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Exceptional SD Chefs Suzanne Williams, Jaime Chavez and Steven Riemer Share How They Got Started as Chefs

Written by: Travis West & Christine Williamson Top SD Chefs Talk Food Philosophy at Home
Photographed By: Josie Gonzales & Nick Isabella

For most of us, meals at home consist of the same quick and easy recipes, but what about the home meals of a highly trained chef with years of experience? Executive Chef Chris Powell of the Solterra Winery & Kitchen explains why the meals he makes under his roof are a chance to bond with those you love. Since restaurant cooking can be high pressure at times, a meal at home is a chance to simplify and enjoy.

Because of the long nights that come with being a chef, sometimes it is not always a viable option to make such a meal, but even creating the most simple sandwich is far more satisfying, healthy and not to mention cheaper in the long run, than grabbing a quick bite from the local fast food joint. But skip your run-of-the-mill packaged salami and cheese and take a page out of Chef Jaime Chavez’s book. The Sirena restaurant’s chef suggests doing research in your area to expand your flavor palate by finding the freshest meats and splurging a bit on the stinky cheese of your choice.

For those who love entertaining guests, like Chef Steven Riemer of Oceana Coastal Kitchen, topping a simple cracker with a favorite cured meat, nutty arugula and a strong-tasting cheese will have guests asking for the recipe and keep them occupied while you finish dinner. Whether you are cooking for two, for many or for yourself, experimenting with new types of food will force you to throw your old dinner routine out the window and have your family wanting to try new things.

Rock the Boat

The Expert: Chef Steven Riemer, Executive Chef at Catamaran Resort Hotel

Q: When did you discover cooking?

Steven Riemer: I don’t remember a time I did not cook. I used to make food for my siblings before school when we were younger.

Q: You must be the oldest.

SR: I am. I can remember I made a cake for my brother. I was attracted to cooking early. I was a finicky eater, so I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not. When you cook for yourself, you get what you want the way you want.

Q: Why did you decide to choose cooking as a career path?

SR: Originally I wanted to be a biochemist. Found out I was only mediocre at that. I was paying for school by cooking. The track I was on with school wasn’t working out and I really enjoyed what I did to make money. It came about through chef contacts. And after a while I told myself, “I can do this.” I never went to culinary school. I learned under different chefs.

Q: What is your philosophy when it comes to food? Farm to table?

SR: When I first started, that’s how it worked. Everyone shopped at the farmers market if you could. Food was meant to be from a place. For example, San Diego is so close to the border, but right by the ocean. So your food takes the form of where you are. If I have something on the menu somewhere else, I may get some blank stares, but here people want it because it’s from the region.

Q: Some chefs can be pretty intense. What are you like in the kitchen?

SR: I’ve seen pans fly, knives fly. I believe that when you focus on making the best food and giving the best service, it changes the decisions you make and you don’t take things personally. Sometimes it’s hard not to when a plate comes back and you think it is perfect—your first reaction is, “You’re a moron.” Chefs get thicker skin as they move along. 

Q: So what is your home life like? Do you make meals like this everyday?

SR: What we had today I would make at home. Of course, when I’m cooking at home, I may be talking with my wife in between what I’m doing and have a glass of wine and then get back to cooking. Some of the best inspirations come from cooking at home or dining at home.

Q: What ingredients do you use when you cook at home? Favorite stores for produce?

SR: The dish I made today, I would cook at home. I try to get meat from a local meat market and if I need vegetables I will find a local farmers market, but a lot of times I work with what I can get.

Q: Do you experiment a lot with food

at home?

SR: Absolutely. I get a lot of menu items based off things I may have tried doing at home.

Q: Cooking at home is probably a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have orders coming in constantly.

SR: Yeah, I like to have a glass of wine, maybe some music and just unwind.

Q: Tell me about Oceana. It’s a seafood-based restaurant, right?

SR: It’s certainly seafood forward, since we are right on the coast. Things like sushi are ingrained in the experience here. We built a restaurant inside a restaurant that we call a cold bar. They make cold seafood towers with oysters and clams and some sushi rolls. We change our menu seasonally, and by seasons, I mean by what food is being grown.

Q: Do you have complete menu control?

SR: Yes, I do. It’s great because when I first came back to the company, the owner said, “You can do what you want.” What’s great about that is you have freedom and support, but you need to articulate that to staff and others and you need to produce. Fortunately, I have a decent staff and we work collaboratively, so farmers bring me stuff and we work with it and see if it’s right for Oceana.

Q: What is your routine like?

SR: We are open three meals a day. I come in the morning and check deliveries, then check my 100 emails. Sometimes there are meetings to go to and often I’ll be out front looking at plates. I greet guests in the dining room while I answer questions from staff.

Q: What are your future aspirations?

