THE SIREN OF SEAFOOD
The Expert: Jason McLeod, Chef/Partner at Ironside Fish & Oyster
WRITTEN BY: MARIA WATKINS | PHOTOGRAPHED BY: CHRISTINA SHOOK
Attention all locals! You may have noticed some changes in San Diego’s food scene over the past several years, and your taste buds do not deceive you! San Diego food experts are branching out, starting their own businesses, and taking some risks. An inside interview with San Diego’s renowned chef gives us a better idea of how the food culture has changed and where it is headed. Food expert Jason McLeod, Chef and Partner at Ironside Fish & Oyster, has a lengthy background in food service hospitality from all over the world. He has been busy collecting knowledge, catering to customers, and creating perfection (in terms of food)! Now, with much experience and a significant career ahead of him, he has made a splash in San Diego and invested his time, energy, and creativity into the food culture of the San Diego community.
Award winning chef, Jason McLeod has taken the ultimate next step as a chef and opened a place of his very own! Ironside Fish & Oyster has a simple exterior, but once you step in you will feel the warmth and happiness of the community as strangers laugh together at the oyster bar, and you will not want to leave! Jason created a space that represents fine culinary art, as well as the casualness of the fish culture. Having grown up on Vancouver Island in Canada, Jason was surrounded by this seafood culture. He has won countless awards for his high-quality cooking and is now giving that experience back to the community by coaching young San Diego chefs in his restaurant.
Jason loves how open San Diego has been to the idea of the raw bar, and he has been shocked by its popularity. If this trend continues, there may be a need for more raw bars in the San Diego area! However, Jason does not come from a marketing standpoint, but from a sincere passion for his love of seafood and hospitality. He simply wants his customers to enjoy themselves, and that they will!
Q: Ironside Fish & Oyster is the first project you built from scratch. What prompted you to make the leap from working at established restaurants?
Jason McLeod: It was always a dream somewhere in the back of my head, but my biggest worry was doing it at the right time. I have been fortunate enough to travel throughout my career without being settled in one place. Once I got married and settled down in San Diego, I felt that it was the right time. It was about timing and being ready mentally.
Q: Ironside Fish & Oyster has been a great addition to the seafood scene in San Diego. What are your opinions of the availability of seafood in San Diego before your restaurant surfaced?
JM: I moved here in 2007, and from that time to now I have been seeing the changes in how people feel about food. San Diego was a chain city, geared towards tourists. Now, people expect more, and the food is becoming more geared towards families. There were establishments with low-cost fish tacos, and then there were high-end seafood/ steakhouses. I wanted something that was in the middle from a price point perspective.
Q: How did you come to love the taste of seafood and the art of preparing/cooking it?
JM: I grew up on Vancouver Island in Canada where I was always around salmon, crabs and oysters. I would go out and help pick up cages of lobsters and see them handled. I did not come from a huge cooking family, but I just spent time around seafood. When I went to Europe, I saw the skill that it took to cook seafood. In the states, chefs want to be meat cooks, maybe because it seems more manly, but in Europe, they want to prepare seafood. It is more difficult because there is less room for error, and a much shorter window of opportunity in which you can prepare it and serve it.
Q: Ironside offers gourmet food in a comfortable environment. What was your vision with opening this restaurant and how did you want your customers to feel during their experience?
JM: We did not change the front but we changed the inside design, and people walk in and say “Wow, this is beautiful.” I wanted to marry cocktails and seafood. I want people to feel happy or excited when they walk in and have something trigger their emotions to have a better experience.
Q: You took a short hiatus from the chef role recently and tried out the corporate side of the kitchen. What did you enjoy about being on the corporate side and what have you enjoyed about stepping back into action?
JM: I started my own consultant/private chef business right when I moved back to San Diego. At that time I had the opportunity to be flexible, meet people in San Diego and build contacts as a foundation for a restaurant. I felt like it was important to make a connection to the community first, because that is what I wanted the tone of the restaurant to be.
Q: It seems that you have a very talented kitchen team to help you with this project. How did you select these individuals to carry out your vision for the restaurant?
JM: You get an advantage in the hiring process when you open something new. We were fortunate to get a lot of hype about our opening, which attracted curious talent. I wanted to hire individuals who believed in San Diego and its potential. The pieces just came together, and it has been all about partnership. It’s one thing getting the talent, and another thing keeping it. We want to be busy and here for a long time, and I need a great team to make that happen.
Q: You have won quite a few awards over the years, including two Michelin Stars for your exceptional work at Ria in Chicago. Do you set your sights on working towards any specific awards or do they just come out of the blue?
JM: The awards just happen. As a business owner now with 120 employees, I look at all of the checks that go out and it helps you see things differently. When I was younger I wanted to create a name for myself with the awards. Now, all I want is for the customers to keep coming, and I am happy. It would be lying to say that awards mean nothing, because who does not appreciate being recognized? However, you do not go into hospitality because it pays well. You do it because it’s a passion. I have had the luxury of working in eight or nine countries, and I think we are exceeding our expectations here in San Diego.
Q: You have been in San Diego for quite a while now. Have you noticed a shift in the food culture of our lovely city?
JM: Definitely! We are on the cusp of becoming a great culinary/food city. We are finally catching up to what we do with beer.
Q: You have been studying the local fishing culture to better understand the seafood. What is one of the most interesting things you have observed about the work of a fisherman?
JM: It’s an amazing passion. The product spoils fast, so you need to be very comfortable with the integrity of your suppliers. When I met our suppliers, they gave me a tour of their facilities and showed me the cleanliness of their boats. I saw how proud they were about their work, and I knew that we had found partners who really care about this as much as we do.
Q: What is the most adventurous thing to order on Ironside’s menu?
JM: Frog legs (occasionally on the menu). You don’t see them very often in San Diego, but people order them!
Q: You are already an internationally acclaimed chef, but if you could visit anywhere to study from the chefs of that area, where would it be and why?
JM: Japan is next on my list. I need to go and learn from their passion for fish.
Q: What is the most important lesson you have taken with you to each new restaurant endeavor?
JM: It is less about the recognition and more about the customers—providing customers with an amazing experience and serving them incredible food.
Q: Ironside has made a huge buzz in San Diego. Do you have any next steps in mind or maybe surprises on the horizon?
JM: It is definitely a process, and it is evolving. We recently added whole fish onto the menu, and I was shocked that people loved eating it off of the bone with eyeballs and all! I would like to do more collaboration in 2015 with local chefs. For example, we did an oyster shuck-a-thon on National Oyster Day and we had guest chefs come in to help out. I want to make sure the restaurant is a part of the community and constantly gain feedback on the menu.
Ironside Fish & Oyster
1654 India St.
San Diego, CA 92101