Born in Vista, Chef Kyle Bergman graduated from San Francisco's California Culinary Academy in 1999 and worked at the renowned Fifth Floor in Union Square before returning to San Diego in 2001. For the last eight years, Bergman filled a variety of positions at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, most recently as the Chef de Cuisine of The Grill at Torrey Pines, where he founded the resort's well-known brewery dinners. Four months ago, he left The Lodge to take over the kitchen at North Park's Ritual Tavern. In this Eater interview, Bergman talks about the changes he's made to Ritual Tavern's menu, the science of pairing beer with food and where he likes to eat when he's not in the kitchen.
Why did you leave The Lodge and what attracted you to Ritual Tavern?
I'd kind of run of out places to go at The Lodge. I'd worked almost every kitchen job there was to do there and every position on the line. Pretty much the only jobs left were Chef de Cuisine at A.R. Valentien and (Executive Chef) Jeff Jackson's job and I don't think either of those are opening anytime soon. It was just time to move along and try and do something on my own.
What attracted me to Ritual was that I live right up the street; before I was ever the chef here, I was a patron and I've always loved the atmosphere. I love that the owners, Mike and Stacy, believe in doing everything from scratch. They have the same kind of local, sustainable ethic that everybody professes to have in this neighborhood but they actually practice what they preach. They're very honest in their food and how they go about things.
Ritual Tavern's a small enough place that I felt I could get a really good handle on what it's like to run an independent, free-standing kitchen.
What kinds of changes and additions did you make to the menu?
It's an ongoing process. The previous chef did a good job with the food, but I don't think he ever had a vision for what the Ritual Tavern should be as far as the cuisine and over-arching concepts. I've tried to take what take our staples are change them a bit — it's challenging because we have a lot of regulars and locals who have come to expect certain things.
We have a large vegetarian and vegan contingent that comes in, so we offer vegan shepherd's pie and vegan lentil patties. They were kind of first done as an afterthought, so those were the first two things that I started working on to try to make them great dishes on their own. I'm pretty proud of our lentil patties right now, they've got a good texture and nice chew to them. Other than that, I've just been working on getting things consistent and adding a few new items. We have a beef cheek dish that's really good and a petit filet steak with thyme-scented potato galette with Bordelaise sauce. Nothing fancy, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel; I'm just trying to do honest food, cooked well, with good attention to detail.
What do you think makes your food, or Ritual Tavern, different than some of the other places on 30th Street?
We're not trying to do anything gimmicky or be a special occasion place just for anniversaries or birthdays — we want you to come in on a Tuesday. We've got the casualness of a neighborhood restaurant where everyone knows who you are and what you like. I love the fact that I know my regulars and that I can come out and say hi; I really like that personal touch to cooking — I don't think there's too many places around town that do that now. I really believe that dining experience should be a friendly exchange and I think this place does that. You can bring your kids in or wear flip flops and shorts and have a really nice meal. I think that's something that's lacking in the neighborhood.
When you were at The Grill at Torrey Pines, you started doing brewery dinners. What excited you about pairing food with beer?
Four years ago when I first started doing our events, there were very few craft beer pairing dinners. At that point, I don't think people took craft beer and food together very seriously, but when we started to explore the world of beer with food people began to realize all the awesome pairing opportunities that existed.
I think there's a learning curve; most chefs are used to pairing with wine. With wine, you have acid, alcohol and tannins, and those are what you gear your food towards. With beer, you have the sweetness from the malt, the bitterness from the hops, the general body of the beer. You don't have as much alcohol, which tends to make it a little more difficult and you're usually missing the acidic component which is very important for pairing with food. So it definitely takes more of a deft hand and more knowledge of your ingredients.
Do you start with a dish first and then match the beer or vice versa?
I start with the concept first and ask myself what I want to accomplish with the meal itself, and then I'll usually start with local farms to see what's available and what I have to cook with. And then I'll determine the beers and build the whole dish around all of it. If I have turnips, it makes me think of a Belgian beer with more of a yeasty component. Or, if arugula is season, that's nice and spicy, now I can do something with an IPA. It's a back and forth until you end up with final dish that really works well.
What do you think are some of the most food-friendly local beers?
I'd probably stay away from the big IPA's. They're great to drink, but for food pairing it gets difficult because of the amount of bitterness in them. On the other hand, a really floral hop character is great to pair to. It's a difficult question, because as long as you have a well-balanced beer that's made well, you can find a pairing for it. Some of my most difficult pairings have been hugely aggressive Belgian beers with big yeast noses because you're kind of pigeonholed with the kind of flavors you can use.
The easiest pairing beers are pale ales — one of my favorites is AleSmith's X. It's just a great beer to drink. Right now, I'm totally in love with everything Societe Brewing is doing. Every beer I've tried from them has been really well-balanced and well thought-out; it's been a joy to pair food with them.
On January 10 we're doing a four course beer versus wine dinner. We have three magnums of Belgian beers and a three wines. We'll present each dish and have people judge what they think is a better match; the first course is local uni with cauliflower foam and tangerines.
The Lodge has been a great breeding ground for farm-to-table chefs. What are some of the things you took from your experience and why is it such a good place to learn?
There's one answer to that: Jeff Jackson. He's my greatest mentor as a chef, a great role model and pretty swell human being to boot. It's all about integrity, when he puts something on the plate he means it. He always said, "if you're going to serve someone broccoli you don't make it taste like roses, you make it taste like broccoli". You take the flavor of this nice, fresh in-season thing and you just don't mess it up; you treat it simply and treat it with respect. He taught me to never add something to a dish that doesn't add to the dish.
Where do you like to eat when you're not here in the kitchen?
I eat a lot of pho and a lot of sushi. I like Surfside Sushi — I sit at the counter, they know me and I get the good stuff. And Yakitori Yakyudori & Ramen, I love that place. It has awesome food and a great atmosphere; that's the kind of eating I like to do when I'm not at work.