SR: I think everyone is working on developing certain parts and for me it’s people skills. I have ideas that still come to me, some ideas for new food. I want to become better at what I do. A lot of being a chef is being present.

Q: What cuisine do you enjoy cooking?

SR: Good cuisine. There are times when I make my own dough. I cook outside often. I have a rotisserie and a smoker. We mix it up a lot.

Q: Was there any point where you thought this was the lifestyle you did not want?

SR: Believe it or not, never. There are times when I think to myself, “How did I get here?” I like to think smart people question things again and again, and when I do I still believe this is what I have an aptitude for. And I get joy from watching others develop.

Q: Do you have any advice for a future culinary student?

SR: Generally speaking, you’ll love it—being on the line and the pressure of it all. After, go to a place that you think won’t hire you.

Q: Why is that?

SR: You will know what’s possible and working the highest level, I think, gives you the best insight as to what’s possible.

Chill Out: Oceana’s Cold Bar offers ceviche, crudo, carpaccio, a seafood tower, Cabo crab Louis and an omakase platter plus all-you-can-eat oysters on the first Wednesday of every month.

Rollin’ on the River: Before or after your meal at Oceana, take a cruise on the Bahia Belle, the Catamaran Resort’s sternwheeler. An observation deck lets you enjoy the sunset and later on there’s cocktail hour and live entertainment with dancing.

Hot Dish: Summer lettuces and shaved French breakfast radish with sweet 100 tomatoes, avocado and citrus. Smoked salmon pappardelle with roast peppers, chicory and ricotta.

Oceana Coastal Kitchen
3999 Mission Blvd
San Diego, CA 92109
858.488.1081 | www.catamaranresort.com


Home on the Range

The Expert: Chris Powell, Executive Chef, Solterra Winery & Kitchen

Q: Who do you cook for at home?

Chris Powell: I cook for my wife and my three children—I have two boys and a daughter. My two boys are pretty young and they eat just about anything, while my daughter, who is a little bit older, has become my sous chef in our home kitchen. She likes making everything from pasta to Chinese food. Taco Tuesday is big in our house—she likes to season the beef and grate the cheese. It’s all pretty simple family dinners.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between the home kitchen and the restaurant kitchen?

CP: Well, somebody cleans up for me at the restaurant. A big difference is the equipment for sure. When you’re at home you’re always looking for one or two more pieces of equipment.

Q: Are you a fan of tapas and Mediterranean cuisine outside of the restaurant, or do you go a different direction?

CP: I go a different direction because as a chef you always want to have a work/life balance. It’s an addiction and an obsession of how far we’re going to take it in the restaurant, so at home I like to lose that and be more relaxed and keep things simple.

Q: You have a garden on the rooftop at the restaurant, so do you have a garden at home?

CP: Just a small patio with some tomatoes, peppers and fresh herbs.

Q: What special ingredients do you always have stocked in your home pantry?

CP: Salami and cheese! For being picky eaters, all of my kids love salami. I like to have good olive oil and kosher salt—those are the most important things.

Q: Who are your culinary influences?

CP: I take a lot from Thomas Keller. He’s very refined and disciplined, but his techniques are really simple. I also spent about 12 years making Japanese food, and what Chef Morimoto does with seafood and shellfish is a huge inspiration.

Q: Did you start your culinary career as a home cook or did you go straight to culinary school?

CP: After high school I went straight to culinary school at Western Culinary Institute [now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts] in Portland, Oregon.

Q: Home entertaining—how often, how many people do you invite and what do you prepare?

CP: Honestly there’s not a lot of time for home entertaining, except for during the holidays. I like to make a nice big rib roast during the holidays.

Q: What was your biggest fail when cooking at home?

CP: One time I really messed up a great fish by using bitter lemons. It ruined the whole thing.

Q: At home, what’s the most elaborate meal you’ve ever cooked?

CP: Shout out to my wife’s mom—she’s from the Philippines and cooks some authentic meals at my house.

Q: What are you drinking at home?

CP: Usually wine. I just got introduced to all of the great wines that Solterra produces. My brother-in-law is a winemaker in Spain so we get a lot of great imports sent to us. I am also into beer—San Diego has so many great breweries. I like to try different beers, whatever excites me.

Local Faves: Powell often takes trips to serene Lake Ramona, which is a 3-mile hike up about 3, 000 feet. He also frequents Whisknladle in La Jolla. Powell says Whisknladle’s attention to detail really shines through in its handcrafted pasta.

Hot Dish: Pan roasted lamb loin chops, organic kale and butternut squash salad with bacon lardons, roasted garlic, Merlot-soaked pecorino, finished with an espresso balsamic glaze and harissa oil.

