A Free-Agent Success Story
The adjective “five-tool” is used to describe baseball players who hit for average, pound for power, run like gazelles, and have deft defensive skills and strong throwing arms. In short, they have it all. Such well-rounded talents are hard to come by.
The same can be said of chefs. Some are great at conceptualizing complex and delicious dishes. Some understand the business of restaurants and how to manage a kitchen to be financially and operationally efficient. Some plate like artists. Some excel at grinding on the line. And some are great leaders with the ability to motivate their teams to culinary victory.
A great many chefs, especially those at the executive level, are strong in several of those areas. But only the most gifted and determined expertly wield all of these tools. Count five-tool chef Paul McCabe among the exalted sect of toques whom any general manager would want as the star player on his or her squad.
That much was proven last November when McCabe’s name glowed like a bright flame atop the hot stove of the San Diego dining scene as news hit that he was leaving the position he’d held for seven years as executive chef at L’Auberge Del Mar and would revamp Rancho Santa Fe stalwart Delicias.
Unlike most restaurant transactions, terms of the deal were disclosed to the general public and, suddenly, it became obvious how a seemingly smaller market suitor could lure this longtime all-star away. They offered him a stake in the team.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to branch out into ownership,” says McCabe. “I was ready for a change in my career and what I had wanted for years was there, right in front of me. I knew right away that I had to go for it.”
It took time before fans of the chef—who amassed a huge following after opening L’Auberge’s fine-dining hotspot KITCHEN 1540 in 2008, then pushing the venue forward into new and modern food and service frontiers—came to see him in action. He and longtime sous-chef Steve Molina (who also left KITCHEN 1540 for Delicias with McCabe) spent months building a roster of new dishes to update the Ranch’s aging eatery in tandem with a new, more modern interior aesthetic.
After a long winter and a bit of spring training, opening day finally arrived in late May. McCabe’s new menu hit the field to the cheers of many a fanatical foodie who were relived to find his gorgeous presentations, brilliant interplays of textures and temperatures and highly intelligent combinations of ingredients—both luxurious and humble yet always fresh—had survived the trip from Del Mar to Rancho Santa Fe intact.
For McCabe to have lost a step on his unique style or finesse would have been tragic. But, if anything, the liberty afforded on his new home turf has upped his game, as has his new team. That faction is not only limited to his kitchen and front-of-the-house staff, but also includes the local growers, ranchers and artisanal producers from whom he regularly sources ingredients.
That lineup includes Crow’s Pass, Tzaddik Farm, Catalina Offshore Products, Bread and Cie and Specialty Produce. It’s an impressive bunch that figures to become even more formidable when McCabe teams up with Suzie’s Farm, a deal he hopes to cinch up in the near future.
When looking for new and exciting purveyors, McCabe’s major sources of information are farmers’ markets and our own Edible San Diego. He’s particularly psyched about a rookie he recently came across and will be sourcing whole animals from.
“Cook Pigs Ranch in Fallbrook is raising Red Wattle pigs that are USDA-certified. They have superior marbling and flavor,” says McCabe. “They’ll be picking up our green waste to feed to their pigs, which is something that I’ve wanted to do for many years. I can’t wait!”
It will be interesting to see how McCabe incorporates the sumptuous head-to-tail components of those noble Red Wattles, but if it’s anything like the delicious uses he’s found for other local products, it’s bound to be both tasty and innovative. Currently, fresh crab and uni from Point Loma are incorporated into a salad of crispy potatoes, celery and lime served alongside a rich urchin and stone crab bisque; organic purple artichokes are served two ways—puréed and crisply fried—alongside local black cod and lobster; and barbecued sweetbreads are complemented by pickled radishes and a purée of cornbread.
“Our food is rooted in the craft of our industry, pushed forward by modern cooking techniques and guided by the principles of sustainability,” says McCabe. In addition to advancing his food and the locals who produce the ingredients that comprise it, this homer is also interested in advancing the local dining scene.
“It’s come a long way in the 11 years that I’ve been here,” says McCabe. “We have so many great restaurants and talented chefs in San Diego. We have a killer food scene.”
McCabe regularly collaborates on a rec-league level with a number of those talented chefs—he’s a member of local gastronome consortium Cooks Confab. But he also realizes that cooks who have yet to even step foot in the kitchen will play just as big a part in San Diego’s climb up the culinary ladder. To those aspiring chefs, he has this bit of advice: “Stay humble and don’t let success go to your head. It’s just food! Be patient and learn the foundation of cooking and work with great chefs that you believe in.”
For readers, in lieu of advice, McCabe’s provided a triple play of sorts—a trio of his personal recipes for you to fix up for your own home team.