Jay Porter is a key figure in the San Diego restaurant industry and has been an outspoken, and sometimes polarizing, voice in the local food community. He owns and operates two North Park restaurants, The Linkery and El Take It Easy on 30th Street. Porter and his wife, Katie Mayfield, recently made the decision to move to San Francisco. He will continue to run his restaurants here, but will split his time between the two cities with the intention of developing new projects in San Francisco. He gave Eater the lowdown on the reasons behind the decision and what it means for his involvement in the San Diego food scene.
How long have you been thinking about spreading out?
It's funny, because when you start thinking about change, you don't really know you're thinking about change. It's only later, when you look back at it, that you see how the mental and emotional pieces were falling into place. In our case, it's pretty clear that when Velo Cult decided to move to Portland last December, that triggered a lot of thinking for Katie and I about what we wanted to do in the future, and where it was possible to do it. You know, we got married at Velo Cult because it was such an amazing center to our community, and they had been such an integral part of our life, and when they said "hey, we've got some other possibilities we want to explore", that really resonated with us, and we started talking about it a lot.
Then, as this year ended, a time came for Katie where she was ready to see what more she could do and how she could grow, and I felt kind of the same way, and it became obvious that we needed to think beyond the city limits.
What other cities did you consider?
We looked hard at Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ensenada, and Mexico City. We love all those places, but it was pretty clear pretty quickly that, for us, San Francisco is the most intriguing on a professional level.
Are you leaving because San Diego is frustrating?
First of all, I'm not leaving. I'm from San Diego, I care deeply about the city, and I couldn't be more proud of what we do here. I believe we've been a part of lot of great change that's happened in San Diego in the last 8 years, and I love being here, and working here, and I love our community. We have such passionate supporters who, like us, want to see great things happen in San Diego with food and farms. And that's something I'm committed to on a personal level, and everyone who works with us believes in.
At the same time, yes we have certainly pushed up against some limits of what's possible right now in San Diego. In San Diego our economic base is not as strong as other major cities, we don't have a huge economic engine like Google and Sand Hill Road. And eating better is an expensive choice to make.
We live in a society which normalizes mass production and cheap commodities, so anything which is produced for quality — whether it's food, handbags or jewelry — becomes a luxury, lifestyle good. So it's weird: we at the Linkery and El Take It Easy make the most basic of things (dinner) produced in the most traditional manner (handcrafted, pastured, outdoors, local, organic) and the end result is that it's perceived, not entirely unjustly, as being a luxury item — in a city that is not a "luxury item" city.
And it turns out I've got some other ideas of food I want to make and serve, and not all of it really makes sense in San Diego on a financial level, so that leads us to places that have a bigger market for handcrafted local food.
Are there concepts you wanted to do but felt that you couldn't do here, or that wouldn't be embraced here?
Well, no and yes. There's a couple frontiers that I think exist for restaurants in every US city right now: specifically 1) fats, and 2) grains. At the Linkery and El Take It Easy, we fry everything in grass-fed beef tallow, and as far as I can tell we're the only restaurants in the US that do that, including San Francisco, New York, anywhere. Frying in grass-fed beef tallow tastes better, it's more sustainable, it's way healthier, and did I mention it tastes better? 'Cause it does. So it's pretty great that we can do that in San Diego, and be ahead of the "major" food cities in such an important way. Meaning: mad props to all of the eaters here who dig it! We are moving the whole country forward, and let's make sure everyone knows that San Diego's in the lead here. That, I think, is important: we're not a backwater, we do some things better than any place else in the country (also, cf. beer).
At the same time, I'm really interested in doing some cool shit with organic, non-GMO, heirloom grains, and we've tried that in the past at the Linkery, but we really encountered a lot of price resistance with that in San Diego. So maybe that's something that we need to explore in a different market. And that's OK, not every place has to be interested in the same things.
