant prawns and diver sea scallops come from Mexico. Vegetables, I get a lot from L.A., a broker who goes to the market every day and every night, and I’ve been working with little farms. The truffles come from France; so does the duck foie gras — it’s Grade A and my God, I’m using 20 pounds a week! But I use every bit of it — the fat that melts off I use to sauté potatoes, the trims are strained and go into foie gras butter. Sometimes my boys in the kitchen say, ‘Man, this guy just doesn’t lose anything.’

“I come in at nine in the morning. I spend about two hours in my office doing the ordering and the accounts and then go to the kitchen. I work six days a week, about 12 hours a day, with 10 hours in the kitchen. The reason I do that is — because I love it! In the morning, it’s like I’m going from my house to my other house. I’m there every night and I expedite the food. I make sure that the finishing touch is completed — all the presentation, all the garnishes. I have a very, very talented young chef de cuisine that I hired about two years ago from the Peabody Grill in Florida, Ron Oliver. Ron is very organized, and we complete each other really well. When we work on menus and dishes, he really gets it. He loves to work on the line, and he brings a sense of teamwork to the kitchen. On weekends, we have 12 to 14 people cooking. Each one cooks a maximum of three to four different dishes each. I have one person who does sauces only. I have one who cooks the vegetables only, all night long. And I have a person who designs the plating, putting the foods and sauces and garnishes on the plate. Then you have myself or an expediter whom I have trained, putting on the final garnishes — the fresh herbs, the little flowers.

“What’s important is — I started at 15, so I know what ingredients taste like. When I do a menu now, I know what will work and what won’t work. I can taste it. When I go to a restaurant and read a menu, I can taste it. When there are problems, it’s from the way chefs are trained here. I get kids coming in, graduates of cooking school. We have a tendency when we’re young to think, the more ingredients the merrier, but when it goes on the plate, there’s no synergy. One ingredient clashes with the other, or one is overpowering. You can do beautiful designs on the plate and the customer will go, ‘Oh wow!’, but after that, everything on the plate had better taste real good and work well together. It’s a balance of all those things.

“When I’m training my cooks, I give them a very heavy cushion of error. If somebody overcooks a fish, I say, ‘Don’t serve it, don’t even try. Keep it for yourself and you’ll get to eat it after work. I will never, never blame you for it, but you will learn. When you eat that fish — well, you’ll see it’s not that great.’ This training tool has been working very well to show the quality and texture and how food should taste. I do a lot of guest-chef stuff, where I’m gone for two or three weeks, so I make the deal that all my chefs will have two days off a week, which is unheard of in this city, where they’re all working six days. But it really works, because they’re really performing!

“You have to have your waitstaff really involved with the menu,” Guillas continues. “We have a handwritten sheet of specials every night and change them twice a week. It’s like the signature of the restaurant. We have tastings every day with the waitstaff, so they really know what they are selling. And sometimes they say, ‘Chef, you’re pushing the envelope on this one,’ and you know something? They’re right, and we’ll redo it. It’s a team, it’s family, and it’s not just the chef saying, ‘That’s the way it is.’ You have to be balanced or it’s not good, it’s not comfortable on the palate.”

In San Diego:

Many of Guillas’s dishes include Asian ingredients, which he first encountered in San Diego. He confirmed that he first encountered them here, at an Asian market he wandered into when he was working downtown. “I’d go over there and look at things, the new ingredients, exciting! One day, an old Vietnamese lady who worked there came over and spoke with me in French. I asked her, if she had the time, could she teach me how to cook with these ingredients.” She did, and now Guillas shops regularly at 99 Ranch in Kearny Mesa. “It’s my ‘third house,’ ” he says. “Ron, my chef de cuisine, loves and has extensive knowledge of South American products, so he also brought a lot to the picture. We experiment together. Lately we’ve been going to a Persian market in Los Angeles. Everywhere I go, I learn something.

“Local people love my cuisine,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of education. We sell about 40 percent specials every day, which is very high. And the ones that sell like crazy show what people like. But you have to be careful that you balance the foundation of your menu with dishes that people here care for, like lobster bisque and filet mignon. You have to work with your clientele. A good chef is like a sorcerer who dispenses happiness on the plate.”

