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Cohn Restaurant Group

San Diego Chefs Spark a Dynamic Scene

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For culinary expertise and exceptional restaurants, there’s more than one great California bay area.

By Amelia Levin October 2014 Chef Profiles

Once a culinary wasteland surrounded by beautiful beaches and farms, San Diego is now a seafood, beer, and cocktail destination on the West Coast. The city has changed tremendously in the last decade, and Chef Deborah Scott has seen it all.

One of San Diego’s first celebrity chefs, Chef Scott arrived in the early ‘90s, moving to San Diego from Monterey after having also spent time on the East Coast. Chef Scott started her San Diego career in partnership with the owner of a pizza place who was looking to open a restaurant in Little Italy. The resulting project was the original Indigo Grill, where the pizza owner provided the financing while Chef Scott cooked the food and developed the concept. Indigo Room opened in 1994, one block north of where Indigo Grill exists now.

“When I first started working in San Diego, I would ask for specific items like green and black plantains and huitlacoche—and I’d get a lot of confused responses from distributors,” says Chef Scott. “No one had heard of these things, and it was just me and Bernard Guillas from the Marine Room sort of running the culinary scene for a while. Of course, now there are numerous young chefs who have come in and done very well.”

She left the original Indigo Room after just one year, and gravitated into a partnership with David and Lesley Cohn, experienced restaurateurs who were regular visitors at Indigo Room. In 1995, the team—named the Cohn Restaurant Group—opened its first restaurant, Kemo Sabe, in Hillcrest.

After a healthy run, Kemo Sabe closed in 2010, but, in the span of nearly 20 years, the group also opened other successful concepts, including a new Indigo Grill that opened in 2001 near the site of the original. In 2005, Cohn Restaurant Group opened Island Prime on Harbor Island, which claims annual revenues of $14 million serving steaks and seafood along the San Diego waterfront. In 2012, the group opened Vintana, a 20,000-square-foot restaurant in Escondido. Now, the Cohn Restaurant Group has 21 restaurants in Southern California and Maui, Hawaii, and is continuing to grow its portfolio.

Chef Scott and the Cohns are currently working on another large-scale, 24,000-square-foot Mexican restaurant located on the bay—and this one will feature a floating barge for events.

Earlier this year they closed Indigo Grill for 60 days to redesign and refresh the contemporary Latin concept. When it reopened in early July, Executive Chef Jason Maitland was on board to helm the kitchen and work with Chef Scott, who is busy with multiple restaurants.

“I believe it’s so important to respect your staff,” says Chef Scott, who’d rather collaborate than yell in the kitchen, and can often be seen roaming the dining room. “They’re not working for you, they’re working with you. Anyone can be a good chef, but to be a truly successful chef and business owner, you have to have a good rapport not only with the team, but with your guests as well.”

Little Italian Explosion

The changes Little Italy has seen in recent years mark major improvements to San Diego’s culinary scene. From chef-driven eateries to cocktail lounges, the neighborhood has experienced considerable restaurant development.

“We decided to do a complete revamp of Indigo Grill because Little Italy is becoming a food mecca for San Diego,” Chef Scott says. “When I first came in the ‘90s, ours was the only restaurant that wasn’t a 1950s Italian restaurant or a deli. I was this gay woman with shorts and combat boots, making dishes people had never heard of. People looked at me like, Who the heck are you?”

With the Indigo Grill revamp, she has evolved into a mentoring role, allowing Chef Maitland the culinary freedom to develop his own signature, albeit quirky, dishes that add a creative edge to the menu. For instance, Chef Maitland introduced Flaming Hot Cheetos, tamarind-jalapeno-dusted, crispy pig ears served in a paper bag with a side of damp towelettes.

Chef Scott has colored the menu with her own culinary flair, and items in the Deborah’s Classicos section showcase her Peruvian and South American-Asian fusion style. Popular selections include roasted nut-crusted Brie with jalapeño jelly, and cedar plank salmon with a chipotle mojo sauce and squid ink pasta. Her signature Skirts on Fire dish—skirt steak with a Vietnamese marinade, Mandarin-serrano relish, and chile-spiked black beans—remains a favorite.

Chefs Scott and Maitland collaborated on other dishes: a Korean-style bi bim bop rice pot partially prepared tableside; an array of tiraditos, Peruvian-style ceviches like local bass with lime; anticucho boards, charcuterie with pickled vegetables; and crostinos, a variety of meat skewers.

“There are a lot of historical Asian influences in Peru and South America,” Chef Scott says. This is a feeling echoed by Chef Maitland, who says, “The way Peruvians use flavors in different combinations has always fascinated me, and I love the dynamics of the cuisine.”

He also embraces the competitive dynamics unfolding in Little Italy. “I’m not intimidated by other good restaurants. … It brings more people,” says Chef Maitland. “You have to take some chances and be super creative, but this is something I want to be a part of.”

Before coming to Indigo Grill, Chef Maitland spent eight years working with Chef Bradley Ogden and James Beard-nominee Chef Carl Schroeder at Arterra in San Diego. He also helmed the kitchen at Market, Schroeder’s other local gem, for a few years.

From Offal to Off-Cuts

Chef Maitland sets himself apart mainly through his love for working with off-cuts and offal, and his creative interpretations of how they can be used. Preferring not to waste any part of the animal, he’ll take what no one else wants, preferring pig ears over pork loin. Lately he’s been working with Ahi tuna ribs that local fishermen would discard, marinating the meat in lime and Coca-Cola, then grilling it with scallions and sesame seeds.

“Fish is where I’m going next,” he says. “The seafood here is incredible, and I’ve been doing business with some of the best purveyors here for 12 years.” From Mexican scallops procured just a handful of miles down the coast to aqua-farmed mussels from Carlsbad, California, Chef Maitland works with nearby fishermen like other chefs work with local farmers. He places an order at the close of one day and brings in thoroughly inspected fish by sunrise.

A classic-cocktail enthusiast, Maitland makes bourbon-based beverages part of the new Indigo Grill program, along with local craft beers and a diverse wine list.

With Indigo Grill firmly positioned and plans for the Mexican waterfront concept underway, the San Diego restaurant scene will continue to benefit from the expertise and entrepreneurial vision that Chef Scott, Chef Maitland, and the Cohn Restaurant Group keep bringing to the table.