Chef Christian Graves Thrives Via Thoughtful DIY Cuisine at Revamped Jsix
Local Talent: Ever the Same
When I first interviewed Christian Graves in 2008, he was relatively new to the San Diego restaurant scene, fresh-faced and full of vigor. The latter two still apply, and not just because he's been blessed with age-defying genes.
Earlier this year, Jsix, the farm-to-table restaurant at Downtown San Diego's Hotel Solamar—the ship Graves has helmed for the past seven years—was overhauled. What was once a luxurious, banquette-heavy dining room with disparately quirky interior touches now reflects today's trends: A communal table sits in the center of the reclaimed-wood-adorned, earth-toned space, which now sports a modern-day craft cocktail program to go with a redesigned bar. The place is completely different. The look needed an update, but one thing did not: Graves' fresh, seasonally driven, house-made cuisine.
"We didn't mess with the food too much," says Graves, who did what few toques are able to in the face of a re-concept—achieve the same positive critical acclaim as before such a shift in polarities. The judgmental voices of San Diego continue to proclaim Graves a member of the county's upper echelon of chefs.
Graves attributes much of his success and consistency to the relationships he's forged with local farmers, ranchers and artisans since coming to San Diego from the Bay Area many years ago. Back then, he raved about purveyors he'd recently become enamored with, including Chino Farms, Crow's Pass and Sage Mountain Farms. Today, his stable of provisional allies is far more expansive, as is his knowledge of what Southern California has to offer from season to season.
"My appreciation of the region has gotten better in tandem with my understanding of what ingredients will be coming in," says Graves. "Also, we have been able to work with local farmers on what we are looking for and have built a great relationship with Specialty Produce. My sous-chef, Jared Becker, and I will go into their coolers on Friday mornings and grab a bunch of their Santa Monica Farmers' Market items and just have fun with them."
Graves and Becker's fun in the upcoming months includes a good deal of whole-animal cookery.
"We'll be crafting dishes that are coming from whole legs and are braised down or smoked," says Graves. "And we've sourced a great local goat that is really sweet and not funky at all—it tastes like daisies and sage. We'll be utilizing that for sure."
Graves notes that it can be difficult to conceptualize dishes for his winter menus given the constant warmth in San Diego. He tends to lean on the hearty sustenance provided by legumes and dark, bitter greens. The latter are what he most looks forward to come the cool season. His favorite way to use them is to make fresh pasta and stuff it with braised greens. It's right in line with his DIY approach to the kitchen.
"We try and make everything in-house, which comes from wanting to explore food and understand why certain cooking methods—fermenting, curing, canning, cheesemaking—exist in the first place. There's always a reason," he says.
Back home, Graves also crafts his own kombucha, root beer and soft drinks. His is a life devoted to making the most out his two deft and constantly busy hands. As proven by the many smiles his food produces, including the one on his own face, it's a life well spent.
616 J St, San Diego, CA 92101