Lagniappe:

“The best dinner I ever ate was at Le Grand Vefour, a three-star Michelin in Paris. I came in with Doreen, my girlfriend, and I said it’s been three years since I’ve been in France. They asked if I had time, I said sure. We had a 14-course lunch; we started at one-thirty and we were done at six o’clock. One dish I loved was Potage Dubarry, a soup of sea scallops with cauliflower puree, scented with white truffles. That soup was served in a little cup, with the truffle just blowing into your nose. I still like very simple food, but it has to be very intense in flavor.

“For my last meal? Beluga caviar with a nice little shot glass of vodka, most likely Grey Goose or Belvedere. Then I would have my foie gras with a nice bottle of champagne, a Roederer Rosé — when you have to die, die in style, forget about it! Then most likely a really nice onaga, a fish with some guts, some nice texture, poached, with some risotto with buttercup squash, and salad with that to balance it. Then I’d go for some antelope, some wild game. Then I’d have French cheese, and I’d finish with some really nice figs poached in red wine with a little cinnamon, and some Häagen-Dazs dulce de leche ice cream. A ’70 or ’77 port. And right after that, you make love and you just pass on right in the middle of that! Ah, life is good! If you love what you do, you don’t count the hours. Everything just falls into place.”

MARTIN WOESLE AT MILLE FLEURS

Everybody goes to Mille Fleurs for graduation dinner. The rest of the time, the diamond-bedecked, face-lifted residents of tres riche Rancho Santa Fe (along with the occasional Hollywood celeb) make it their hangout, especially on weeknights. (The restaurant is about 45 minutes from downtown by car, or 35 minutes by suv.) Actually, I wanted to hate Mille Fleurs, especially when I perused the heartbreaking bankruptcy-in-a-book wine list, with its astonishing array of fully-aged major French bordeaux. But then I looked more closely at the menu: It changes nightly, so that every dish is a “special.” And when the plates started arriving, quite forgetting about other people’s jewelry, I surrendered to the food. Woesle’s technique (and his kitchen management) is simply formidable: For instance, he’s among the very few local chefs to serve squab properly, cooked medium-rare, instead of medium-well. (That gently reared little game bird is not, after all, some sickly factory chicken.) His style is close to classic Continental haute cuisine but modernized with much lighter sauces and brightened with unexpected ingredients that often hint at the chef’s Northern European upbringing.

In the Beginning:

“Before I decided to become a chef, I decided to become a cook,” says Woesle. “In America, you call anybody a chef, even the fellow making hamburgers. In any case, when I got out of school, at 16, there’s a good German tradition that you learn some sort of profession, and you do an apprenticeship for some years. First I wanted to go into the electronics field, but there were no positions available. Then I noticed that there was always something available to learn how to cook. You’ll always have something to eat, you’re in a warm kitchen, and you can go around the world, so I thought I’d give it a try. I was lucky to get into a very well known hotel restaurant in Southern Germany, at Überlingen, near the Swiss and Austrian borders, about an hour from my home. I stayed at the hotel — another thing I liked, being young, was being able to move out of the house. I learned from the best, two well-known French chefs who were working there.

“From there, I worked in Ravensburg in two Michelin two-star restaurants for a couple of years. Then I wanted to work at the best restaurant in Germany at that time, the first three-star restaurant there, called the Aubergine, in Munich. Their waiting list was for a couple of years, so I went to work the winter season in Switzerland at a ski resort. It was high up in the mountains, and every afternoon I was out of the kitchen and onto the ski slopes. Finally I went to work at the Aubergine for a couple of years, and after that went to the Black Forest to study at the Master Chef’s School, which grants the highest degree in cooking. It’s not an easy exam to pass — often 50 percent fail. I was there for three months. I was the youngest student there, but I finished best in my class. After school was finished in December, I went back to Switzerland for another winter season at a ski resort.

