Getting Messy with Chef Tim Kolanko of Liberty Public Market’s The Mess Hall

The Executive Chef of Blue Ridge Hospitality Shares His Success and How He Got There

Written By: Kai Oliver-Kurtin Getting Messy with Chef Tim Kolanko of Liberty Public Market’s The Mess Hall
Photographed By: Nick Isabella

A lot of exciting things have happened in the San Diego culinary scene lately, whether it’s getting more celebrity chefs establishing restaurants here, opening a daily public market that rivals any other famed market in the country, or creating our own distinct food culture that doesn’t rely on leftovers from Los Angeles.

San Diego’s temperate climate yields high-quality produce, while our proximity to the ocean provides a bounty of fresh seafood. Two local chefs are among those leading the charge in highlighting our city’s culinary riches within their restaurants. Executive Chef Tim Kolanko sources products from the Liberty Public Market on his menu at The Mess Hall, and Executive Chef Paul Arias at The Fishery procures fresh seafood from the restaurant’s parent company, seafood supplier Pacific Shellfish. The pair of chefs have both worked under Executive Chef Jeff Jackson at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, and in 2012, Kolanko joined Arias at The Fishery to gain restaurant management experience. So perhaps what hasn’t changed in San Diego’s culinary community is the overlap and closeness of its star players.

The Expert: Chef Tim Kolanko
Credentials: Executive Chef, Blue Bridge Hospitality
Number of Eateries Overseen in San Diego: Nine

San Diego has many neighborhood farmers markets, and even had a daily public market for a short time (RIP, San Diego Public Market), but now we have the Liberty Public Market in Liberty Station that combines a farmers market with a restaurant, wine bar and beer shop—open for business seven days a week. Run by local hospitality collective Blue Bridge Hospitality, Liberty Public Market is the most complex project the group has taken on yet, including partnerships with more than 30 food and retail vendors to ensure the market is all-inclusive. The 22, 000-square-foot space was completely reconstructed to accommodate the unique elements and design of a marketplace.

Anchoring the market is on-site restaurant The Mess Hall, which incorporates ingredients from the market directly into its menu offerings to embody sustainability and freshness. At the helm of The Mess Hall is Executive Chef Tim Kolanko, who has more than 20 years of culinary experience and has overseen the dining operations of the hospitality group’s nine diverse eateries since 2013. The Mess Hall at Liberty Public Market is their newest endeavor, with the goal of showcasing the region’s bountiful food products and skilled artisans.

Q: I understand your career in the restaurant industry began as a dishwasher. How did that experience shape your approach to running a restaurant?

Tim Kolanko: The dishwasher is one of the hardest-working positions in the restaurant; without them everything stops. You always take care of your dishwashers.

Q: After culinary school, you backpacked through Western Europe for a few months. What did you learn about yourself during this time that ultimately led you back home to Michigan to start your career in the kitchen?

TK: I learned that I really love to travel. It was an epiphany to see how deeply food is ingrained in the culture of each region throughout Europe.

Q: How was your career strengthened while working under acclaimed chefs like Stuart Brioza and Charles Dale?

TK: Working at Tapawingo with Stuart Brioza was a revelation because he was cooking modern food with a real reverence for tradition. It was also my first introduction to fine dining. I wish I’d have worked with him longer; it was his first chef job and it was obvious he was going to be very successful. Renaissance with Charles Dale was intense and progressive. We were doing stuff like gelatin foams back in 2001. We had a small staff and a really ambitious menu. Every day was a challenge.

Q: As part of the opening culinary team at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, what did you learn from opening a restaurant?

TK: I learned that you have to be nimble and evolve. Executive Chef Jeff Jackson’s vision was so unique and really made us all look at food a little differently. Jeff had a way of instilling his vision into all of us who cooked there. Most importantly, he taught us to strip dishes down to what really matters. His cooking is anti-pretentious.

Q: You’ve also been a restaurant manager at The Fishery in North Pacific Beach. Did you enjoy being part of the front-of-house operations for a change?

