In his years as a chef in San Diego, Aaron LaMonica worked his way through some of our city's most prestigious kitchens, from Nine-Ten to Region, The Lodge at Torrey Pines and Market. In 2009, he developed the casual, farm-to-table menu for Normal Heights' craft beer and pizza haven, Blind Lady Ale House, and last year, helped to open a second eatery for the team, the popular Tiger!Tiger! in North Park. This October, he left both restaurants, and San Diego, to live and work in New York. Eater San Diego spoke to him the day after his first night in the kitchen of Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud, cooking under executive chef Gavin Kaysen (formerly of El Bizcocho in Rancho Bernardo).
Congrats on the new job, what station are you working?
My official title is chef de partie and basically I'm working the soup and garde manger stations right now. I feel like a kid again, going home and writing down notes about how I can be better the next day. It's a big change, taking a step down from being the chef and going into a kitchen like that where you're the low guy on the totem pole. But I can already tell that it's going to do me a great service.
Have you met Boulud yet?
Not yet, but I saw him and Thomas Keller walk through the kitchen on my first day, which was pretty cool.
How long did you spend cooking in San Diego?
Almost twelve years. My first job was opening up Nine-Ten with Michael Stebner. After Michael left Nine-Ten, I stayed on and worked for Jason (Knibb) while also helping Michael to open Region (in Hillcrest). Eventually Michael offered me the sous-chef position at Region in 2004.
Do you feel that a restaurant like Region was ahead of its time?
Absolutely, when I first moved to San Diego things were totally different. The only person I'd ever see at Chino Farm was Trey (Foshee). I was surprised that so few chefs were farm-to-table because of the bountiful produce available. When me and Michael first started, we took a trip up to San Francisco and ate at Olivetto and Chez Panisse and we wanted to do that kind of thing in San Diego, we had all the goods there. At Nine-Ten we'd been doing a lot more refined dishes and then it was like, throw that out the window, we're going to cook more rustically. At the time, I think people didn't really see the value of it yet. I don't think Michael ever really got the credit, at least in that area, of being the first to do farm-to-table, but now everyone's doing it. Now every restaurant that's worth anything in San Diego, that's the first thing in their bio.
Do you think diners wanted more manipulation with their food?
I think the clientele we were serving at Region was mostly from La Jolla, that's where all the big-time restaurants were at the time. That market for the people in-between hadn't blossomed yet. Now these restaurants are more approachable for the common guy to go to, but we didn't have that base of farm-to-table foodies like there is now. If Region had opened in 2008 or 2009 it probably would have been more well-received.
Was opening Blind Lady Ale House a big shift for you, food-wise?
When I went to Blind Lady and they told me the concept, honestly, I was a punk kid — I thought, oh well I'm too good for this, but I told them I'd help them get the place open. When I started doing it and telling some of my colleagues about it, they were like, you're opening a pizza place in Normal Heights, are you crazy? So I kind of wanted to prove them wrong, and I told myself, if you think you're a bad-ass chef, you should be able to really turn out a pizza joint.
Just because you're not wearing white linens, using tweezers, and have an army of staff doesn't judge your skills as a chef. I put everything I had into that place and I'm glad I did, it was a really good experience. Nowadays, that kind of place makes sense, but at the time it didn't seem like a great idea, there weren't chefs who were leaving the hotel world to go do small restaurants like that. But working for those guys (co-owners Lee and Jenniffer Chase, Jeff Motch and Clea Hantman) was like working for a small family; everyone put a piece of themselves into the business and I think that's why it was successful.
So what prompted your move to New York?
Well, we blew the doors off Blind Lady...we did way better food there then I ever thought we'd do, some awesome beer dinners, we opened Tiger!Tiger! and I really enjoyed it all. But ultimately I wasn't getting the satisfaction I wanted, it was a personal thing for me and I was looking beyond. I felt the timing was good, things were going well, the sous chefs I hired were doing a good job. I'd gone to New York to visit a few times and it only took a couple of meals to make me to go, yep, I'm coming here.
I'm trying to get back to my original goal of doing the best food possible; part of being a chef is never stop dreaming about what you could be doing. I think I'd topped off in San Diego for the time being, and moving here is a start-over for me in a lot of ways.
I spent 12 years in SD, cooked for all the best chefs, ran some banging restaurants and I could have kept doing what I was doing for a long time, maybe forever, but as a chef, you have to make your way through New York City someday so I figured now's the time.
It must have felt strange to leave such a relatively comfortable, secure thing.
Oh yeah, it take me an hour to get to work, the pay's not great. But I believe in paying your dues because it'll pay off later...and for people who take the harder route, I think the payoff's greater. And getting to work for someone like Daniel Boulud has always been a dream of mine.
What was the best part of being a chef in San Diego?
Number one, the produce and the connection with the farms. That's one thing that New York doesn't have that I've already noticed. That kind of quality produce just came really easy to us. In San Diego, the most incredible thing for me was waking up in the morning to farmer's emails and seeing what I was going to cook with. There's something really exciting about that and I miss it. On my last day in San Diego I went to Chino Farm and took a bunch of pictures, and sometimes when I'm on the train here, I'll look at them.
Another thing too is the beer scene, there are amazing beers there and I wanted to make amazing food to go along with it; I think of San Diego as the Napa Valley of beer. And I know that the food had to be more casual, but I wanted it to be at the top of its league.
Do you think you'll come back to San Diego?
My goal is to come back to San Diego someday; I'm going to go travel, cook with the best of them, and then bring it back to San Diego. Me and Gavin (Kaysen) were just talking about how much we love San Diego but also saying that we couldn't do there what we're doing here; there's just no room for it right now.
Who are some chefs in San Diego that are trying to push things creatively?
Jason Knibb, Trey Foshee, I think Olivier (Bioteau) stands out. I feel like Hanis (Cavin) is pushing it, even though his place (Carnitas Snack Shack) is not fine dining, but I'm talking about doing the best possible food you can do and I feel like he's doing that. When you go there, Hanis in the kitchen cooking...Trey's in his kitchen cooking with his guys, looking over every dish, pushing out the food. And there's a lot of chefs who aren't there, who aren't changing their menus. I have a lot of respect for Jeff Jackson too, he's turned out so many good chefs it's ridiculous. That's something that a lot of chefs overlook, it's your job to teach young chefs, but he embraces that.