Best San Diego Chefs
Credit: Live Fire Cooking at Deckman's

Chef Drew Deckman Dishes on His Road to Gastronomic Greatness

Here’s His Story and a Sneak Peek at His Newest San Diego Restaurant Set to Open This May

There is something about Drew Deckman bringing his new restaurant, 31THIRTYONE by Deckman’s, to San Diego that feels mythical, if not ever so vaguely biblical. After all, like the Prodigal Son, the young Deckman took his talents abroad. Unlike the son in that parable, he experienced some real success in the form of a Michelin star.

It was, though, a success that portended something of a fall. And now, just over two decades after that fall, Deckman, who has journeyed from earning a Michelin star in Germany to establishing restaurants in locations like Europe, Hawaii, Yucatan and Valle de Guadalupe, is on the cusp of opening his first restaurant in the United States.

If Deckman’s plan A had come to fruition, it is distinctly less likely any of that ever would have happened. While he had worked in restaurants as a young man, Deckman wanted to be a professional baseball player. “That’s what I was going to do,” he says. When that did not come to pass, Deckman pursued an allied path: baseball umpire. He still maintains he would have been a good umpire. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Rhodes College, a prestigious small liberal arts college in Tennessee, Deckman took detours around various different worlds—including car sales, his dad’s profession (dentistry) and, ultimately, an epiphany: “I just woke up one morning and was like, ‘Alright; I think I’m going back to the kitchen.’ I didn’t have a pot to pee in or another dime.” With some help from his parents, back to the professional kitchen it was. 31THIRTYONE

Deckman’s first stop on that journey was Café Max in Memphis, Tennessee. “It was a really edgy, way-before-its-time restaurant that was a great proving ground—we wore open mic headsets, so everything was verbal. In other words, it was great training.” Not that proving or training was his goal at the time; paying for his car, on the other hand, was. But it led him back into an apprentice program just long enough to be told he didn’t need one. Deckman’s professor told him, “Man, you don’t need to be here,” and instead offered Deckman a job. That job, in turn, led him to Europe. “I thought I was going for six months, and I stayed for 10 years,” he says.

Credit: Jim Sullivan

Deckman describes his early experiences in Europe as wild and a vertical learning curve. Family connections resulted in a job at a hotel in Lüneburg, Germany. A detour to Switzerland would ultimately lead to a stage (think internship) from a chef who turned Deckman down 10 times before finally relenting. After three days of working together in the kitchen, he asked Deckman, “Why didn’t you tell me you could cook?” 31THIRTYONE

Deckman’s progress in Europe was rapid. The chef from each post would call up a former chef or colleague and he would have the next job. “No job interview,” says Deckman. “That’s just the way it was done. You just stayed for a few years, and then another call was made, and it was another step up the ladder, either in terms of position in the kitchen or level of restaurant or, maybe, both.”

Then, one day, the call was a little different, and, for the first time, Deckman was going to be a chef. His first calls were to all his friends from France he’d made along the way: “Hey, let’s have some fun,” Deckman told them, and they did. “It was fresh,” says Deckman. 31THIRTYONE

Down the line a bit, there was a call that was different. The woman on the other end of the line invited him to the Michelin awards ceremony. Deckman replied, “We don’t understand.” She explained simply: “We’re going to award you with a star!”

With that call, it was game on. But, as Deckman explains it, with that call he acquired another problem. “It took me a couple years to figure out that I wasn’t actually ‘the best thing since beer in a can,’ but I was convinced I was. You know, I was 29 years old and my first gig out of the shoot and I got a Star.”

As Deckman puts it, “It really messed with my head.” If it takes a lot to deal with failure, it also takes a lot to deal with success. The result was something he called an ego cowboy implosion. And that’s when it helps to have friends. Real friends. “I would never have fixed it myself,” says Deckman.

Credit: Deckman’s en el Mogor

At the time, one of Deckman’s most important teachers and mentors was legendary chef, restaurateur and culinary teacher Madeleine Kamman. For years, Deckman and Kamman exchanged letters. This was back when letters were common. As Deckman puts it: “She and I would trade letters; there were always a couple, and sometimes you get one, miss one, then you’d have to tie it all back together.” So, it took him a bit to realize Kamman had started ghosting him. They also talked by phone every couple of weeks until she stopped answering his calls. And she stopped writing back. When Kamman finally responded to his inquiries, her answer was simple. 31THIRTYONE

“No, not until you get your head out of your [expletive] and come back to earth,” she wrote. There are a million out there just like you. You’re good, but you’re nothing special. You’re going to get more done in your life if you’re humble. I will not talk to you again until you get yourself right.” 31THIRTYONE

That, for Deckman, was a “wow” moment. So, he bought a plane ticket. He showed up at her house, and, as he says, “it was the counseling session that I needed.” His takeaway was simple: “I needed to finally take my career seriously.” And he did, albeit not always making the right moves. A move from the restaurant he’d put on the map to one north of Hamburg—with an owner’s wife determined to sabotage his efforts—was always ill-fated. So were the events leading to his divorce.

