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Q&A: Chef Daniel Barron

This chef just landed one of the most sought-after gigs. We made him talk.

As we reported a few days ago, La Jolla's famed La Valencia has found their new chef. In 2011, restaurant guide Gayot named Daniel Barron's menu at AnQi one of the top 10 molecular gastronomy restaurants in America. Then he came to San Diego to head Blue Pointe Coastal Cuisine and later his own progressive pop-up dinner concept, Evolve—where he went even deeper into sci-fi food. After having spent the last year cooking private events across the US, the Detroit native is glad he wasn't forced to leave San Diego. And with La V, he's jonesing to take his food back in time a little.

Official position? And what the heck it means?
Executive Chef. If it’s eaten at the hotel I am responsible for it. Specifically the Mediterranean Room, La Sala, banquets, and our upcoming concept Café La Rue.

Were you worried you'd have to get the hell out of dodge?
There was nothing local that fit what I was looking for until La Valencia came along. I’m very happy to be staying in San Diego.

You spent the last year traveling, freelancing. Tell me fabulous stories.
I did a private dinner for 14 people at the Versace mansion in Miami. It was eight courses, mostly with stuff indigenous to the area. I stayed in Versace’s lover’s quarters, which is adjacent to Versace’s bedroom. There’s so much to look at in every room. The walls look wallpapered, but it’s hand-painted. The bathroom fixtures are gold-plated. I’m a normal dude. So I’m thinking if I break or touch anything, there goes the money for the event.

What restaurant floored you?
Yardbird in Miami. This place is awesome. Nothing fancy. Just southern cooking (and some ridiculous fried chicken) at its best. Jeff McInnis took home a James Beard Award for what he’s doing there. I got to hang out in the kitchen a few times and BS with him. I liked the soul of the place. Everything you eat there tastes like you’re eating at a really talented grandmother’s house. They fry their chicken in cast-iron skillets.

In the last decade, what's inspired/changed/stoked your cooking?
The acceptance of progressive cooking techniques has been huge. I’d been learning about it and doing it since the early 1990s. But back then, the only 'foams' were whipped cream and chocolate mousse. If you made asparagus into a foam, people would say ‘What the hell is this? Don’t put that on my plate.’ At the same time, now I’m very excited about the trend of Midwestern comfort food. For me, it’s back to my roots in Detroit, where I grew up with all Southern Baptists and Sunday dinners.

Are you a science-food nerd?
I got thrust into a molecular gastronomy corner at Blue Pointe. A month before I became chef there, Gayot named my menu at AnQi in Costa Mesa one of the top 10 molecular gastronomy menus in America—right behind Alinea. I mean, that was amazing. So I just rode the wave. I like doing molecular, but I have so much more to give as a chef.

What happened with your futurific pop-up project, Evolve?
With Evolve we pushed every boundary we could at the risk of going too far. For a fish taco, we did seared yellowtail with tempura guacamole and tortilla broth. That was a successful dish. One failure was a deconstructed California burrito with a shrimp stick and, well, I forget the rest because I try to forget bad things. At the end of the day, a burrito is a burrito. Don’t fix what’s not broken. But I think Evolve helped change perception of what restaurants could be. Our events felt like a family gathering.

So did it die, or did you snuff it out?  
We sold out every event. But the events were such big undertakings that we just let it rest. Out of the events came quite a few really cool private dinners and events, so it was win-win.

Tell me the future. Your debut menu.
We have a lot of work to do before then.  I have to hire more chefs. We have to build a team. But I know I’ll be sourcing the best of the best for seafood, produce, and meats. That means Tommy Gomes at Catalina Offshore for my local products and Paddy Glennon with Santa Monica Seafood who’s just a machine with sustainability. For produce it’ll be farmers markets and Specialty Produce. For meats, Cooks Pig Ranch will be one of our vendors, plus Newport Meats. We’ll bring in whole pigs and break them down. I just talked with Patrick Ponsaty at Bellamy’s and he’s getting live quails into his kitchen. I want that.  

Why a big, fancypants hotel? Why not an experimental bistro teleporting food from the kitchen to the table?
La Valencia is a grand hotel, but I'll still have my fingers on the pulse of everything that comes out of every kitchen. I have worked in larger hotels and a chef can lose touch with what is going out to the guests. The fact that there are multiple restaurants is the reason that I chose this over any independent restaurant. I’m looking forward at the Mediterranean Room being able to showcase my entire gamut. Then I get to do comfort food in Café La Rue. I’m super excited because I’m ADD and I'll never get bored. I’ve got 12 menu changes a year.

What restaurants in the US speak to you? 
The French Laundry because—well, it’s not why. It’s why not?? Nobody has done it better for longer. And Blue Hill Restaurant. I have a pure admiration for what Dan Barber does there. It’s what just about every professional chef with passion dreams they could do. Grow everything you cook? Yes, please.

Go free-form. What’s on that ADD mind?
This cronut is overhyped. Just stick with a great donut. Farm to table is what should be done—not an overused sales technique. And I'd like to give a huge thanks you to all the people and guests of my restaurants that have continued to support me over the last year. Just wait until you see what La Valencia has in store. I look forward to seeing everybody soon.

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