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THE RETURN: Amiko Gubbins

From rock star chef to corporate menu genie, a top San Diego chef is back

By Troy Johnson

Amiko Gubbins was one of the city’s most exciting chefs at the turn of the millenium. For eight years, her Mission Hills restaurant Parallel 33 was tops, seen as eclectic, inventive, inspiring. Then, in 2007, Gubbins disappered from the restaurant scene. She bolted for New York to live with Lenny Kravitz for six months as his personal chef. Then she came back to San Diego, but not to restaurant life. She helped Specialty Produce build their a farmers market program before—cue the dark, foreboding music—joining massive bulk-food provider Sysco as their executive chef.

Now she’s back. The Cohn Restaurant Group just hired Gubbins under the title “Special Ops: Food & Flavor.” We talked to her about what the hell that means, where she’s been, and why she went from indie favorite to corporate bigwig…

Why’d you leave Parallel 33?

I was bored. It was an eight year run. I didn’t feel challenged. There was always promise of a second spot but it never happened. I’m constantly about growth. I need to grow all day long. And I was stopping their growth. Me leaving made room for chef Ben Moore.

Everyone wants to hear about Lenny Kravitz, so I have to ask. Let’s get that question out of the way. Tell me about his underwear drawer.

We’ve been friends for 20 years. I was living in New York at his house. The whole time he was fighting to get me on his payroll. I said, “Nope. As long as I’m with you, I’m feeding you.’” I was in the studio and got to watch the tracks get laid down for his album, It’s Time for a Love Revolution. When I told him I was leaving to go back to San Diego, he took me to the Bahamas. Driving down to Miami on the bus, he played me all the raw tracks from Love Revolution. We’d listen and he’d ask me what I think. I’d say, “I don’t hear the oboe,” and he’d have [his audio engineer] bring the oboe up in the song. So I listen to it now and think, ‘Wow, he let me be a part of that.’

Seems like a decent gig. Why’d you leave?

I missed San Diego. I missed my dogs.

So you joined Specialty Produce to do what?

I helped them get their farmers market program off the ground. I did that for 18 months. I’d go to the Santa Monica Farmers Market and find the best of what they had. I’d text pictures of this amazing produce to chefs like Christian Graves (Jsix) or Antonio Friscia (Gaijin). They’d text back and say, “Cool, get me 10 pounds.”

I’ve heard the market is pretty cutthroat among buyers…

It’s super-political. I’d have to call farmers up the night before and ask them what they were bringing. They’d tell me and then I’d say, ‘OK, now what are you bringing that you’re not telling me?’

How did the Sysco thing happen?

I was in Hawaii surfing with a friend—in between jobs again—and my phone starts ringing. It’s the VP of Sysco. He said he’d like to hire me. And I’m thinking ‘Sales person? I’d be the worst sales person in the world.’ And he said, ‘No, we have this corporate chef job that helps our customers develop their menus.’

I think most people’s response to you joining Sysco was, “What? How corporate and not sexy.”

You can throw stones at the big company on the outside and flip them off. Or you can infiltrate them and figure out their culture. I tried my best. I went in there and got blue in the face talking about organics and natural meats.

So what did you do, exactly?

These mom-and-pop restaurant owners would sign up to come into my test kitchen. I’d do three a day. I’d have Indian restaurants. One day I had an Indian, Vietnamese, Italian and BBQ joint. Thank god that I loved all the different ethnic foods. I’d teach ‘em, y’know, how to make a vinaigrette. It really shaped me up to do what I’m going to do with the Cohns.

And how’d this new Cohn thing come about?

This has been a six-year courtship. We’d had conversations before and were friends. But my attitude was, ‘I’m not going to close my restaurant and come work in yours.’ I told him three years ago, ‘I know in my heart of hearts we’ll do a project together. I just don’t know what or when.’

So what exactly is “Special Ops: Food & Flavor”?

It’s going to be like what I was at Sysco, but much more intimate. I’ll work with the chefs at the new restaurants to help develop the menus. We’ll start with the new ones: Bo-Beau (in La Mesa), Zig-Zag (Oceanside), the O.B. Warehouse and Sea 180 (Imperial Beach).

Why not just call yourself corporate chef or something?

I just came from the corporate world. Official titles are not my thing. David [Cohn] told me to think about what I wanted my title to be. I was in yoga one day trying to hold this really tough inversion and not topple over and I thought, ‘I’m special opps. I roll in there, elevate the menu, roll out.’

The Cohns bring Amiko Gubbins back to S.D. restaurants.

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