"We found a buyer for the Red Door," says Trish Watlington.
When she’d texted me over the weekend, I had a feeling this was coming. Watlington has been one of the devout crusaders of the real farm-to-table movement since opening the Red Door eight years ago in Mission Hills. She grows her own food, buys from local farmers, invites them to dinner. As many less scrupulous restaurants have co-opted the name "farm to table," while really only doing a half-ass job of it, Watlington did it excruciatingly right.
I’ve often referred to Watlington as San Diego’s version of Alice Waters, because of her deep commitment to supporting the local food economy, even if it cost her much more money than her competitors. Many will claim that her sale of the Red Door and the adjacent Bar by Red Door is proof that true farm-to-table isn’t a feasible business model.
Not true, Watlington explains. In fact, the restaurant, brand, everything—will remain. She looked long and hard to find the right buyers who would keep the local-food mission intact. And now she has, in Italian chef Luciano Cibelli, originally from Milan, Italy. He and his two partners (also Italian chefs) will continue to use only ingredients they can trace, including some from a friend’s farm in Fallbrook.
"We’ve been profitable," Watlington says. "That’s not the reason we’re selling. As a family we all needed to do something else."
A new grandmother, Watlington will now be freed of her daily restaurant duties, and be able to spend them with the new addition to the family. And she’s not going away. She’ll continue to run her Farm to Fork Week—which is a celebration of restaurants across the county that are truly, verifiably farm-to-table.
"Luciano really believes in what Red Door does, and has the same ethic," she says. "He grew up in a culture where you ate what was growing around you. He wants to do everything the same way he was raised."
The sale will be finalized in February, she expects, and Cibella has expressed a desire to keep as much of the front of house staff as possible.
"It’s bittersweet," Watlington says. "I’m going to miss working with the people at the restaurant like crazy."