Chef Nathan Coulon is a member of a San Diego culinary dynasty, with a family name that holds a significant place in our city's food history. His first job was at the Belgian Lion, the venerated Ocean Beach restaurant that was owned and operated by his grandparents, Don and Arlene Coulon; the chef has also worked with his mother at her pastry shop, Michele Coulon Dessertier. In 2006, Coulon opened his own restaurant in Banker's Hill called Modus, and then moved on to chef at the Quarter Kitchen in the Ivy Hotel. Last summer, he launched Fox Restaurant Concepts' True Food Kitchen in Fashion Valley as the restaurant's executive chef; the restaurant group is currently considering a North County location.
What was it like to work in your grandparents' restaurant back in the day? What do you remember about San Diego's restaurant culture?
I remember going to a lot of the older restaurants that aren't around anymore like La Chaumine (in Pacific Beach) and the original Laurel Restaurant when Doug Organ was the chef there, and thinking that was amazing even though I was just twelve. There were a few good restaurants, but that was it.
What was your job at the Belgian Lion?
I officially started working there when I was thirteen. I started as a busboy and a dishwasher, I worked as a line cook and waiter - basically everything.
How have you seen San Diego restaurant culture change since then?
There are a lot more good chefs in San Diego. I wouldn't say we were cutting edge, but we're a little more ahead of the game than we used to be, compared to the older style of cooking back then. And the whole North County food scene didn't exist.
Do you think people are going out to eat more?
The city's grown, but San Diego's still kind of a weekend town. If you go out on a Monday or Tuesday in Los Angeles, restaurants are busy and full; San Diego's big nights are Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Sunday for brunch.
What first attracted you to join True Food Kitchen?
I've always had great respect for Michael Stebner (True Food Kitchen's corporate chef) and what he does, and this is something that he had a lot to do with creating. Bringing healthy food to the masses is interesting, as is running a restaurant of this size and volume but doing it in a way where we're using organic produce and all the best ingredients that we can.
Michael Stebner opened Region in Hillcrest in 2003 and a lot of chefs think it was way ahead of its time, do you agree?
Absolutely. I remember going into the restaurant and at the end of the night, and every night, their refrigerator was empty. They started every day with fresh product. Our refrigerator here isn't completely empty at the end of the night, but nothing lasts more than two days.
You spent a two years working at the True Food Kitchen in Orange County. What was the restaurant scene like up there?
Restaurant culture-wise there were a few pockets of interesting stuff, but it was mostly corporate chains that I'd never heard of and that we don't really have too much of in San Diego. So that was a little bit of an adjustment, but we found some Asian restaurants in the area that were good.
Was your intention to always move back to San Diego?
When I first interviewed with the company, they asked me where I saw myself ending up and I said San Diego. And they said, "we should be able to do that."
How did San Diego changed in your time away?
The good thing is there's a lot that stayed the same. The chefs that I used to hang out with are still in business and doing what they do well, so that's a good sign.
Would you consider doing your own restaurant again?
I definitely plan on doing my own place again someday. Obviously I'd like to do something with my mom, but I don't know yet.
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