“That spring, I was offered a job in California. Some of my good customers in Ravensburg owned a little health spa and sold it so they could open a similar spa in California, near San Diego. They offered me a job cooking, and I was young and single, so I went. The spa was so small that sometimes I was cooking for only two ladies.” The spa closed after a year, due to financial bleeding by a crooked partner, but Woesle wanted to remain in California. “I drove around, looking for a job, and I finally found work as a pastry chef in Los Angeles, but I worked there only three months until I learned that they were looking for a chef at Mille Fleurs. I was hired the minute I walked in. This was 1985. The owner, Bertrand Hug, had just taken over the restaurant one month earlier, and it was very busy. Then he got into an argument with the chef he’d brought with him, and the chef left. I just went in and talked with him for a few minutes and was hired right away. He was hoping I’d organize things, because it was a mess.”

In the Kitchen:

“I’m more a working chef than an executive chef,” Woesle explains. “We’re a small restaurant and I like to cook, so I’m in the kitchen every day. If I’m not on the line I’m doing garde-manger [pantry] or salad. I work all around to keep up and help out the staff and show them how it’s supposed to be done.

“My favorite things to cook are salads and appetizers,” he notes. “Certain dishes have some German influence, some have some French, or some Italian. I don’t call my cooking ‘French,’ it’s more like ‘European.’ ” Woesle also invents all the desserts himself, changing them seasonally every six to eight weeks, and then teaches his pastry staff how to execute them.

“I use as much local food as possible, especially produce from Chino Farm. I’m lucky, it’s only five minutes from the restaurant. And I like to use fresh seafood from the Pacific. I shop every day and I don’t buy very big quantities, just one or two days’ worth. After shopping, I make the menu for the day. During lunch, I decide my menu for the dinner. Then, at night, I make the menu for the next day for lunch. And so it has gone for 15 years.”

In San Diego:

“I was the first one in this area to put foie gras on the menu,” Woesle recalls. “At that time people here had never tried it. By now, a lot of local people come here in order to eat unusual things like rabbit, liver, sweetbreads, veal tongue, herring, smoked eel. Even if only two people order it, I know it’s good, so I’ll put it on the menu again, and those who try it always love it. The one thing I don’t like about cooking in this area is that people do not want to come here on weekdays after work, and sometimes on weekends we have reservations for too many people at the same time. Then I’m just swamped and have to make a very easy menu for the kitchen, which is not the best work that I do. I wish more people would come earlier in the week, instead of all wanting to get in on Friday or Saturday evening.”

Lagniappe:

“The last meal of my life? I’d be too upset, I wouldn’t be able to eat anything.”

TAKASHIGE SATATE AT OCTOPUS GARDEN

“Fusion cooking” often works best when practiced by chefs whose primary background is in Asian cuisines. Takashige Satate proves the hypothesis: At his Octopus Garden, a lovely restaurant in the Gaslamp that opened late last spring, his unerring blends are literally a world apart from the usual mishmashes dreamed up by American-born chefs adrift in unmoored fantasies of Southeast Asia. Born in Japan, Taka-san’s first professional training was at a Chinese restaurant there, and Chinese food is a major player in his mixtures. Later in life, he took a job in a San Diego hotel kitchen specifically to learn French cooking and sauce-making. The result? Consider his “ankimo sauté”: A generous piece of monkfish liver (the aquatic version of foie gras) is marinated in cognac and layered with succulent Japanese eggplant, delicate himeji mushrooms, and ripe sweet papaya, lightly dressed with an oyster sauce and balsamic vinaigrette. It’s a miniature breadless Dagwood sandwich combining several similar tender textures with distinct, contrasting flavors — and it’s the best of all culinary worlds.

In the Beginning:

“In 1968, when I was a teenager,” says Taka, “to be honest, I needed to find a job to survive. We were in a very small town in Japan, and my uncle was a chef there and he got me a job in the Chinese restaurant where he worked. I started at the bottom and did all the dirty work. After a while I started to want to be a chef. The Chef’s Association [a sort of trade guild] was very powerful, they rotated the chefs through restaurants all over Japan. My uncle was kind of the head of it. By the time I was 19, I had worked in five restaurants and was sent to work in a very large restaurant in Sapporo City called Totenko. After about a year, they transferred me to the headquarters restaurant in Tokyo. They did French, Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian cooking. I worked all sections — I didn’t want to, but they told me to do it. They opened restaurants in Europe, Los Angeles, and Hawaii and invested about $8 million to open a big new restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. I didn’t want to come over to the United States because I didn’t speak any English, but they gave me a three-year work contract. At the end of that time, I returned to Japan, but I’d seen a different life in the United States and realized that I wanted to live here, after all, so I went back to Dayton — but I really wanted to move to California.

