THE CULTURED COOK
The Expert: Antonio Friscia, Chef/Partner at Don Chido and soon-to-open Rustic Root
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 Antonio Friscia, Chef and Partner at Don Chido and soon-to-open Rustic Root, 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 planted roots in San Diego and invested his time, energy, and creativity into the food culture of the San Diego community.
Antonio Friscia is a humble family man with an incredible passion for the art of food preparation and presentation. Antonio has a lifetime of experience working with food, from his childhood growing up delivering wholesale fish to restaurants, to his one- on-one training with a renowned chef in Italy. He grew up in a large Italian family and said that they were always eating! The wholesale fish delivery was his family’s business, and so being around food constantly was just in the cards for him. While much of his training and experience is with Italian cuisine, he describes himself as a life-long learner. He cannot fathom being interested in only one style of cooking, because there are so many unique and beautiful ways that it could be done differently.
Antonio found his second love, after Italian cuisine, when he moved to Bali and opened an Italian restaurant. While he was there, he took every opportunity to learn about the styles in which they prepared food. He finished out his contract working at that Italian restaurant and then took some time to travel around Asia and simply immerse himself in the food culture. A chef to his core, Antonio has a respect for his career that is beyond normal. Now sharing that passion with us San Diegans, it is evident when you step into his restaurant that there is a liveliness and sincerity that cannot be replicated.
Q: You have been working in the restaurant business for over 25 years. How and where did that all begin?
Antonio Friscia: I was born and raised in San Francisco and grew up in a family with a wholesale seafood business. I spent a lot of time going in the back door of all of the restaurants in San Francisco delivering fish. As for cooking, I was inspired at a young age by my large Sicilian family who was always eating and preparing food; that was a big part of our life. Growing up delivering fish, I got excited to see and talk to chefs who were cooking amazing things around the city. I gravitated towards that career immediately. I also spent time cooking cannoli and gnocchi with my grandparents, using old world preparations. One time, I had gotten home from football practice and was extremely hungry. Still in my football pants, I opened up a gourmet magazine and used one of the recipes to make a Grand Marnier soufflé. My parents were not too happy that I had gotten into the Grand Marnier, but I thought nothing of it because I was simply following the recipe.
Q: Your custom-made, wood-fire grill seems to be your favorite piece of equipment in the kitchen. What specific features did you want in that grill and how do you use them?
AF: When you cook with wood it is completely different than cooking on a gas grill. The wood gives it so much more flavor. Caja China cooking seals in the flavor like an oven, but with no air going back into it to let it breath. I wanted a Santa Maria grill to roast whole animals sealing in that flavor, but also allowing it to breath. I created my grill to have a door on the side that seals in the smoke completely. I also designed it to have drawers on the bottom like a Caja China oven to allow smoke to be pulled through the meat and down into the holes in the bottom.
Q: You teamed up with the RMD Group to open up this new restaurant, Don Chido. What had you noticed about RMD Group’s previous endeavors that made you want to go into business with them?
AF: I was friends with the original chef at Stingaree (where I was a chef before Don Chido), and he had contacted me after Stingaree was sold. We had worked together even before Stingaree, so we had known one another pretty well. He was the one who started RMD Group to open FLUXX Nightclub and a variety of other places. We had always stayed in close contact and wanted to do something in the future together. RMD Group decided they wanted the Fred’s property and wanted to keep it Mexican food. They asked me to join, and I gave them one condition: I wanted to be able to cook on a wood-fire grill, and they agreed.
Q: Tell us about a chef whom you have always admired. Was their cooking style similar to yours?
AF: I follow everybody. I respect the job that we do, and I can learn from anybody. There are so many talented chefs in the bay area, San Diego and New York. I don’t get out of my own kitchen very often, but I do take a look at their menus. One guy I love is Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas because of his amazing French cooking technique. I also follow my old chef from Italy that I studied with. A lot of times I go outside of the United States to see what people are doing differently than us. When I want to learn about Mexican food, for example, I go straight to the source.
Q: Customers love the modern interior design of Don Chido. Can you tell us anything about the design of the kitchen?
AF: There is a combination of old world and modern design. Old world would be the Santa Maria wood-fire grill. However, the grill is modern at the same time because it appears rustic but is completely one of a kind.
Q: Do you experiment with cooking and combining new flavors at home, or do you leave that for work at the restaurant?
AF: I’m obsessed (laughs). On my days off, I am always cooking something at home. I have two boys, so they are my little taste testers. I am off on Sundays and spend time with them and am always cooking them a meal. I play around with a lot of cultural food on Sunday nights. Japanese, Mexican, and Italian are some of our most common meals.
Q: If a customer came in from out of town and said that this would be their one and only day in San Diego, what would you tell them to order and why?
AF: I always like to start people with our ceviche. It is a little bit different because it is a cross between Mexican and Peruvian styles. Our mojo braised pork is a must try, as well as our chicken mole, because the chickens are whole- roasted in the Caja China. Lastly, our diablo shrimp that is cooked over the grill and mixed with a mojo sauce. And churros for dessert!
Q: What is the one food item that you find yourself constantly craving these days?
AF: Spicy noodle soups and pastas are my comfort food. Any type of noodle makes me happy. It really depends on the day and the weather with me.
Q: How do you feel your cooking style has developed since you began this career many years ago?
AF: It evolves as my life goes on. I have not gotten away from anything completely. I still love all my pastas, risottos and pizza, but I constantly expose myself to other cultural foods. If I could just continue to travel and submerse myself in more places, that is really what I would like to to. This is an amazing job to have if you know that you will never be able to know everything.
Q: Since Don Chido’s opening, what kind of response have you noticed from the public?
AF: I think it has been positive. Since we are downtown, we have so many people from around the world walking on 5th Avenue. We want to welcome people in like it is our home. We want to feed you until you are full, happy, satisfied and nourished. If I could touch every table, I would! We do our best to give everyone an amazing experience. However, the number one thing is making sure that everything is tasting great.
Q: Have you noticed any changes in the food culture of San Diego over the past several years?
AF: There is, of course, lots of dieting going on. The gluten-free thing is a big deal. I have also seen people eating crazy amounts of protein. I think food is going to go in the direction of smaller amounts of protein and much more vegetables, or at least more of a balance like they have in other cultures. The lucky thing for us in San Diego is that we have so much to use and utilize during the year in terms of produce. Everything in moderation.
Q: Can we expect to see anything new from you on the horizon?
AF: Yes, I am helping open Rustic Root, also in San Diego. This is going to be progressive American cuisine prepared in an old world style. Everything has come to us from somewhere else, as far as cooking technique is concerned. We are so lucky to have so many organic farmers and such that do artisan-style farming. This allows us to have all different types of things on our menu all the time. For Rustic Root, we are going to use local ingredients as much as possible.