I think for Katie, a similar situation existed — she was able to take on a lot of rewarding work as GM of Suzie's Farm, because of who Robin and Lucila are and what they do, and it was such a wonderful opportunity — it's a special, marvelous farm and there are dimensions in which it is without question the most remarkable farm in the country. At the same time, the market for this kind of food in San Diego is limited, which means that her opportunities here are limited, and she has so much talent and motivation that it's hard for her not to want to go to a bigger market and see what she can do.
What would you like your first San Francisco venture to be, and where?
Of course I like the southeast neighborhoods of SF the most, because they have sun, and I'm totally a Southern Californian. Seriously, I'm not joking.
As far as what we can do in SF, I *have* been joking, in a nod to Rick Bayless' April Fools tweet, that we want to bring the authentic taste of farm-to-table cuisine to San Francisco. I mean, really, we've been so Bay Area-inspired the whole time we've been a restaurant, it's not like handcrafting local food is at all a special thing that San Francisco needs from us. I think the biggest thing we have to offer now is our San Diego/Baja take on it, and while that is weird to say it is also authentic and I think means something, and will interest a lot of people. We do the thing a little differently, and we have a lot of fun with it, and I think there's a market for our approach in any city.
What are some SF restaurants that you enjoy and are excited to be a compatriot of?
I wouldn't be presumptuous to claim ourselves compatriots of any restaurants. I'd say we have a great relationship with Magnolia, and we love eating and drinking there and have done some things with them. We also love their place Alembic and can't wait to try their Dogpatch place. Dave(McLean) and crew inspire us.
Also, the last time we visited, we had a bomb meal at State Bird Provisions, and, although we hit them when they were technically closed, a great time and great food at Loló. And, you know, there are approximately one million great restaurants in the Bay Area.
How will you split your time between San Diego and San Francisco?
I'll be here as much as needed to make sure our restaurants do what they do! My guess is that, once things are rolling (in a few months, is our best guess), it'll be about half time or maybe a third that I'm physically in San Diego. We have such a great crew here they don't really need me in order to make great food and take great care of people. Mostly what I intend to do is to make sure that we stay connected to the local food community, who are doing the most interesting things. That's always been our hallmark, and because I'm not needed to make sausage or tend bar, it's my job to make sure that part of what we do continues strong.
Besides, everyone knows Michael(McGuan) is the talent behind the operation anyway! Seriously, that's totally true.
How will your participation in the restaurants change?
About a year and a half ago, I started living part-time in Ensenada, and it turned out to be really good for the restaurants, for me, for our dog, for everything. Since then, our restaurants have been growing at a very strong rate, and I learned the value of not hovering over everything all the time. So that change has already been made, 18 months ago. My role in the restaurants will stay the same, both focused and bounded.
It feels like we're losing talented food people to other cities...how does the restaurant industry or the dining community need to change to stop the exodus? How can San Diego go from a way station to a destination?
Oh, that's such a big topic, it's all about making the city better in quality-of-life ways, and not all that many people here are ready to talk about that yet. I think there may be some good news in that I think the Filner administration is ready, so that's good. But, I mean, we have to become the kind of city that *doesn't* decide to build a parking garage in the middle of our important downtown park, you know? That whole Plaza de Panama thing was spun as "making the center of Balboa Park car-free", but very few people looked at it long enough to notice that "car-free" is a euphemism for building a parking garage in the middle of the best pedestrian place in San Diego. As long as we keep destroying the best parts of our city, we're going to have a hard time building it into something marvelous.
That noted, there's a well-known and proven path to restoring health to our city: it's all about narrower streets, taller buildings, higher density, no more office campuses on the outskirts of town, building segregated bike infrastructure, less automotive parking, greatly expanded public transit, and form-based zoning codes. None of this is revolutionary, everyone who's looked at what makes cities work has come to the same conclusions. It's just a matter of having the will to be awesome, which I think San Diego is still a ways from developing. But it will come in time. The alternative has no future, so the best choices will happen as a kind of default.