The Culinary Counsel
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 three of San Diego’s renowned chefs gives us a better idea of how the food culture has changed and where it is headed. The selected SD food experts are Antonio Friscia of Don Chido and the soon-to-open Rustic Root, Chef Jason Gethin of Table No. 10, and Chef Jason McLeod of Ironside Fish & Oyster. These superb chefs have lengthy backgrounds in food service hospitality from all over the world. They have all been busy collecting knowledge, catering to customers, and creating perfection (in terms of food)! Now, with much experience and a significant career ahead of them, they have all made roots in San Diego and invested their time, energy, and creativity into the culture of our community.
THE CULTURED COOK
The Expert: Antonio Friscia, Chef/Partner at Don Chido and soon-to-open Rustic Root
527 5th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
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.
THE SIREN OF SEAFOOD
The Expert: Jason McLeod, Chef/Partner at Ironside Fish & Oyster
Ironside Fish & Oyster
1654 India St.
San Diego, CA 92101
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.
THE FOOD PHILOSOPHER
The Expert: Jason Gethin, Chef/Partner at Table No. 10
Jason Gethin of Table No. 10 is pushing the boundaries of American cuisine with his one of a kind menu items that will have you coming back for more! Jason spent some of his college years trying to figure out where he fit in this world and what type of career would be best for him. While working at restaurants to put himself through school, he soon realized that was what he wanted to do. His interest in food and hospitality went beyond that of a regular waiter, and he quickly enrolled at the Louisiana Culinary Institute. Jason has a curious spirit that will not settle with a typical dish. The priority, of course, is an amazing taste, but he really tries to pair things in a way that people would never expect.
Table No. 10 certainly lives up to Jason’s “unique” expectations with incredible menu items and an elegant ambiance. Jason loves his work and loves being a part of the San Diego food scene. He sees a lot of potential for San Diego as a culinary capital, and he states that he has been noticing that shift. Stop by Table No. 10 and order something outside of your comfort zone!
Q: I understand that you have a culinary degree and have spent a lot of time studying the art of cooking. How did you first realize your interest in this career path?
Jason Gethin: I spent four years in regular college and found that it was not for me. During college though, I worked in restaurants and really enjoyed being around food and in hospitality. I then went to Louisiana Culinary Institute for a two-year associate’s degree, and then received a Bachelor’s Degree in Food Service Management from Johnson & Wales.
Q: Cooper McLaughlin was the owner of The Corner, which you transformed into Table No. 10. How did that connection with McLaughlin happen and what inspired him to start from scratch?
JG: I have been friends with McLaughlin since I moved to San Diego 15 years ago. My wife worked with him in the mortgage business, and we got to know one another. He wanted something else to do with The Corner, and I was ready to do my own thing.
Q: I have heard that the name Table No. 10 refers to the table that is closest to the kitchen, “the chef’s table.” How did you and Cooper McLaughlin land on that name?
JG: The restaurant is on 10th Avenue, and it also refers to the table closest to the kitchen. That table also happens to seat 10 people!
Q: Is it true that each of your menu items is paired with a beverage? If so, how did you land on deciding on those pairings?
JG: All of our servers are very well-informed of the drinks and wines that go with each dish, and they make excellent suggestions.
Q: Table No. 10 has a menu of small bites, small plates and large plates that have a modern, American style. What is the new trend with modern American food, and how do you feel it has changed over time?
Q: You were previously the chef at Union Kitchen & Tap in Encinitas. How was that transition from working at an established restaurant, to jumping into something completely new?
JG: I was the opening chef for Union for three and a half years. It was fun bringing Union to the place it is now, and I wanted to do something on my own and try to bring it to that same place. This sounded like the perfect challenge.
Q: Your menu items have some extremely unique ingredients such as bone marrow butter, sorrel chimichurri, and velouté. Where did you get the inspiration for incorporating these types of unusual ingredients?
JG: With the bone marrow butter, we would cook the porterhouse and baste it in the butter. In the back of the house, we just started dipping bread into it and decided to make our own rolls and offer it on the menu! The fat within the butter makes a great flavor.
Q: What would you say is the most adventurous thing to order on your menu?
JG: The chicken skins took people back in the beginning. In the beginning, we only sold about 10 pounds a week, but now we sell 80 pounds a week. Also, the suckling pig lazy ravioli is adventurous because every part of the pig is shredded and used as the ravioli filling.
Q: When you finish a long day at work, what would be your drink of choice if you were to order one off of the menu?
JG: The bar manager had a lot of fun creating the cocktail menu after he was given the instruction to make something unique. However, my drink of choice is Budweiser. It is the only beer that we have on tap that has its own labeled handle. They had it put in just for me. I also enjoy a shot of Jameson.
Q: You studied cooking in school in Louisiana. What brought you to San Diego and what made you stay?
JG: My girlfriend at the time (now wife) got to choose the next place we would live, and she chose San Diego. I wanted to go to New York because I thought it was the mecca of culinary art for the US.
Q: The menu items at Union Kitchen & Tap in Encinitas are quite phenomenal! When choosing the menu items for Table No. 10, was there anything that you felt you wanted to take with you from Union?
JG: I left Union how it was and left the recipes there as well. At Table No. 10, we serve a little bit of grits with the mushroom dish (similar to Union), but we are trying to step away from the southern influence.
Q: I think that many San Diegans have noticed a shift in the San Diego food culture over the years. What do you think has prompted that and where do you think it is headed?
JG: I believe the internet has prompted a lot of the food shift. Also, there are a lot of chefs who have been working at the same place and are now trying to venture out and start their own things. With our weather and produce we should be a food city. People are moving in from other cities and bringing with them their different interests in taste.
Q: It seems that many people love to stop by Table No. 10 for a small plate or bite and an amazing craft cocktail. What would you say is your most popular small bite/plate and cocktail combination?
JG: Our most popular cocktail is El Pinche Gringo. And our most popular appetizer is by far the scallop and pork belly dish because the pork is just so good! It is also a really beautiful dish and the flavors play really well off of one another.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world to meet with a chef and learn about their cooking technique, what place would it be and why?
JG: It would be a dream to work in London at The Fat Duck with Heston Blumenthal. He is pushing the boundaries and defining what food is, in a new and modern way.
Q: You recently added a brunch portion to your menu. What is the next exciting step that we can expect to see in terms of growth for Table No. 10?
JG: When football season started, there were not as many brunch customers because we don’t offer TVs. Otherwise, since we put brunch on the menu about a month ago, it has been a huge success! In terms of next steps, we are pretty new, so right now we are trying to get through the first year before we try to add on another project.