Maine-born chef Amy DiBiase moved to San Diego in 2001 and was hired at Laurel Restaurant, where she spent the next four and a half years. Since then, she's helmed the kitchens at the well-regarded Roseville in Point Loma, Old Town's Cosmopolitan Hotel and The Glass Door in Little Italy; most recently, she worked as chef de cuisine of The Shores Restaurant in La Jolla's. From March 2006 to 2008, DiBiase was the executive chef at Baleen, the fine dining restaurant within Paradise Point Resort & Spa, which is now run by Destination Hotels & Resorts. This month, she returned to her post at Baleen, where she will be helping to oversee its transformation into an entirely new restaurant. In her first interview since taking the position, DiBiase talks to Eater about her plans for this new restaurant project and about her culinary triumphs and travails in San Diego.
Why did you decide to come back to Baleen?
They called me, presenting an amazing opportunity to build a new restaurant; any chef would jump on that.
What was the reason for leaving in the first place? Were you able to accomplish what you wanted here?
I was able to do the food that I could; Baleen was a concept within the previous owners' brand, so they were trying to create some consistency and I helped with that. There was no ill will; the only reason why I left was because I got offered Roseville.
What have you been offered now at Baleen?
I've been given a restaurant that will be completely chef-driven. I've been part of all the concept and design meetings, and they're considering my concerns and recommendations in the thought process of what's going to happen here.
You returned to Baleen on March 7; are you currently just cooking from the existing menu?
There's going to be all sorts of new things going onto the menu. This is basically going to be a test kitchen for the next few months until we start on construction, so we're building a database of what we're going to serve when we reopen.
I'm made some changes as far as cooking techniques and hopefully in the next few weeks I'll start adding in some of my own dishes.
When will the remodel start?
Construction will start in the fall and we'll probably be shut down for two to three months and then reopen in the new year.
Will it have the same name? What it will look like?
It's going to be an all new name but we don't know yet what it'll be yet. We did hire the design firm that did all of Brian Malarkey's restaurants. The designer is Thomas Schoos; he's exciting to work with and he likes to work with chefs. A major part of the concept will be an open kitchen.
Is this the first concept you've been completely in charge of? Will you be overseeing the hotel's other eateries?
Roseville was like that in the beginning when the owner and I were on the same page, but this is very much on a larger, grander scale. I'm just running Baleen, which I'm very excited about. I can handle doing multiple meal periods, but it's just not me, I've learned my limits.
I think I'm a good teacher and I like being in an environment where I can really work with my cooks and we can come up with some crazy amazing things. At other properties, it'd been more like guiding people along and I wasn't able to cook the way I wanted to cook.
What do you hope the changes will bring? What kind of food will you do?
No one in San Diego really knows about Baleen. We want this to bring in a new era of waterfront dining in San Diego.
I think I've evolved since Roseville. My food's not so French, though it's still technique-driven, but I'm dabbling in all kinds of things now. That was the great thing about working with Bernard Guillas at The Shores; he and I went off the deep end sometimes with our menus and had to reign ourselves in, but I got the opportunity to play with a lot of things that I hadn't worked with before.
I think I've grown up and my food is more authentic; I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, I just want to create amazing food that I'm proud of and that will draw people in to come hang out with me on weekly basis.
Work-wise, you've experienced some trials and tribulations over the past few years. Did you ever get so frustrated that you though about leaving?
Right before I got the job at The Shores, I was looking at Portland, Oregon or Boston. It's been was hard; you go into projects thinking that people will be up-front and honest, and that you're asking the right questions. You think you're making the right decisions and then a few months in, everything changes.
I know that there's some people who think I jump around a lot, but I'm not really worried about that, and obviously the people that hired me aren't worried about it. It used to bother me, because it's not typical for a chef to move around so much, but I had a really solid resume until about 2008; the last three years was just a series of unfortunate things that happened that unfortunately happened to me.
But I've grown up a lot and realized what it is to be a chef. It's not all glitz and glam; you have to be able to run a business and be profitable. You have to make smart decisions and be creative you have to be able to talk to customers. This feels right; I was walking though the dining room the other night and all my friends and family were here, and I was thinking that this where I'm supposed to be.
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