But this time, the bad decisions led to better ones. Some grounding time in logotherapy was one. Leaving the dysfunctional situation in Hamburg was another. Deckman knew The Four Seasons Berlin was looking for a chef, and, for the first time in his career, he actually interviewed for a job. “I needed to get out of the spotlight and just go to work,” he says. It turned out better than he expected. Deckman called it a very nurturing place, and he stayed there for three years until the hotel was sold to Radisson. 31THIRTYONE

That sale led to Deckman’s return to the Western Hemisphere. He stayed with The Four Seasons, transferring to Kona, Hawaii, only to find out all Four Seasons hotels were not the same.

“I went from a kitchen where I had 20 cooks, and we were serving only so many diners a night,” Deckman explains. “When you booked a table, we didn’t second book it. That table was yours all night, but we also knew the average check was €250, and we were serving anywhere between 17 and 20, some-odd courses. Yeah, I guess you call it tweezer food now. That was Berlin. At Kona, we were doing 400 covers for dinner with six cooks, and the average diner ate 1.5 plates. Very different.” 31THIRTYONE

This was not a work life to Deckman’s liking. Outside the kitchen, though, it was a bit different. “It was the first time that I didn’t live for my job—the first time I had more fun outside of the kitchen than I had in the kitchen.” The notion of work-life balance is rarely spoken of in the professional kitchen unless in proximity to the words “none” or “absence.”

It was an environment Deckman usually enjoyed. His next stop, the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, offered some of the same. It was Deckman’s first time working in Mexico; with one exception, it’s where he has worked ever since. Mexico was not necessarily where Deckman wanted or intended to go or end up. It was just where the headhunter offered him a job. 31THIRTYONE

His next gig was the inevitable—if accidental—result of what seems like a classic Deckman moment. It happened when he was called into an emergency manager’s meeting. The odd thing was when: 4 p.m. on a Friday, which usually never happened.

“There’s these two big dudes and this one little scrawny dude, and I knew I’d seen them before,” says Deckman. He had. The scrawny guy looked at Deckman and said, “You’re Drew from Berlin.” Deckman immediately knew who they were. And with that, the next chapter of his career and life began to come into focus.

The three guys worked for a very well-known A-list Hollywood action movie star who shall remain nameless in the interest of avoiding violation of a non-disclosure agreement. Before long, Deckman was cooking for the actor during a four-day movie shoot. And then he was cooking for a wedding party the star threw soon after.

Thus was the next chapter of Deckman’s life, as if it followed on naturally and yet surreally. It was a scuba diving trip with three helicopters chasing whale sharks. Private islands were involved, with Deckman setting up an impromptu restaurant before the star’s first boots on the ground at a Normandy-style arrival. Deckman’s voice had a bit of wistfulness as he described the experience as good, clean fun—if that sort of thing was done as an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” There were early-morning, not-previously-announced departures for which Deckman was not prepared—one to Guam sticks out—complete with a brand new wardrobe and literally everything Deckman would need, including a brand new wetsuit in his size and desired thickness, all delivered aboard the plane! It was a glimpse of a very different life. It was also this: exhausting.

Eventually, it was time to move on—a hot minute as Chef at L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills was followed by a return to Mexico in Cabo San Lucas. “I knew I could cook fish and dive and get paid for it at levels I was accustomed to.” That was followed by a venture provisioning fishing vessels at sea that took him from Cabo to Seattle and work as a commercial fisherman in Alaska before returning to Baja California.

For a few years, Deckman ran a winter restaurant in Cabo (the tourist season there), which closed in the summer. It was the only restaurant in the area with a 100% Mexican wine list. While developing that list, Deckman got to know Hugo D’Acosta, one of the legendary pioneer winemakers in Valle de Guadalupe, who is sometimes called the Robert Mondavi of Mexico. Deckman respected D’Acosta and vice versa, with D’Acosta treating him as his food and wine pairings guy. Through D’Acosta, Deckman met Natalia Badan, owner of Rancho El Mogor and the Mogor Badan Winery.

Eventually, Deckman pitched Badan the idea of opening his pop-up restaurant in the summer on an unused corner of Rancho El Mogor. By 2014, that summer pop-up became a full-time, year-round gig. Soon after, Deckman met his future wife (and business partner), Paulina. It felt like things had finally begun falling into place for this nomad.

Credit: Deckman’s Restaurants

But, it seemed there was one more step. Even after a solid decade of stability—geographically, in business, and with family—there was still the small matter of coming home. Deckman had won a Michelin star in Germany and cooked professionally there, in France, Hawaii, the Caribbean, all over Mexico and more. The one place he had not cooked professionally was the continental United States. 31THIRTYONE

That, finally, is about to change with the opening of his first stateside restaurant this spring in North Park. This three-story University Avenue restaurant (originally called Watershed) is now debuting under a new name, 31THIRTYONE. Why San Diego now? Well, it seems Deckman had finally arrived at the part of the journey where that just made sense. The Prodigal Son is coming home—but doing so in success.

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