Reimagining California Cuisine

As a chef, I have become adept at molding my cuisine into what is right for the locations and environments in which I find myself. My signature style, if I had one, was founded on a respect for the culture I found myself in. Cooking has given me the fortunate opportunity to live in some great places – Ojai, Santa Barbara, Switzerland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Maui and the Big Island, Sundance (Utah), and now La Jolla. These are all very different places with different clienteles, local ingredients and styles of cooking.

When George approached me to become the chef and a partner in George’s at the Cove it took me a while to get the “I mold to the environment” mentality out of my head. After all, this was partly my restaurant now and I could do things as I pleased, to a point anyway. It took me some time to really understand what ‘as I pleased’ meant. If I had my own place I would do… what? But George’s at the Cove was not my place; it was our place. And instead of molding myself only to the environment and clientele, I now had partners to keep happy as well. This challenge has kept me busy for the past seven years.

I stepped into a pretty conservative restaurant at that time and although we have made a lot of changes that I am happy about and proud of, they always fit into the mold that was George’s at the Cove – a restaurant established long before I arrived, with a very strong following and reputation. When George, Mark and I starting talking about completely rethinking what we were doing as a fine dining restaurant and the possibility of a total remodel entered the conversation, I could not have been more excited! An entirely new restaurant? Designed with my input? A menu concept that would allow me to break out and do whatever I wanted? Two supportive, smart partners to back me up? Wow, a chef’s dreams come true!

Now I just needed to figure out what I really wanted to do with the menu. Boundaries have been good to me, given me direction and limits. This was like having an unlimited canvas. Where to start?

 It was too big a question, so I started with the small stuff.

The ingredients:

I stand behind all of my purveyors, many of whom have become close friends, so it was easy to make the decision that these relationships would remain the same. 

Iconic California restaurants I’ve been greatly influenced by:

Chez Panisse, Olivetto, Citrus, Le Petite, Chaya, La Super Rica, Ginza Sushiko, and the old Rockenwagner – what a mixed up list! But their influences on me over the years gave me added insight into my ideal menu.

Food I like to cook at home:

Pasta, clean vegetable preparations, Wok dishes, fish with acid – food inspired by what looks great at the market, along with different cultural influences.

Working with this as a foundation, we tried to break down what a contemporary California restaurant should be. There are plenty of good Italian, French and Asian restaurants in California, but none that really speak Southern California anymore. To me Citrus was the best example – great technique, a French sensibility, a casual, fun vibe, with nothing taken too seriously except the quality of the food and service. They even had umbrellas in the dining room.

How could we reinterpret the meaning of “California Cuisine” with our food? Of course it means fresh, local ingredients, prepared in a way that keeps their integrity and heightens their inherent flavor, which is almost always healthier as well. But how do I address my need for change and freedom to be influenced by different cultures? That is not to say Fusion, which is a mixture of cultures on the same plate. But is it possible to have a menu that speaks of what we really want to cook? What we as chefs get excited about, be it a house-made Italian-style stuffed pasta, a Japanese or Spanish inspired raw fish dish, or slow braised meat? Can they all be on the same menu? Of course! Is there a common thread? Of course! – Our sensibility to the ingredients and how they are handled.

So that is where we are going to start. The menu at George's California Modern will have the flexibility to change as often as necessary. We will be fearless with our offerings, as long as we think they are good. What this gives you is a more expansive, inventive menu that is without boundaries. Cross-cultural yet controlled, personal and always ingredient-driven. Whether you seek a casual, informal meal, a special occasion affair, or a culinary exploration to fit your mood at that moment, George's California Modern will answer the call. I invite you to join us in our new exploration.