“Then the company put the business on the stock market and it was taken over by new owners, so I quit and moved to San Diego and tried to get a job. I worked for Benihana Steak House; that was when I learned to do teppan yaki.

“My wife’s family has a sushi bar business in Japan. When I married, about 25 years ago, my wife’s uncles and brothers had ten sushi bars in Sapporo City. I helped them on my days off. Then, when I was working for Benihana, I thought the teriyaki business would not last long, sushi bars would be coming in. The biggest Japanese restaurant at that time in Rancho Bernardo, called Yae, hired me to work at their sushi bar. I stayed there for 3 years.

“The first restaurant of my own, I had from 1985 to 1990. We sold that and then started a new restaurant in Hillcrest. I sold that in 1993. Then I spent time learning French cuisine. I knew the chef at the Marriott, he was from my hometown in Japan, and he got me a job there as a sauce chef, so I could learn a different style of cooking. By that time I already had a plan to open the Taka Restaurant on Fifth Avenue. While I was working, at the same time I was looking for a location for my own restaurant — after work, knock on doors. There was one place that usually had their lights on, and one evening, they had no lights on. One day it was Tomaso Restaurant, the next day, it was Taka Restaurant, which I opened in 1995.

“The current owners of Taka were my partners. They’re not in the restaurant business, they’re in industry, and they wanted to have a business with regular cash flow. We made it not even one year, and it takes at least six months in the restaurant business just to break even. Then I left. I wanted a larger restaurant, and it had only 50 seats. I lost so much money there you wouldn’t believe it! I had to go to other states to make the money to open Octopus Garden. Over three years, I opened five restaurants — in Arizona, Indianapolis, Colorado — for somebody else. I was a consultant, so I hired the chefs, designed their sushi bars and their kitchens, and I helped the chefs for a couple of months. Most other states are a little behind compared to San Diego, so I just made them straight Japanese-style restaurants, with tempura, teriyaki chicken, and so forth. In California, people are already tired of that menu.”

In the Kitchen:

“I named Octopus Garden from the Beatles’ song. I grew up with that song,” Taka notes. “My most popular dishes are the filet mignon and the teriyaki chicken. The filet mignon sauce is a combination of Chinese-French style, and the chicken is not Japanese-style teriyaki, I use more of a Chinese-Japanese-French mix: The chicken is marinated in wine, lemon juice, and a little chili pepper. I make a very light sauce with cream and soy sauce and Chinese hoisin sauce, plus chicken soup stock. For the Hong Kong steak, my uncle’s Chinese restaurant made something like it, but I created a new version with a smoky taste. I put the steak on hickory chips to smoke it for a few minutes, then I cook it to order in a wok.

“I use four fish markets, two local and two in Los Angeles,” Taka explains. “I go to the two local markets every day, and I check the Los Angeles markets by phone, with a broker there. If the quality is no good, I order from somebody else. We have live tanks behind the sushi bar for shrimp, lobster, Dungeness crab when we can get them live. I get the vegetables from World Wide Produce in Los Angeles because they’ll deliver even in small quantities like I use, and they carry special things too. I choose whatever ingredients I can get in season. I can’t always get what I want to get. Fish doesn’t always come — sometimes they don’t catch it, so we can’t get it. I give my waitstaff a taste of all the specials — if they don’t know it, how can they describe it? My English is too lousy, so after they taste it they can explain it much better than I do.

“I make my own soy sauce for sushi with about 50 percent less salt,” says Taka. “That’s traditional in Japan, but here, most sushi chefs don’t care, they just use regular soy sauce. It’s supposed to be a much lighter sauce, so you can taste the rice and the fish. When you pour the sauce into a container you should be able to see the bottom. I start with regular soy sauce and boil it and mix it with a soup stock made with bonito flakes, kelp, and other ingredients (but no msg — I don’t need msg). My wife and I make it, nobody else, because I don’t want to give the recipe to other people. We also use the best-quality vinegar in the rice, single-malt like Scotch, and we season it following my wife’s family’s recipe. And even my sushi chefs don’t know what kind of rice I use, because I make up a mix of three different brands of rice.

