Like a lot of people who write things on the Internet, I try to take a little time at the end of year and make whatever sense I can of the previous twelve months, on the blog.
Last year, my end-of-year post got a little more attention than I intended, as a fair number of folks interpreted it to mean I and/or the restaurants were moving, specifically to Portland. This was understandable, because I explained how Velo Cult’s moving to Portland had me, as well as a lot of other San Diegans I knew, facing the likelihood that if we wanted to grow in our careers, we would probably have to look to bigger markets.
However, while I knew at some point I would be drawn into a relationship with a bigger city, my immediate focus a year ago was on a different Pacific Northwest — the Pacific Northwest of Mexico. I spent a lot of time this year based out of a tranquil apartment in Ensenada, learning more about the town, and getting to know the culinary people in the area much better.
There’s a lot in Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe that we in San Diego can take inspiration from. Like San Diego, it is an area with great weather and growing conditions, but without a strong economic engine or a lot of good-paying jobs. It does have a lot of well-educated people (it’s a good University town with an emphasis on the marine sciences) and also fair amount of people who have come primarily to enjoy the weather, surf, or retirement. It does not boast a large local market of folks who consistently dine out in restaurants and pay the premium for handmade local products. (And, as in many places, the market can become confused about the cost, premium, and flavor of handmade local products because there also exist places that claim to be selling them, but aren’t.)
With all that, the key culinary people in Ensenada and the Valley have stayed committed to their vision of great local food and wine that can serve as a culinary identity for the region, and even perhaps the country. Notwithstanding the bad economy and bad press that kept American tourists away in 2008-2011, the chefs and winemakers found ways to do what they wanted to do. They focused on niche markets that could support their work, including building a great reputation with tourists from Mexico City and other big cities in Mexico. Influential media personalities such as Rick Bayless, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern caught on to the quality of what was happening here, and spread the news to the US and beyond.
On a recent trip to Mexico City, we marveled at how much the typical menu at everyday bistros and gastropubs had changed — and how much the Ensenada/Valle de Guadalupe influence was visible. Even Maximo Bistrot, which may be the hottest new restaurant in the city (and it is delicious, superb) and is helmed by a Mexico City, not Baja, chef, seemed to clearly incorporate elements of Ensenada cuisine.
This dialogue that Ensenada and the Valley have opened up with the biggest city in North America is due in part to the fact that many of the culinary leaders in Baja are also involved in projects in Mexico City, or have roots there. I think it’s also because, even though it’s three hours away by air, it represents the biggest market for the best food and drink that the wine region can produce. I see this model as a potentially good one for San Diego. It’s been effective for us as city in the past with events like San Diego Beer Week, which at least at times has seemed to bring in a lot of tourists interested in the best-of-class products being handcrafted in San Diego.
Eating a tosti-locos tasting flight with John T Edge for the New York Times, Tijuana, January 2012
Ensenada Olive Oil, first bottling, February 2012
As far as restaurants in San Diego, my observation is that it was a pretty mixed year for quality dining. On the sad side, I saw a fair number of restaurants that really wanted to work with quality local ingredients give up on that (and in some cases the whole business) due to not being able to make the economics work. The unfortunate fact is that, due to the incredibly high government/taxpayer subsidies for factory food, to serve a better quality product like Niman Ranch pork costs three times what your basic restaurant pork costs; to serve an actual pastured product from a nearby independent farmer typically costs upward of five times. A threefold or fivefold increase in ingredient cost on a plate means that the diners are going to have to pay at least twice as much to eat non-factory food, and for many folks in this economy that sort of spending is reserved for special occasions.
There are some recourses for businesses that want to sell premium ingredients in a tough market, of course. If we serve flour-intensive foods, particularly pizzas and often sandwiches, the proteins make up a smaller portion of the plate cost, and we can upgrade the protein part of the dish while only having to charge, say, 30-50% more than a comparable item with factory meats. This, for instance, is how we are able to offer burgers with grass-fed beef at our restaurants for only a moderate amount more than comparable grain-fed burgers at other places.
Another effective alternative for many restaurants these days — and I think this is true in every market, not just San Diego — is create the impression and aura that they are serving local and premium ingredients, without actually doing so. That way they can charge a significant premium over fast-casual places, while still paying the same low prices for ingredients. Some of these places just lie about what they serve, others use vague wording meant to suggest buying from small farms without being committed to it, others occasionally buy a little bit and trumpet that loudly, some are just very effective at communicating the ethos via interior design, word choice and typography.
Whether or not a given restaurant is really “walking the walk” is not something that is easy for the average occasional diner to know, because even the places that are most committed to buying local and superior ingredients still wax and wane in what they actually get, as seasonal changes and logistics make their mark. As a diner, typically the only way to know what’s up is to get to know the intentions of the people who make and serve your meal, personally. Although also it’s usually possible to tell by the flavor.
Of course, the faux-local movement serves a purpose. In an economy where a lot of people want to eat local food but live lives that are not economically structured to pay the required premium (and it’s a premium that exists only because of the subsidies provided for factory food), it’s an option that creates in people a sense of solidarity with local food, with prices are only a bit more than the factory food would cost without the locavore wrapping. I think everyone who is realistic about how things work understands this setup, we just hope it doesn’t over time become our only option.