TK: I did it because I wanted to own my own place and it was a unique opportunity to learn the front-of-house operations. I’m pretty social, so I enjoyed the guest interaction and I really enjoyed managing the wine program. I’m looking forward to spending more time in the front at Mess Hall and integrating the back of the house into the nightly service. Spending time on the floor provides some invaluable perspective for a cook.

Q: In your current role as the executive chef of Blue Bridge Hospitality, how do you manage to split your time between all nine properties?

TK: I’m more like an advisor to the casual concepts, creating a new recipe or finding a solution to something that needs fixing. I spend the majority of my time working with the chefs at Stake and Leroy’s. I’m learning to be more efficient with my time in the kitchen as I get less of it in each restaurant. I try to teach as much as possible. Any time we’re working on something that may be a good lesson for the cooks, we gather all the cooks and explain what we’re doing and why. I enjoy that part of the job. Staff development is the way we give back to the cooks and strengthen our business.

Q: How is The Mess Hall different from your other restaurants?

TK: It’s going to be more fluid. At Leroy’s we change the menu a lot, but Mess Hall will change daily with a strong focus on beverage pairing. I’m also looking forward to getting the cooks out of the kitchen and on the floor. I want the cooks to interact with the guests directly. I think it will enhance the guest experience.

Q: Your newest restaurant, The Mess Hall, is the group’s first venture outside of Coronado. Has expanding to a new neighborhood presented any challenges or learning opportunities for you?

TK: Ask me in about six months, and I’m sure I’ll have a lengthy answer!

Q: As part of the new Liberty Public Market, how does The Mess Hall incorporate products and ingredients from the market?

TK: We’ll be sourcing the great majority of our goods in the market since it has everything we need: produce (from the produce stand), bread and butter (from Bread & Butter), meat (from Liberty Meat Shop), fish (from Fishbone Kitchen), cheese and salumi (from Venissimo Cheese), fresh pasta (from Pasta Design), pastries (from Crafted) and spices and pantry goods (from The Market Pantry).

Q: How would you describe the menu to those who haven’t visited the restaurant yet?

TK: Truly market-driven because we’re in the market. The beverage-pairing component is going to be a focal point and really fun. I have a great relationship with our wine director, Greg Majors, so we’re excited about this aspect of the menu.

Q: Tell me more about the format of the restaurant and how it changes from à la carte to prix fixe to family style.

TK: The menu will all be available à la carte, but we’re going to offer some prix fixe multi-course options that will present a real value. At brunch, I want to offer a family-style option inspired by the years of doing the Artisan Table dinners at The Lodge at Torrey Pines.

Q: Does the restaurant pay homage to the building’s former life as a Naval Training Center?

TK: Building No. 1 did house the original NTC mess hall, so yes, we’re keeping the original naval ship murals around the perimeter of the restaurant and we’re working on some old black and white mess hall photos. We’re going to honor the history of it without getting too kitschy.

Sweet 17: Blue Bridge Hospitality’s first restaurant, MooTime Creamery, recently celebrated its 17th anniversary with an ice cream eating competition benefiting local nonprofits, and thanked the community with $0.17 ice cream scoops.

Blue Bridge Hospitality includes these local concepts:
Coronado Coffee Company
Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge
Liberty Public Market
Lil Piggy’s Bar-B-Q
MooTime Creamery
Stake Chophouse & Bar
The Mess Hall at Liberty Public Market
Village Pizzeria (Orange Avenue and Bayside locations)

Kolanko’s favorite local restaurants to visit on his day off:
1. Urban Solace
2. The Smoking Goat
3. Jaynes Gastropub
4. Blind Lady Ale House
5. Cafe Chloe
6. Prepkitchen Little Italy
7. ¡Salud!

The Mess Hall
2820 Historic Decatur Rd
San Diego, CA 92106
619.522.6890

F O O D /// Fight! Chef Tim Kolanko of The Mess Hall Gives an Inside Look at Liberty Public Market’s New Restaurant.

About the author

Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based writer who contributes to several national and regional publications, covering travel, dining and lifestyle.

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