Photo Credit: James Tran
Chef Carlos Anthony has been to the top of the mountain. He talks about food with the enthusiasm of an undergraduate, but it’s passion, not naivety: Anthony has been there and back again.He started at a pizza joint in Tucson, Arizona and earned his way to head chef; opened his own restaurant (Salt & Cleaver); was winner of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped: Next Generation competition show; closed his restaurant; and regrouped to become executive chef of Herb & Wood, one of the most celebrated kitchens in the city.And then he turned 28.From Sept. 9-10, chef Anthony will be joining over 100 of the citys’ best food and drink makers and celebrity chefs at the inaugural Del Mar Wine + Food festival to showcase his years of experience across two days of food, wine, entertainment and VIP experiences.We caught up with chef Anthony ahead of the event to hear his thoughts on the future of the San Diego culinary scene, why community is more important than Michelin Stars, and his favorite places around the city.
Photo Credit: James Tran
I loved Salt & Cleaver [his former sausage restaurant]. I think about that Duck Duck Pig sausage all the time.
Thank you so much for saying that! Man, that was a time in my career where I really thought I could take on the world. And I think that oftentimes, you need to have some failures in life to really make you realize what’s important. It was very sad but also a very important part of my career.
As the former sausage king of San Diego, who’s doing the best sausages in San Diego right now?
My guy Drew Bench at Papalo has some of the best smoked meat in town. And what’s really cool is that it’s a Sonora-style barbecue. So he has sausages, he has brisket, he’s got all these wonderful barbecue items, but he does it with this Hispanic flair. He spent some time in Mexico, cooking with some of the best chefs in the world, and it shows. It’s like a homey kind of place, and God, is he the nicest guy. He’s that kind of guy that’s always in front of the pit, and happy to talk to you about it. And his sausages are good.
Really under the radar too, isn’t it?
Yes, it really is. You know, I love those kinds of places that, you know, are unimposing and hit you by surprise with their chef-driven food and great cocktails and it’s like a fun little neighborhood atmosphere. I know he’s also doing pizzas out of the place next door and it’s just really great.
You also ran a taco restaurant and have spoken warmly in the past of your grandmother’s cooking and how it’s informed your sensibilities. Are there any tacos spots that feel like home to you in San Diego?
I think asking somebody their favorite taco is so particular to that person. And you hit it right, it’s really the things that make you reminisce of home, the simple things, that are great. I’ll tell you a place that’s been here for decades, and it’s a taco truck called Kiko’s Place. It is the greatest, simplest fish taco. It’s fresh, it’s homemade… The local tip I’ll share with you is that it’s a fish cart, right? So they have octopus, they have marlin, they have ceviches and clamatos, and their fish tacos are what they’re known for.But you go there, you’re hungover, get a cup of their broth, the soup they make everyday with all their fish scraps, and God it just brings me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen. You know that stewing tomato broth with fish scraps and chilies. It’ll cure any hangover, and paired with the perfect fish taco, it’s so, so, so good.And they’ve been doing it for years. It’s a family run business, I think third generation now the daughters are running it.
You’ve been here since 2009?
Yeah. 2009. I came here at a young age. My first job was at La Costa at the Blue Fire which was their fine dining restaurant. And I remember being a young, impressionable kid and I’ve really seen San Diego transform into a food destination, into chef-driven culture.We used to be an IPA town, right? And now we’re this food mecca with Michelin stars. And we have some of the best cocktail programs in all the state.
How have restaurants in the city changed in the 14 years that you’ve been here? Has Michelin made a big change or has it just kind of accelerated what was already happening?
I think that Michelin is less of it, because I don’t know if all of us are hunting [for stars]. It’s really great to see that come to our town. But I think that you have a lot of young chefs that have come along in our industry with these incredible creative minds. I think in the past, there was a lot of competition, and maybe like “us against them,” but now we’re all friends.There’s this group mentality of doing better, utilizing the produce and the seafood that’s around us. I remember when we first opened Seersucker, we would have a special fish, right? You talk to your fisherman once a month or something, you’d have one thing. Now we build our entire menus out of San Diego oceans and the incredible produce around us.The community is much more about taking care of locality and thinking about regenerative agriculture and how it is affecting us. And now I think San Diego is a staple for how to treat food and how to be positive in that direction, and it’s made awesome restaurants.
You kind of just answered my next question, but: Does San Diego have a style of food? Is San Diego cuisine a coherent idea?
What I love about San Diego’s we’re a melting pot of culture and to see the vast nets of different cultures in different areas of San Diego is really what I think makes us special. Obviously we have an incredible Filipino community, and obviously a great Hispanic background, but we all are focused around produce and seafood that’s the best in the world.The best in the world. This is the mecca of food. And now over the last I think five to 10 years, we really started to showcase that.What is the last meal or dish you had in San Diego that just knocked you down?Callie. Travis Swikard is just so, so good. Especially for me, as a chef who does Mediterranean food, this is really my background, so to go to see somebody of his caliber just knocks me off my seat. Every time I go there. He has the simplest food but everything has a story and meaning.He talks about it in great detail. He’s excited, he’s geeked out about it. He’s like “Oh man, Jack Ford grew this spring onion just for me.” It blows my mind every time. I think I get excited about food when I go there, and I love that. I love having chefs to look up to, and admire, and see them doing it right.
Is there a restaurant opening that you’re particularly excited for?
The big one that I’m excited about opening is Le Coq. And Carlo. This is a restaurant in our group and we’re currently building and they’re working with us right now. It’ll be in La Jolla. The Puffer Malarkey Collective has retaken the old Herringbone location and is building an incredible French steakhouse, Le Coq.We have one of the best chefs in town, Carlo Guardado who is doing incredible things. And right now he’s working with me at Herb & Wood, so I’m seeing his incredible creations firsthand, and I’m so excited about it.
Ok, a few rapid fire questions. Favorites in San Diego, either all-time or lately:
I’m gonna go with the Detroit-style pizza at Prince Street downtown. Out of this world.
A date night spot that is not in your restaurant group?
Wolf in the Woods in Mission Hills. Really good wine by the glass. And the food is tapas-style, so you can go there without breaking the bank, have an incredible glass of wine and some of the best food, and it is so cute.
You’ve talked about how much you like going to the beach with your dog. Favorite beachy spot, or favorite spot near the water?
There are so many. I’ll tell you, I currently live in Bird Rock. And it might not be too beachy but Marisi in La Jolla is blowing my mind. You can go there right off the beach, and it’s super good. The food there is really amazing and the cocktail scene is great.
Favorite place to share a bottle of wine?
So, again, I’m probably biased to my locale but there is an incredible wine company right across the street. LJ Crafted Wines, right in Bird Rock. They’ve been making their own wines and just sourcing some of the greatest things ever. We are a part of their monthly wine club and get their stuff all the time.
Favorite cocktail bar?
Man, I’m torn. But I’m a tiki guy, I just love the show, so I’m going to say False Idol. I just think it’s so fun back there. I think what they do with the cocktails and the scene is just too fun to miss. And if you’re in San Diego, you gotta go check it out.
What are you doing at the Del Mar Wine + Food Festival?
We’re doing an event on the deck at Herb & Sea with Rob Machado and Brian Malarkey, it’s going to be incredible. Really looking forward to that. And then also we’re going to be in the VIP tents at the Grand Tasting.We’re so excited to be there. I mean, this has got some of the greatest chefs ever put together. You know all the best chefs of San Diego and Southern California really, there’s some great chefs coming down from LA. I’m so excited to be there and to eat with some of these legends, and hang out with some of the greatest people in San Diego. It’s going to be an event not to miss.