This month, chef Paul McCabe bade farewell to San Diego after spending 12 years in some of the best local kitchens, including Kitchen 1540 at L'Auberge Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe's Delicias. Earlier this year, McCabe spoke with Eater when he began his most recent post at La Jolla's La Valencia Hotel. Now, in an exclusive Exit Interview, the chef reflects on his time in San Diego and his decision to rejoin the Destination Hotels & Resorts (L'Auberge's owners) and oversee a revitalization of T.Cook's, the signature restaurant of Arizona's Royal Palms Resort and Spa.
What attracted you to the opportunity in Arizona?
I've always loved this state; it's my home state. But the main thing was being back with Destination Hotels, I've missed them ever since I left the L'Auberge. I don't regret that decision, but after working with other companies I realized that this group was really more my speed in terms of the energy and resources they put behind a project.
Will you be doing the kind of food you were doing in San Diego?
I lived in California for 12 years; my food was clean, simple and precise and that's in line with the Mediterranean aspect of this property, but we're going to update that.
The cook I was at J. Taylor's was totally different than what I did at Kitchen 1540; when we shut that down, I built a test kitchen in my garage and I reinvented myself as a cook and I love doing that. We're going into R & D now and I don't want to pull out all the dishes I did in California, that wouldn't be right. I need to understand the people and the vision and then approach the food and see how we can be innovative, fresh and consistent.
Who I am as a chef will never change - platings and presentations may morph and change - but you can't really change a cook at his core. So I'm not going to step away from who I am as a cook, I'm going to evolve.
How did your time in San Diego shape you as a chef?
Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. I watched the palate grow in San Diego and I think all of that kept me going. The other chefs in town were very inspirational, more than I think they know; I would look at what they were doing and think that I needed to step up my game.
Are there specific things you'll miss?
I already do, from Mexican food to all my little favorite spots to eat. And I miss my chef buddies and talking about food with them, it's just going to take time to develop those relationships here.
Did you have frustrations about cooking here?
There's been a lot of talk about the food scene and chefs leaving, and I think whatever stimulates conversation is a good thing. But there are lots of silos in San Diego in terms of groups and scenes and I'd like to see people come together more. I really wasn't frustrated in San Diego, I watched it grow from 2001 to 2013 and that's only going to continue in leaps and bounds.
Look what Trey Foshee's doing, he's expanded his TBL3 dining experience to Tuesday through Saturday. There was a food writer in town that said people wouldn't want to eat that way but Foshee held his ground and look, the demand is there. That really excites me about the culinary scene.
I think there's a lot of negative talk about the scene, and it's one thing to just wait for things to happen and another to be a part of making it happen.
So leaving San Diego wasn't about being fed up with things here?
I didn't want to leave San Diego. If there had been something there for me, I would have stayed. When I left L'Auberge for Delicias, that was with the intention of opening multiple restaurants. I thought it was a calculated risk but I thought it was time after seven years at L'Auberge. It didn't pan out and then La Valencia opened up, but not everyone's visions align all the time and I had a choice to make whether to continue there and not be happy or take this opportunity when Destination called, and I've always loved the Royal Palms property. There are lots of little gigs in San Diego, but I'm not really much of a freestanding restaurant guy; I like bigger, multi-faceted operations.
What do you hope comes next for San Diego in terms of food?
I hope people continue to appreciate what's already there. San Diego has it going on and I think people are looking too far into the future to what it could be and missing what it already is. Allow the natural evolution to happen, don't rush and just appreciate what you have.
· Royal Palms Closes T. Cook's for Summer to Renovate, Hires New Executive Chef [PhoenixNewTimes]
· All Eater Interview Coverage [~ESD~]