All that said, on the happy side of the ledger, there are still delicious places in San Diego that are serving local and independently raised food, and are doing it very well, and with their own take on it. Everyone has their own contour, but in most cases there are some elements of local handcrafted food that they are exploring really deeply. Personally, I interact the most with MIHO and Starlite as examples of this, but there are others, too — Ritual Tavern and Herringbone also come to mind as places that, when I’ve gone this year, I’ve been really impressed by their ability to source good, fresh local food and serve it deliciously.
As far as our restaurants go, I’m happy say that both emotionally and mathematically, our business has never been better. A couple years ago, we understood and embraced the reality that merely making good local food was not going to be enough for us to create a successful restaurant in San Diego. We committed ourselves as a team to creating the best possible complete experience, hospitality and environment for our guests (you may remember this remodel as a step toward that). Over the course of 2011 and early 2012 we really rebuilt all our operations with this in mind, and while we haven’t been perfect, the results have been very rewarding for our guests and our team. We can see the obvious increase in the number of delighted patrons we have, and the increase in the sheer number of our guests is of course obvious as well.
In many ways, this work we’ve done the last two years in restructuring the restaurants has been as hard as opening a restaurant from the ground up. Maybe even harder, as we had to do it while operating two restaurants that were really complex (because of the multiple small vendors we work with, the myriad things we make ourselves, and the fact that we hadn’t organized things ideally in the first place). I certainly have often found it exhausting, and I know many of our key people have, as well. It’s a good thing these operational systems are working well, ’cause I don’t think any of us would be up for re-inventing them again right away.
While working hard on obscure operational stuff, we’ve still managed to achieve a few visible things that I’m proud of, and I hope you are too (since it’s your patronage that allows us to do cool things in hand crafting food). The achievement I’m most happy about is getting all canola oil out of our kitchens, and switching to frying exclusively in grass-fed beef tallow, one of the healthiest and most delicious fats in existence. It’s of course quite a bit more expensive but the reaction we’ve got from you is that the flavor is worth it. For salad oil we are using excellent local olive oil from Baja, and to make mayonnaise we are using rice bran oil, which is also supposed to be much healthier. (I haven’t researched the healthfulness of rice bran oil myself yet, but people I trust say good things. I can tell you that condiments made with rice bran oil taste way better than their canola counterparts, at least.)
We also are finalists for the Good Food awards for our country ham — winners to be announced January 18th, with the awards reception and marketplace January 18th and 19th in San Francisco at the Ferry Building. Tickets available here.
And, perhaps most excitingly, we found our groove at El Take It Easy this year. By midsummer we’d found the menu structure that best connected with the community, and that’s allowed us to focus on developing the best possible dishes and executing them as consistently as possible. Meanwhile, we were fortunate to host many of the best chefs in Mexico (and a couple great San Diegans) in a series of pop-ups that were inspiring to our team and, I hope, also to those who enjoyed the food. It’s still a young restaurant, but it’s settled now, and I find its dining room on a busy nite to be one of my favorite places to be in San Diego.
It wouldn’t be a complete end-of-year post if I didn’t share with you some random things I particularly enjoyed this year, in the thought that you might like them too.
Some albums I listened to a lot, that you might enjoy checking out:
Hospitality, Hospitality (also loved them live at Soda Bar); In The Mountain In The Clouds, Portugal The Man; Brushbloom, The Tree Ring; Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen; Voyeur, Saint Motel.
Some restaurants at which I had particularly remarkable meals in 2012, not including Baja or San Diego. In Mexico City: Merotoro, Contramar, Maximo Bistrot. San Francisco: State Bird Provisions, Loló. Los Angeles: Playa.
I read some good books but nothing that truly captured my imagination. I didn’t see any publicly-released films or feature length things on TV. I did manage to complete, for the second time, the Rosarito-Ensenada bike ride, although it completely kicked my ass. I do recommend it, though, if you are in better shape than I was that hot September day.
As for the upcoming year, it promises to be a lot different than the last one. 2013 kicks off with a big change — my wife is starting work in San Francisco at one of the best, most inspiring local-food companies in America.
For me, spending more time in San Francisco represents a chance to get waist-deep in what is surely the country’s strongest, most dynamic market for restaurants and local food. In the same way that the connections our Baja friends established in Mexico City helped them in both places, I intend to find ways to share what we do well with San Francisco, and to learn from that at which San Francisco excels, to make our restaurants here in San Diego better.
The other big project I’ve given myself for the year is one that is more emotional. I’d like to figure out better ways for me and our restaurants to operate in a cynical environment, and still communicate our intentions in the most honest, loving of ways. I think this has become a challenge for every small businessperson in the current era when much of our sense of community has broken down, and frustrated and angry people lash out — either online or through governmental or private action — at people and businesses that they see as institutions which might be successfully attacked. Like all community business owners, we here deal with our share of that, and it over time tends to push us out of involvement in the public sphere. And yet, creating a loving place for people to gather together and enjoy food and each other is, and has to be, at the center of our whole enterprise. Finding a way to draw on our natural reserves of hospitality and warmth, no matter what the social environment, is our challenge. Fortunately, I think, success at that task is also a path to happiness, so embracing this challenge is also the most important job possible for us.
Also, I’m learning to make nixtamal.
Have a great 2013, and thank you to all of you who have been so generous with your time, patience, and patronage.