Solterra Winery & Kitchen
934 N Coast Hwy 101
Leucadia, CA 92024
760.230.2970 | www.solterrawinery.com


All Aboard

The Expert: Chef Jaime Chavez, Executive Chef at Sirena

Q: How did you get started with cooking?

Jaime Chavez: My mother was working all the time and I needed something to eat. Then I just started making rice and chicken, sauces and salads. My brother also loves to cook, so we cooked together. Even though my mother was never home, she cooked really well.

Q: Did she teach you a lot?

JC: Yeah. Not just her, probably my whole family. I have an aunt who used to be a pastry cook and she would make cakes and pastries.

Q: Did you move to the United States when you were young?

JC: No, like three years ago.

Q: Oh, wow. So you are still getting adjusted to some things.

JC: Yeah, I was born in Chile and then moved to Barcelona and worked at a Michelin star restaurant for two years. Then I met my wife. I followed her here. She was born here, but her family is from Tijuana. I spent two years there before I got my papers.

Q: That much traveling probably enhanced your techniques.

JC: Yeah, and in Europe it’s easy to travel. So I went everywhere. I like going to little spots.

Q: How did you start your career at Sirena?

JC: I knew the guy building the project, and so he called me while I was at the Hilton Bayfront in San Diego. Then I said yes and we got started.

Q: Do you have control over the menu?

JC: Right now I have pretty much control of the entire restaurant. Mornings I do paperwork and make orders. It’s a lot of responsibility. I work about 70 hours a week. It can be very tough.

Q: What is your philosophy when it comes to food? Farm to table?

JC: We just want to use fresh food. We buy fresh fish and oysters almost everyday. We work with Catalina. That way if someone complains that it’s not fresh I can tell them that it is.

Q: Some chefs can be pretty intense. What are you like in the kitchen?

JC: When I was younger in Barcelona, I always told people things are wrong. Now, if I have to be strict I will be, but most of the time they are minor problems so I try not to make them bigger problems. I think over time as you get experience you learn how you want to manage the kitchen. When I was an instructor I had to deal with different personalities. There are some people that work well under pressure and others who don’t. You have to know who you are dealing with or they may freeze. When I start turning my eyes my staff knows I’m getting mad.

Q: What is your home life like? Do you make meals like this everyday?

JC: When I get home, I’ll make a sandwich, but I buy a good pastrami and cheese. I try to do something simple and fast. On the weekends I’ll try to make something nice.

Q: What ingredients do you use when you cook at home? Do you shop anywhere in particular?

JC: Anywhere I can find fresh produce. A lot of restaurants promote the best ingredients and no GMOs and all that, but it’s not always that way. Farmers markets are usually the best way to go, but we have such crazy hours I sometimes make something really simple.

Q: Do you experiment with food at home?

JC: When I was growing up my mother worked a lot so I would always be making new things for my siblings to try. They were my first taste testers.

Q: Cooking at home is probably a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have orders coming in constantly.

JC: Yeah, it’s more relaxing.

Q: Who has been your biggest influence?

JC: I think I grabbed a little of everyone I worked with. But the most influential chef is the executive chef in Barcelona. Everyone thinks a Michelin star restaurant has something special, but they use the same produce. It’s mostly fireworks and things they charge you for. Her style was very simple. Bring out the best of the ingredients.

Q: Do you have future aspirations when it comes to your career?

JC: I’m in the right place. At some point I want to work on a restaurant as a corporate or consulting chef. That’s what I really, really like. Making recipes, food costing. A lot of chefs I know don’t like numbers, but for me it combines math and numbers with cooking. The owner wanted to open a restaurant six months ago. I told him to give me a couple years.

Q: Was there any point where you thought this was not a lifestyle you want?

JC: Yeah, a lot of times. I don’t know if I want to do this for the rest of my life, but I’ve been saying that for 10 years. Right now I’m not cooking all the time. There is side work that keeps me busy, but during service and rush hour I’m there. But I really like it.

Hot Dish: Warm squid salad with shaved carrots, figs, bacon, lemon cucumber, shaved fennel, salted peas, pea vines, fresh amarillo chile and mint dressing.

Full Speed Ahead: Chef Jaime Chavez first studied naval engineering because he loves ships, but soon realized he didn’t want to sit behind a computer for the rest of his life. A deep interest in food led him to becoming a chef.

Native Knowledge: Tuesdays at Sirena has $4 tacos from 4 p.m. to close and on Wednesdays ceviche is $10 each from 4 p.m. to close. Sirena serves four ceviche variations: peruano, chileno, coco and vegitariano.

1901 Columbia St
San Diego, CA 92101
619.564.8970 | www.sirenagourmet.com


Photo Shoot Location:
PIRCH Westfield UTC
4545 La Jolla,
Village Dr #1,
San Diego, CA 92122
858.966.3600 | www.pirch.com

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