My Decade of Definition

As a cook, I was not the most strategic thinker. I moved to the kitchen from the front of the house because I didn’t like interacting with guests, but liked the restaurant business. I moved around a bit not thinking of a career path or what the next step might be until I had a “moment” working the line at a busy restaurant on Maui and decided I needed to go to cooking school to get myself out of the path I was headed. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I was sure of what I didn’t want and that was to be a middle-aged, washed up line cook.

The career that I stumbled into has given me so much…great experiences working with and for incredibly talented people, my wife (who I would not have met if not for the business) and my business partner, George Hauer, who is the best restaurateur I have ever met and who has patently taught me to think in a more strategic way, creatively and professionally.

When I started at George's 10 years ago it was like stepping on a treadmill that was going 100 miles per hour.

I had to either learn to run fast and keep up, or fall on my face. The restaurant had been without a chef for several months and was being held together by two sous chefs that both quit within the first two months of me starting. The cooks had all been working there a while and were suspicious of me, and what I was going to do to change their world. My job was to make the food I knew I could make, run the kitchen the way I knew it should be run, while still being sympathetic to the people who inherited me as their boss. I’ve never been comfortable inheriting employees, because we did not choose to work together, we were forced together.

One of the best decisions I made was to promote Martin Frayre to the Ocean Terrace sous chef position. Martin had been the liaison between the two kitchens, acting as translator, and buffer, between the two cultures. He was the guy that made the day-to-day happen. While not a creative force at the time, over the past nine years he has developed his creative side and honed his food knowledge by reading on his own and eagerly attending the “stages” we send him to every year in other highly-lauded restaurants where he always comes back refreshed and with a notebook full of ideas. Martin has spent time in the kitchens of Jiraffe in Santa Monica, Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, Bouchon in Las Vegas and Joe’s in Venice. Martin knows how to uphold the standards of the busiest restaurant in San Diego, and he does it with a sense of pride that few have.

Martin’s steady hand on the Ocean Terrace has allowed me to be focused on California Modern, which is where I spend most of my time. I have a sous chef, Elizabeth Murray, who helps me run the day-to-day, and a crew of motivated young cooks that help pressure and push me. My goal has always been to respect our sense of place while continuing to improve, learn and progress. I want California Modern to be a restaurant that echoes the San Diego lifestyle, which is very healthy, optimistic, easy-going, constant yet always changing. That is why the menu is highly seasonal and open to outside influences that make the dishes more interesting than what is merely on the surface. I want California Modern to be a restaurant that holds a standard equal to other restaurants in the country, not just the city. This motivation and the drive to keep improving come from many places, including our pride in the restaurant and our never-ending restlessness to create something new as soon as we have perfected the execution of a dish. (I often find myself in the position of explaining to my cooks that our job is to please our guests, and if something is really selling well and getting great feedback we want to keep it around as long as the ingredients are in season. But I truly admire their tenacity.)

The last 10 years has been my decade of definition. I am defined by the bounty of incredible produce available from our local farms that keeps me on my toes as we move into and out of each season. I am defined by the constant search for the best and most sustainable meats and seafood, and a desire to expose our guests to items that may seem just a bit our of their comfort zone. Because I believe that when handled with care and skill, everyone will love mackerel and sardines. I am defined by what has yet to be defined, by learning something new everyday and passionately embracing that long list of things I have yet to try.