“Octopus Garden is a family business. My wife makes the pastry. She got tired of helping out in her family’s sushi business, so she learned French pastry. She comes to work with me every day, and my son, who’s 26, makes sushi here part-time and also works at Cafe Japengo, because he needed to have experience working somewhere else. But whenever we make a recipe here, we keep it a family secret.”

In San Diego:

“Sometimes I go to other sushi bars at lunch,” says Taka, “but I only go when I know the chef, and I call first to make sure that he’s there. I don’t trust most of the sous-chefs — students might not keep it so clean. An owner-chef really has to be there every day.”

Lagniappe:

“Someday, I’d like to have a gourmet club at my restaurant, with vip memberships, and maybe once a month I’d cook unusual things with special ingredients, things most restaurants don’t have — like blowfish [fugu]. They’re illegal here because parts of them are deadly poisonous. You can import them frozen, with the poison parts already cut out, but I’d like to start with live ones. And when I get the time, I want to travel the whole world and eat all the different food.”

AMIKO GUBBINS AT PARALLEL 33

To carry off fusion cooking, it takes a superbly judicious palate to combine global ingredients and stylistic flourishes from several cuisines. The energetic Amiko Gubbins (you can see her on the line nightly through the side window of Parallel 33) is a master of the genre. Her own background is a fusion of America and Japan, and the cosmopolitan food her mother cooked reflected the cuisines of both cultures — and many others besides. Today she blends foods found around the world at the geographic latitude of Parallel 33 (where San Diego is located, along with Marrakech, Shiraz, Delhi, Kathmandu, Shanghai, Kyushu, etc.). When she started cooking professionally, she had to cajole her way into first-class professional kitchens where women were not yet welcome. This year, she’s returning to the James Beard House in New York as not only the sole local chef to cook there twice, but the only female San Diego chef to be invited there at all.

In the Beginning:

“I probably became a chef because I enjoy eating and because my mother has the Midas touch when it comes to cooking,” Gubbins reflects. “She’d make me these exotic lunches, and when you’re eight years old you’re embarrassed. Everyone had peanut butter and jelly on white bread, and I’d have, like, cream cheese and black olives on wheat bread. I’d hide it. I’d break it in little pieces inside my brown paper bag, and smuggle it to my mouth, because it tasted really good. But in the sixth grade you become popular — ‘Hey, you’re bringing sushi? No way!’ But my mother never let me help her, aside from setting the table. Maybe that’s why I wanted to. I was going to go into the fashion field like my older sister, but then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, that’s her dream, that’s not my dream. What is it that I want to do?’ And then I thought, it’d be really awesome if I could get paid for cooking. Little did I know.”

A native of Vista, Gubbins began her apprenticeship at age 19, scrubbing pots and veggies at a restaurant in Carlsbad but within three months was cooking on the line. After a year, she was ready to move up and set her sights on Gustaf Anders, the restaurant named “best of the best” that year by San Diego magazine. “Doug Organ was cooking there, and he was on his way out to go study in France, so I talked myself into a job there,” she recalls. “I was screaming on the freeway, ‘I got it, I got it!’, but when I came back that night to start work, the minute the chef saw me, he says, ‘No! No females in my kitchen!’ Ben Clockenbush, the manager, takes Ulf outside and they spend some time talking, and Ulf comes back with his head down and says, ‘Hello, my name is Ulf Anders,’ and from there on I was his little pet, he took me under his wing. I attribute becoming a chef to him. He was so strict, and always watching me. I got an early start, at 20, getting used to his high standards. He has an incredible palate.”

Gubbins met her business partner/sommelier, Robert Butterfield, when they were both working at Gustaf Anders. They worked together again at Cilantros and then Cafe Japengo. “He had a vision five years ago and asked me to do this project with him,” she says, “and I wasn’t even a chef at Japengo yet. I wasn’t ready, so we put it on the back burner. After I did the James Beard House in ’98, I said, ‘Let’s start talking about Parallel 33.’ Once you’ve done the James Beard, you feel like you’ve arrived, it’s time to open your own place and run it.”

