Recently, more than 120,000 comic book, film, and television geeks converged on the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con, the self-proclaimed “largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world.” In addition to attracting criticism for straying from its geeky roots (and for a Harry Potter fan stabbing another Harry Potter fan) the 40th annual event also attracted some of the super powers of the entertainment industry. The 235-room boutique Hotel Solamar, six blocks away from the convention center, served as the celebs’ home base. The five-year-old Kimpton property was the site of the weekend’s main parties, making its fourth-floor pool deck, LOUNGEsix, and restaurant, Jsix, prime spots to look for famous people in town to hawk their latest fantasy projects. In 2008, when Hotel Solamar hosted the Maxim party for Seth Rogen’s Pineapple Express, it got attention from Page Six when hotel reps instructed the star to extinguish his “funny-smelling hand-rolled cigarette.” But while Hotel Solamar might not tolerate guests smoking illicit herbs, it does offer them the opportunity to pick and cook the fresh and legal kind with Jsix’s executive chef, Christian Graves.
As part of his four-hour Chef’s Kitchen Experience, held once a month on a Sunday morning, Graves and guests head to a farmers market to talk with farmers, buy fresh ingredients, and retire to the kitchen, where Graves develops an ad hoc menu based on whatever they bought back. Guests can help him prepare their three-course meal, and recently, I did just that.
Jsix’s commitment to organic, sustainable, and local ingredients is exactly what you’d expect from a restaurant in a hotel that’s about to become the San Diego’s first Green Seal-certified. It features seasonal American cuisine creatively prepared by Graves, who arrives to work at 10 a.m. and does 90 percent of the prep work for the line himself — and still manages to surf four days a week. “I don’t think fine dining is dead. I just think it’s more approachable,” said Graves, who was previously the chef de cuisine at Farallon in San Francisco.
I visited on a Friday when the farmer’s market was closed. So instead of going to the market we got into Graves’ Prius and drove 25 minutes south to Suzie’s Farm. Located just across the border from Tijuana, the organic farm grows a wide assortment of produce (for example, its 1.5 acres of tomatoes encompass more than 23 varieties of the vegetable) and makes four deliveries a week to Jsix. Robin Taylor, who owns and operates the farm with his wife, walked us on a 90-minute loop, explaining what crops he was growing and all about his farming methods. Every so often Graves would wade into a field to pick some produce, taste it, and put it in his tote bag. And while a blanket of gray clouds dulled the sky, and whirling helicopters from a nearby military training facility obscured what we could hear, there was no masking the fresh smell of organic fertilizer, tinted ever so slightly with fresh strawberries.
Back in Jsix’s kitchen, Graves mapped out my meal, sizing up the produce he’d brought back in his tote bag. He decided what dishes to prepare and in what order to serve them. “Once you understand the rules, you’re able to change them a little bit,” he said. “You’ve got to be confident. You just can’t fake it and hope it works.”
To say Graves’s lunch worked would be an understatement. The five-course meal consisted of a salad of field greens, tuna with periwinkles, yellow pattypan carpaccio with risotto, squash and zucchini, pork sausages with a julienne of peppers, and strawberries on shortbread with fresh cream and mint. Each dish was paired with a different wine. Naturally.
Participants in the Chef’s Kitchen Experience are meant to pick up a few culinary skills when they’re not glutting on perfect produce, and here’s one of Graves’ recipes I’m confident I can replicate. It’s for his new favorite summertime drink. Cheers to that.
- Scrape out the meat and juice from a coconut
- Put the coconut juice in a blender
- Have your kids smash the coconut
- Put the meat from the coconut in the blender
- Add ice
- Strain with a fine strainer
- Pour over ice with barrel-aged rum
- Add a dash of sugar or a small amount of pineapple chunks
Graves offered this one last piece of advice. “Only have one coconut at your house,” he warned us. “Do not have the capabilities to make more than one of these.” My advice: don’t miss this experience.