THREE HONORABLE MEN DELIGHTEDLY AGREE that it’s quite the honor to be honored by their peers. This year, Hanis Cavin, Matt Gordon and Paul McCabe join San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles’ Chefs Hall of Fame at the invitation of this galaxy of culinary superstars. Together, the members have transformed the county from an easy-going place that tolerated canned guacamole to a discerning community that expects cuisine to be fresh, organic, sustainable — and memorably delicious. The new members contribute much more than hard work to bettering our restaurant profile, since each brings a governing philosophy to his cooking.
Hanis Cavin (pictured left): Carnitas Snack Shack
SOOOOEY! The inspiration to corner the market on porcine pleasures by creating a real hog heaven in the heart of greens-loving North Park struck Hanis Cavin and wife Sarah Stroud pretty much like a lightning bolt. Carnitas’ Snack Shack is named for the couple’s pet porker, a Juliana (aka miniature painted) whose sculptured likeness is piggybacked atop the roof.
“Carnitas is real high-maintenance these days,” says Cavin. “He’s gotten bigger and knocks things down.” Even so, the pig runs little danger of being transformed into his namesake dish (Cavin cooks an exceptionally savory carnitas), since the chef slowly simmers “the best pork that can be bought.”
“People like the quality and flavor of the product we put out,” adds Cavin. “I start with premium food, and the produce is as much farmers’ market as I can get. I love cooking, and seeing happy faces on my guests makes it all that much better.”
Six days weekly, the San Diego native rolls in at 8 a.m., hoping to leave soon after midnight. His blissful clientele does dine high on the hog. Demonstrating a devilish talent for outrageous overkill, Cavin spirals them into gastronomic delirium with the “Triple Threat,” a high-rise sandwich of pulled roasted pork, breaded pork tenderloin, applewood-smoked bacon and pepperoncini slathered with pickle relish and Carnitas’ own ‘Shack aioli.’
“We bring out restaurant quality food but you can come here without shoes and it doesn’t matter,” says Cavin. “The whole experience is great.”
Matt Gordon (pictured center): Urban Solace
THE BIRTH OF HIS FIRST CHILD partly explains why Matt Gordon, chef/proprietor of San Diego’s Urban Solace and Solace & the Moonlight Lounge in downtown Encinitas, was inducted into the Hall of Fame and can say, “I am so tremendously honored to be acknowledged by my fellow chefs.”
He and his wife committed to raising their daughter on a diet free of artificial ingredients. Gordon set out to locate or create alternatives to heavily processed products like ketchup and Worcestershire sauce and to completely avoid what he calls “overly medicated or hormoned meats.” It followed naturally that he included Urban Solace patrons in his policy.
“Our support of artisan producers sets us apart from a lot of the industry,” says the 23-year veteran of respected professional kitchens. “It’s easy to use local or organic produce, but we take it to extreme levels with the natural products stocked throughout the pantry and bar. We are helping the industry move forward by demanding better choices and options, and a lot of our clientele appreciates it,” he says, adding “our number one goal still is to provide tasty food and great service.”
Asked about local restaurant trends, Gordon says they’re mostly encouraging, especially that “more and more people are focusing on quality ingredients and elevating both preparation and presentation.” Gordon is concerned by little, but on the downside he notes, “There is a lot of growth lately and I hope it stays at a sustainable rate.”
Paul McCabe (pictured right): Delicias
NOW AT RANCHO SANTA FE’S plush but relaxed Delicias, Paul McCabe put in a commanding performance at L’Auberge Del Mar’s stylin’ Kitchen 1540, although he admits “When you’re chef of a hotel there is a lot of administrative work that pulls you out of the kitchen. Sometimes I’d show up for work at 8 a.m., and not step into the kitchen before 6:30.” Shuffling papers wastes talent.
An exception to the general rule that San Diego’s better chefs attended cooking school, McCabe was a young man on his way to the Culinary Institute of America when he accepted an apprenticeship offered by Michel Blanchet, the legendary French chef whose cuisine at L’Ermitage rocked Los Angeles in the latter 20th century.
“Coming to Delicias was a natural step,” says the chef who wore the tallest toque at the late Top O’ The Cove. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for. We (the pronoun encompasses new Delicias owner Owen Perry) have really hit the mark. The menu is a good balance of approachable and slightly adventurous food with some unique touches.” Among the latter: bison tartare with bacon sabayon, and barbecued sweetbreads with an engagingly smokey sauce.
McCabe delights with his assessment of San Diego resources. “What we’ve been missing for years is the proteins,” he says. “We have the produce, we have the ocean, but we’re just now getting local high-quality chickens, pigs and cows. Once we round out our land animals, we’re going to be known around the world.”