In the Kitchen:

The menu is exotic and ornamented with specials, which the lucky waitstaff can describe in tantalizing detail because Gubbins has a staff tasting at the beginning of each evening. If orders for a regular dish on the menu seem to be waning, she’ll often cook it again for the staff to remind them how it tasted, and orders inevitably perk up. Her signature dishes include an astonishing Chilean sea bass marinated in a complex syrup based on katsu (sake lees), served with an orange–lychee–white wine sauce. She’s also especially proud of her ahi poke appetizer with Asian pear and mango and a spicy wasabi dressing. The hardest part for Gubbins is the finale, because she can’t yet afford a pastry chef, and she expects it will be difficult to find one whose inventions will fit with the other food at Parallel 33. “Pastry is my weakest area, but I’m forcing myself to learn,” she says. “I don’t really have a sweet tooth. But I always have to challenge myself, not stay just with the things that I normally like to eat. It’s good for the cooks too, if I bring in foods that I haven’t used before, taking risks a little bit — saying, ‘I’m not really all that sure how to use this.’ Then I taste it and understand what to put with it.”

In San Diego:

Unlike many local chefs, Gubbins faces few problems with timid tasters. “There really isn’t anything people won’t order — you can do anything as a special. Tonight I ran sweetbreads and they sold out. At Japengo, I probably wouldn’t have sold one, but here it’s a different demographic — sophisticated locals who travel all over the world. The world’s shrinking is affecting how we eat: People who travel not just on vacation but because their jobs demand it don’t go looking for a McDonald’s. They’re no longer afraid of food, they understand it better.”

Lagniappe:

“I haven’t actually traveled in Asia — but my mother’s cooking brought all of Asia to me.”

YUKITO OTA AT SUSHI OTA<

Sushi Ota is rightly renowned as the source of the city’s best sushi. The rice is ideal, with the perfect degree of stickiness and finest balance of sweet and tart undertones from a touch of rice vinegar. The flawless seafoods are purchased daily and are kept fresh and flavorful under plastic wrap when not in immediate use. And at least when master-chef Ota (a “black belt” in sushi) is present at the counter, the creations are as beautiful to see as to taste: Who needs scenery or decor when you’ve got such sculptures on the plate? When I phoned to beg for an interview, Ota’s staff repeatedly told me, “Not now, he’s a very busy man.” After nine days of increasingly relentless pestering, Ota-san finally agreed to a brief chat.

In the Beginning:

“After junior high school, at about 15, I started training as a chef,” Ota recalls. “In sushi, you train like a French chef, by working in restaurants. I studied in Kobe for ten years. By age 25, I was a chef.

“Almost 19 years ago, I was working at a sushi bar in Japan, and a friend of a friend needed a sushi man at the Otani Hotel in Los Angeles. I was young, about 29. ‘Sounds okay,’ I said. My passport and working visa came fast, in maybe three months. I had a contract to stay there for 3 years. After that I worked at Mister Sushi in P.B., and at Kobe Misono on Mission Boulevard. Nineteen years ago, sushi was not so popular, there were not many sushi bars. I liked San Diego — nice weather, nice people — so I decided to start my own business. For 8, 9 years I saved money for it. Many people helped me, and then I opened Sushi Ota 10 years ago.”

In the Kitchen:

Ota-san’s ama ebi (“sweet” freshwater shrimp, the body served raw followed by the cooked head) is prepared quite differently than at most sushi bars: hot and very crisp, it’s unbattered but gleams with flavorful shrimp fat. “I don’t use deep-frying,” Ota explained. “The Japanese style is very simple, very natural — a little bit of sea salt from Hawaii, and I only bake it. I don’t add any oil. That way is the best.”

Many of Ota’s other best dishes aren’t on the menu. One such is the popular Sushi Sundae. “In Japanese,” Ota laughed, “it’s called sunshoko don. Some American customers said, ‘It looks like dessert, what is its name?’ So I said, ‘It’s a sundae!’ It’s got pink uni [sea urchin roe], red chopped toro [fat “belly tuna”], and what we call yama-imo, Japanese potato, that looks like whipped cream, and then a little orange salmon roe on top, so it looks like a sundae.”

