The Red Door, located in the Del Mar district of San Diego, is a vibrant farm to table restaurant committed to a philosophy of sustainable, ethically sourced cuisine. We had the privilege to sit down with Chef Miguel Valdez and learn more about his personal experiences working as a chef running a farm to table restaurant.
What made you decide to become a chef?
It got thrown on me. I started at a pizza shop, then fine dining at Anthology, a few breakfast places, and a few sushi places to mix up my jobs a little bit. Next thing you know, I applied to the Red Door as a line cook.
Anthology inspired me to say I want to become a chef. They tweezed the flowers they added to their garnishes; from the service to the cooking aspects, it was just perfection. So coming here, it was a totally different ball game.
Where was your favorite place to work?
The pizza shop. It was my home. No one could tell me what to do or say, it was like heaven. I could make good pizza and cook pasta; it was my domain at one point. Here, not like it’s a burden or anything, but I have to deal with cooks, line cooks, servers, bosses, owners, managers, you know, it keeps going.
For those of us who don’t know, could you explain what exactly “farm to table” means?
Farm to table is going to your local farmer and fisherman who grow on their own farm and bringing it straight to table. Doesn’t mean you have to be 100% unless you’re really driven and have the expendability to still run your business.
But when it comes to a family owned restaurant, we always have things that get in the way, always. I can’t say that we’re a true 100% farm to table but are we making a big step towards farm to table. Going straight to the farmers and growing your own garden and making your own compost and bringing it back here. It’s a cycle. That’s farm to table.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “farm to table” movement?
Advantages is that you get the freshness and the best. You can’t compare it to anything else. I can bring my plate and you can have a high-end chef bring a different product in that’s not as fresh. I’ll knock it out of the park because the product does a lot for itself.
The colors, the flavors, the ability to say: “this literally came from my garden an hour ago”. I just came from the farmers market and brought strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cauliflower, you name it. And that’s just by going to every single farmer and seeing what’s coming in.
My disadvantage is if we don’t have it, we have to change the menu. I mean we’re seasonal and it changes. I buy 5-10 pounds of fish a day and I can run out of fish and I have to say: “I’m sorry but we ran out”. Some restaurants, they can’t do that. At least if I know my carrots are gone, I can say: “let’s go buy some more”.
Where do you find your inspiration for creating new dishes?
The food, what I get, the vegetables, people I talk to. A lot of people are always giving suggestions. A lot of chefs don’t want to take the suggestions or advice because they’re too into themselves. But people have so many great ideas. It’s all about executing them. That’s where I get my ideas: from the vegetables, what people are looking for, and giving them something they’re not expecting.
My friend one day asked me if could do something with strawberry and rhubarb and make it to some kind of dessert. Hell yeah I would love to do that. That’s a challenge, that’s something I want to do now. And now I know I have something that other people don’t because someone gave me an idea.
Are there any food trends that you just can’t get on board with?
The whole the sous-vide thing. Like I get it, that’s cool, the steak comes off perfectly, but just cook it regularly. Just cook it over a hot grill or cast iron. I grew up in the stage where molecular and sous-vide was the thing. There’s nothing wrong with it but just think it’s too much.
Just cook from your heart and with love and I guarantee you your dishes will come out good. You won’t please everyone. Literally what you’re doing is your getting it, pulling it out of a bag, slice it open, throw it over the grill, sear it. In reality, we just don’t have time. We’d have water everywhere, bags would be everywhere. Like I said, I’d love to have it one day, but it wouldn’t be something I’m passionate about. I’ll just stick with my farmers market.
Which food trend are you a fan of?
The whole farm to table movement. Like this is true real cooking, real food. I could go to a farmer and be like: “you just grew that today, cool”. And I could bring it back to the kitchen and hashtag it all day long. I can’t tell you how many people say they can’t do that. Eventually when you have the farmer that you go to every Saturday and you start to get to know them, you just build a relationship and make deals. It’s a culture.
It’s incredible to know that San Diego has one of the largest areas of farms anywhere in the U.S.; California is just incredible. They may not be huge farms, but you can really do it if put in the work. It’s a hard trend. But once you get it in the system, it’ll be easy. The whole farm to table, farmers market trend, that’s where I’m at right now. You’ll be amazed what goes on in a farmers market. That’s my favorite thing. It needs to be told and everyone needs to know. We can’t waste our time and spend our money on things that won’t be beneficial to our community.
What would you recommend for college students trying living a healthy lifestyle on a budget?
That’s hard. Everything is just really expensive. Microwaving is the easiest and cheapest thing. Honestly, I love my cup o’noodles and I’ll throw fresh veggies and throw fresh shrimp and have at it.
It’s difficult when you’re cramming books and classes and you only have half an hour to get to your class and so you just stick something in the microwave and go. I get it. You grab some snacks and you’re out. What I can say is that you should be picking the right spots to eat. I would prefer you guys chose Trader Joe’s rather than Walmart. Traders Joe’s is healthier: you can still buy burritos in a pack but there made in good process. I prefer you stick a burrito in a microwave than in a fryer where it absorbs oil where it absorbs fat.
You’ll probably get the best deals if anything by going to a farmers markets: fresh strawberries, fresh fruit. Like if you know there’s one happening on this day at this street you can be like: “hey there’s a farmers market here, let’s go get lunch”.
Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
Cook with love and heart and passion. People are liars. They could post a picture of them in the kitchen but they could be one of the laziest people in the world. Just put your heart out in what you do and cook and you’ll succeed. I can’t express that enough . Just really put passion into it.