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Deborah Scott taps chef Jason Maitland to overhaul her Little Italy concept

By Troy Johnson

“They tell me I’m going to want to slow down one day,” says chef Deborah Scott. “If and when I do that, I want these chefs there.”

Scott’s partnership at Cohn Restaurant Group (CRG) is getting bigger. Hands full, she’s passing one of her torches. Last week she replaced herself as executive chef of Vintana by hiring Patina Group vet Greg Stillman (“In 30 years of tastings, his was the best I’ve had,” she says). She also replaced herself at C-Level/Island Prime with longtime right-hand man, Mike Suttles.

And now she’s tapped high-profile chef Jason Maitland to oversee the reinvention of Indigo Grill.

Maitland was one of the biggest names on the city’s free-agent market. The chef has a special talent with under-utilized carnivore treats, from cheeks to hooves. He helped James Beard nominee Carl Schroeder open the once-great gourmet hangout, Arterra. When Schroeder left to open Market, Maitland ran the kitchen for two-plus years (2007-2010).

Then Maitland mis-stepped, twice. Hired to front Flavor Del Mar, he left noisily after a year. His next project—Red Light District in Downtown—abruptly shuttered in about as little time.

“I’m pretty opinionated and vocal when I feel I’m right,” Maitland admits. “I guess I never learned to properly bite my tongue when I should have. I knew after a month that the concept at Red Light District—super high-end cuisine with proteins done three-, four-ways—wasn’t going to work.”

So what’s going to be different about Indigo Grill?

“We’ve been nothing but honest with each other,” he says. “David [Cohn] and Deborah have said what they want. I’ve said what I want. I gave them all the background, and we’re on the same page.”

What they all want is a pretty big reinvention.

Indigo Grill was Scott’s first restaurant in the heart of San Diego, originally opened at La Pensione Hotel in 1994. The concept—a rustic menu with Native American and Latin influences—was innovative for the time. “I remember calling Specialty Produce and asking for black and yellow plantains,” she recalls. “They didn’t say no. But they had to call someone to find out how to get them.”


“Every concept has its shelf life,” says Scott. “Indigo has really big portions, rustic preparations, earthy flavors. We want this to be healthier, smaller, fresher, cleaner presentations. If you look at Little Italy, you’ve got Anthony Sinsay coming into La Villa. You’ve got Craft & Commerce and Queenstown. There are a lot of young empty nesters or younger influential business people here, all looking for the next step up. And Jason has that special talent.”

Scott expects to spend a couple months with Maitland getting to know Little Italy, CRG and Indigo Grill. Then they’ll shut the restaurant down, redesign the space (“lighten and brighten,” says Scott), and overhaul the menu. The Native American and Latin focus stays.

“I’m excited about it,” says Maitland. “[CRG] is starting to gamble a little bit and be progressive. They’ve given me the green light to work with beef cheeks and tongue and the things I like to work with. I’m also looking forward to Little Italy. Big names are going in there. It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood that’s being reinvented, and people are educated and food-savvy.”

Naming Maitland, Stillman and Suttles to exec chef spots marks a sea change for CRG. David and Lesley Cohn have focused nearly all spotlight on Scott since partnering with the award-winning chef in 1995. That shifted a bit with the 2010 opening of Bo Beau and young chef Katherine Humphus. Scott will still have final say over all CRG menus. But it seems she and CRG are now fully in the market for chefs with names of their own.

“I look at myself as more of a restaurateur these days,” she says. “I’m not physically able to be in all of these restaurants every day. I think it’s important every spot have their own executive chef. And I want to give them room to shine.”


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