Ota’s fish come from all over the world. “Some of my seafood is local — the sea urchin, the ama ebi, and sometimes albacore or halibut,” he divulges. “But many local fishes are not oily enough and are too small. The other fish — some are from Boston, some from Spain, sometimes from South America, and the salmon come from Norway. I use 21 kinds of fresh fish every day, and I buy it every day. I don’t have a tank, I don’t like them. If you keep fish in a tank with no bait, no food, they become very skinny. Maybe keeping them for one or two days is okay, but not for longer.

“My favorite is uni. No seaweed, just simple,” he says. “I like the ama ebi too.” Do sushi makers in Japan make fancy sushi or just simple ones? I asked. “The fancy ones are called ‘party sushi.’ Traditional Japanese sushi is simple — the nigiri, the sashimi. But right now, even in Japan it’s changing. Same as here, the young people like the fancy ones.”

JEAN-MICHEL DIOT AT TAPENADE

Although in our alphabetical listing by restaurant, Diot comes last, if you ask almost any top San Diego chef whom he looks up to, most will mention Diot’s name first. After a hugely successful career as a chef-restaurateur in Manhattan, he moved here and adopted a slightly slower pace that would allow him more time for his family. At Tapenade, his food draws from the sunny flavors of Provence. His cuisine here isn’t showy (or show-offy), but every bite serenely bespeaks the technical skill and exquisite palate of a master-chef.

In the Beginning:

“I was always interested in food when I was a young kid. I was not outside playing cowboys and Indians,” Diot says. “I was in the kitchen with my grandma, trying to help her and to get tastes of the food she was cooking. She cooked with love, and that’s the best cooking. When you taste food made by your mother or grandmother, you feel the love in her.”

Diot grew up in what he calls “a small city next to Lyon, called Vienne.” That “small city” and its environs is in fact one of the seedbeds and capitals of modern French cuisine, with more than its share of world-famous chefs. “At 16, I started as an apprentice in a two-star restaurant in Vienne,” Diot continues, “and I spent two years there and then I moved to Le Pyramide [a world-famous three-star restaurant in Vienne] for two years in ’78 and ’79. You start out peeling vegetables and they try to teach you the basics of cooking — the way to cut vegetables, to clean fish, to organize the refrigerator, to do the chopping for all the kitchen. Step by step, when you are more comfortable, they give you the more complicated steps, such as the way to do stocks. That is the way we learn in France, not in schools but in restaurants. For me, it is the best entry into the world of cooking. Then I went to a two-star Michelin called Jacqueline Fenix in a suburb of Paris, and after that I spent a year with Michel Guerard [an inventor of nouvelle cuisine and of the dietetic cuisine minceur] in the south. Afterwards, I spent four years at Jacques Chibois in Cannes, a two-star on the French Riviera.

“I went to New York and opened Adrienne, the restaurant at 55th and 5th for the Peninsula Hotels, one of the best chains in the world,” he adds. “I was executive chef. But being an executive chef in an office was not my cup of tea. I don’t like to be in an office facing a computer and entering some numbers — I wanted to be in a kitchen all day long, I like to cook, I like to be at the stove. So I opened Park Bistro, a small restaurant in New York. We had great success, the first bistro to receive three stars from the New York Times. We operated this place for ten years, and in the meantime I opened a place across the street from the Barbizon Hotel, called Les Halles (from the market in Paris). I opened a bakery and pastry operation, and the latest one in New York was a brasserie.

“But I was fed up with life in the city. I need surroundings like Provence, but I didn’t want to go back to France. I came to San Diego on vacation and saw this beautiful place called La Jolla that reminded me of the south of France. I ate in restaurant after restaurant after restaurant here, and I finally said, ‘There are not too many French restaurants here, and I can do something different.’ I wanted to get out of New York and cook the way we cook in France. When you are close to the source of all the produce, you get the freshest vegetables, the ripest fruit. I missed that in New York, where for two months of the year you can get good stuff at the farmer’s market but the rest of the time it’s coming from Florida and California. I thought it would be better to be close to the ‘garden of America.’ ”

In the Kitchen:

