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CREATING CULINARY MAGIC

Our favorite chefs offer insight on their creative processes

By Wendy Lemlin | Photography By Noushin Nourizadeh
When perusing the menu at your favorite restaurant, do you ever wonder how the chef created those amazing sounding dishes? How did he or she choose that particular combination of ingredients? Where did the overall idea originate? What comes first—the ingredients or the dish?

In my many years of food writing, I’ve tasted all kinds of culinary creations, from the sublime to those that I felt totally missed the mark. So I decided to ask several chefs who always seem to get it right about their creative processes. Do they first conceptualize a dish and then work out the ingredients? Or is an ingredient—or even a technique—the catalyst with the rest of the dish designed around it? 

Celebrating White Asparagus at NINE-TEN Restaurant
Celebrating White Asparagus at NINE-TEN Restaurant

Of course, the different seasons often play a big part in the process. Paul Arias, Executive Chef of seafood-driven The Fishery in Pacific Beach, says, “Everything is about what seafood is in season, and then I decide on the produce factor to either enhance or give it a pleasant contrast. For instance, summer is when salmon, stone fruit and tomatoes are at their most delicious, so I’ll create a dish around those.” Chef Matt Richman at Beaumont’s Eatery in Bird Rock also bases his creations on matching proteins and produce in season. “It’s all about going to the markets and purveyors, seeing what looks great that week, and going from there.”

Beer Steamed Black Mussels at The Shores
Beer Steamed Black Mussels at The Shores

The Marine Room’s Executive Chef Bernard Guillas’ artistic approach is multi-pronged: the protein leads the way with the farmers market vegetables, spices and sauces as the supporting cast. “My goal is to synergize the flavor profiles for balance, which is the key to perfection.  I contemplate the design, including color, texture and vertical accents. The art of the plate creates beauty, surprise and delight.”

Crab Gazpacho at Brockton Villa
Crab Gazpacho at Brockton Villa

And finally, emotion plays a significant role. “It often depends on my mood,” admits Alex Emery, Executive Chef at THE MED Ocean View Restaurant. “If I want to create something soulful, or light-hearted or whatever, I pick an ingredient and go from there. The textures and flavor all have to be complementary; every element needs to make sense, serve a purpose and tell the dish’s story.”

Lobster Tail Fra Diablo at Osteria Romantica
Lobster Tail Fra Diablo at Osteria Romantica
Orecchiette al Nonno at Bella Vista Caffé & Social Club
Orecchiette al Nonno at Bella Vista Caffé & Social Club
Olive Oil Cake with Local Stone Fruit at Kitchen 1540
Olive Oil Cake with Local Stone Fruit at Kitchen 1540

Mostly, the answer was “all of the above.” For Executive Chef Jason Knibb at La Jolla’s NINE-TEN Restaurant, it’s usually a specific ingredient that gets his creative juices flowing. “I might become inspired by something at the farmers market or by thinking about a specific technique to make that item look or taste differently than what you would expect.” On the other hand, Brockton Villa’s Chef Mareyja Sisbarro says she usually starts with an idea for a dish and then plays around with different ingredients in the execution. “I love to look at pictures of food in magazines or cookbooks. That stimulates me, and then I’ll put my own spin on it.”

Crispy Skin Wild King Salmon at The Fishery
Crispy Skin Wild King Salmon at The Fishery

Each chef I spoke with indicated that, in most cases, the protein component on the plate is the first consideration. Fabio Speziali of Osteria Romantica and Pomodoro falls into that camp. “For me, it has a lot to do with which protein I want to work with. Shellfish? Chicken? Veal? Then I’ll think about the sauces, produce and pasta that will showcase it best.” At The Shores Restaurant, Chef Percy Oani’s creativity also initially begins with a protein. “Next, I experiment with complementary elements, always taking seasonality into consideration. But sometimes in the creative process, I’ll find a different ingredient that excites me and put more focus on that.” 

Sea Salt Crispy Skin Branzino at The Marine Room
Sea Salt Crispy Skin Branzino at The Marine Room

Customer demand also plays a big part in the process. As Nathan Lingle, Executive Chef at Kitchen 1540 explains, “I identify a specific style of protein or star ingredient that will appeal to our beach resort customer demographic. From that base, all other components change hyper-seasonally, depending on what I find at farmers markets or specialty purveyors to keep the dish fresh, up-to-date and exciting.” Nico Caniglia, Chef/Owner at Bella Vista Caffé & Social Club says, “I design around the needs of my customers. If they want more vegetarian options, for example, that’s where I start.  I have an extensive repertoire; I can conceptualize a dish, then play with the ingredients to fit the criteria.”

Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Salad at Beaumont’s Eatery
Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Salad at Beaumont’s Eatery

The popularity of TV shows like “Chef’s Table,” culinary reality competitions and other “behind the scenes” glimpses into chef’s kitchens and minds have served to spark a growing curiosity about—and respect for—the creative process. The next time you dine at any of these fine restaurants, take a moment as you savor your food and think about how that dish might have come about and what it says to you.  Besides, of course, “Enjoy!”

Sea Scallops with Housemade Tarragon Spaetzle at The Med
Sea Scallops with Housemade Tarragon Spaetzle at The Med