“I think chefs are like painters,” says Diot. “They look at something and just want to reinterpret it. To be a good chef, you have to be very sensitive to smells and colors and very curious about all different ingredients. You go to a farmer’s market and you find a beautiful leaf, and you’ve got two kinds of fish from France, and you just have to match it. With that sensibility, and my 25 years of experience — I’m tasting food all day long, and I keep the memory of taste in my brain — I know if I take this fish and this vegetable and put them together, how the combination will taste. I always want to respect the innate tastes of the meat, the fish, and the vegetables. During the time that I’ve been cooking, I think French cooking has changed a lot in this way. We used to have a reputation for heavy, creamy food, but not anymore. It’s all right to have some heavy dishes, but generally French cooking is lighter and more respectful of the ingredients now.”

Diot finds superb produce in the San Diego area but disappointing local seafood. “We don’t have so many species in San Diego,” he observes. “We are right next to the ocean, but it’s very poor when you compare the local catch to the fish you get from the Atlantic.”

Among the dishes he considers best at Tapenade are the napoleon of foie gras, the wild John Dory with shellfish and vegetables, lamb chops with roasted garlic cloves, sauced with what my notes describe as “cafeteria gravy in heaven,” and a galantine of rabbit stuffed with calamari. “At first when I put rabbit on the menu,” he remembers, “I was very surprised because the French are accustomed to having rabbit, but at the beginning it sold only ten portions a week. Now people are coming for this kind of food.”

All desserts at Tapenade are house-made, the province of a pastry chef, and the breads come from Bread and Cie in Hillcrest. “That’s the best baker in Southern California,” he says. “To get bread of this quality, even in France, I’d have to drive 20 kilometers. The supermarkets are killing all the small people in France, the butcher, the baker…

“I like to cook,” he adds. “I’ve devoted my life, 25 years, to it, and I’m still excited about my job. For me the profession of chef is so magical. You just take some raw ingredients and do something to them, and every night you have people coming to your place to try your food. Every day is a challenge to please your customers and to teach them to understand your philosophy of cooking. It’s a very demanding profession, but it’s my life.”

In San Diego:

Diot’s menu has come to include several subtle Southern California touches, including a Gallic version of guacamole. “When I got here, I changed my cooking a little,” he says. “I try to please my customers and to educate them, but it’s always in the tradition of French technique. I’m very curious about all cooking, however, and I’m always trying to experience something different. A few weeks ago I tasted what they call mole, a stew with dark pepper and a touch of chocolate in it. I was very surprised and pleased.”

It hasn’t all been adventures in mole and guacamole — sometimes local customers have proven less flexible than the chef in their tastes. “I was planning to change the way people eat beef here,” Diot says. “I wanted to get some hanger steak. [This is a small, flavorful steak that literally hangs in the intestinal cavity of the steer near the kidneys; because of its exposure to a small amount of air, it “ages” naturally inside the steer’s body.] There’s only one strip of it on the animal, and it’s always kept by the butcher to take home and test the quality of the steer. I was the first one to cook it in New York, and now this steak is served at all the French restaurants there. I found some here and tried to put it on the menu. A few people said it had the real taste and texture of beef, but — in San Diego we have to go step by step, I think. Now we’re seeing a big change. Now you have so many new restaurants, new chefs, a lot of changes.

“I don’t go out to restaurants here very much,” he adds. “I have two small daughters and I like to spend as much time as I can with them. I cook at home and I try to develop their palates.

“This city is the nicest city in America — it’s sunny, nice weather, nice people, but I ask myself why the city doesn’t have more good restaurants. A few months ago, one of the cooking magazines — Gourmet or Bon Appétit — had an article about the best restaurants in cities all across America, and San Diego wasn’t even on the list. And we’re the sixth biggest city in America! I want to see more and more good chefs in San Diego. Competition is actually good for business. The more good chefs we get in San Diego, the better it will be for everybody.”

Lagniappe:

“Before the commercial sense, cooking existed to feed one’s family. Cooking is a part of the love you receive from your parents and your grandparents. I think that everybody should have good food, and plenty of food.”


— Naomi Wise is an author of four published cookbooks and has been a restaurant reviewer for several publications in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the East Bay Express and the San Francisco Weekly. With the October 5 issue, she will join the Reader staff as food and restaurant editor.

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