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Chef Tim Kolanko: We need a movement to find common ground regarding universal, non partisan issues like food safety, sustainability, overfishing, feeding the hungry, raising enough food to feed the planet, and farm subsidies

I’d like to get people to find common ground and focus on the universal challenges we all face. The world is getting more politically and culturally divided every day, and there are so many issues around food that affect everyone on some level. Food safety, sustainability, overfishing, feeding the hungry, raising enough food to feed […]


I’d like to get people to find common ground and focus on the universal challenges we all face. The world is getting more politically and culturally divided every day, and there are so many issues around food that affect everyone on some level. Food safety, sustainability, overfishing, feeding the hungry, raising enough food to feed the planet, farm subsidies, import and export tariffs, the list goes on and on. These are universal social issues that should transcend culture and politics. Anything that would help mend that divide and create a healthy dialogue would be progress.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Kolanko, Executive Chef of Blue Bridge Hospitality. One of San Diego’s most prominent forces in the sustainable food movement, Chef Kolanko brings a distinctively simple approach to his globally-inspired cuisine. With over 20 years of culinary experience, he has earned a storied career working and training under several of the nation’s most respected industry innovators including Stuart Brioza, Charles Dale and Jeff Jackson. During his culinary career, he has also earned leading national titles such as “Top Ten Farm to Table Restaurants in the U.S.” by Epicurious and “America’s Top Restaurant” via Zagat.


What inspired you to become a chef (or restauranteur)?

I’ve been cooking in restaurants since I was 16 years old. I excelled as a line cook because I liked the camaraderie and intensity of the kitchen. It was when I moved away from home that I realized cooking could be a career that would allow me to travel and live in places where I could snowboard and surf. I just always loved working in restaurant kitchens — my passion for food and cooking developed after I committed to making this a career.

What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
 
It’s been a pretty amazing ride. My first job was in a bowling alley restaurant in a small town in Michigan. Since then, I’ve been a part of opening San Diego’s acclaimed food hall trailblazer Liberty Public Market, the Five Diamond rated Lodge at Torrey Pines and several restaurants. I’ve done catering, worked a short stint as a restaurant manager and even worked as a private chef in Malibu. My passion for food has inspired me to travel to places like India, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, and much of western Europe. Cooking professionally can be grueling, but it has lead me to a lot of great experiences and really great relationships.

Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
 
I’ve always had an interest in butchery, head to tail cooking and charcuterie. I think since opening Stake Chophouse & Bar in Coronado, CA in 2015, my expertise in steaks and beef has grown a great deal. I enjoy butchery because it’s a sub category of cooking that you could truly spend a lifetime mastering.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
 
I had just left a job and was going to take a little time off before going back to work. On my second day of being unemployed, I received a call from an old friend who I hadn’t talked to in several years — he had worked at one of the best restaurants in the country before becoming a private chef in Los Angeles. His client had “family” coming to town that were going to be staying in another house and he needed another chef to work at that property for a few weeks. He couldn’t tell me anything about the clients because he signed an NDA. It was a good paying job, so I agreed and headed up to Los Angeles a couple days later. I ended up cooking at a beach house right on the ocean in Malibu, and the client turned out to be an international model. She and her guests were really nice, didn’t speak much English and let me to cook whatever I wanted. These beautiful women would be sunbathing on the patio in front of the kitchen and walking around skimpily clad while I was working. The second week we threw a party there for a bunch of models. The whole experience was unbelievable, and I got paid well. It was a pretty good way to start my time off!

What is your definition of success?
 
Success for me is being proud of the food we are crafting in all of our restaurants as well as grooming younger chefs to embrace the same beliefs and standards that I hold dear.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
 
We fail every day in this business. Any chef worth his salt on any given day sees the flaws in what they produce. Even if we succeed in producing a great experience for the guest, we still know all the little failures that happen in every service. Obsessing over all the failures is what drives us to succeed.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now.

Blue Bridge Hospitality is about to relaunch our coastal Italian restaurant Maretalia Ristorante this August after a year-long remodel. It’s going to have an entirely updated aesthetic, ocean views, an extended raw bar and communal seating, as well as a dedicated room for pasta making. I’m really excited to do something with a seafood focus!

Just this August, we also recently opened el Roy’s Tequila Bar + Kitchen at the picturesque Coronado Ferry Landing. I like to think of el Roy’s as the Mexican cousin of our Coronado neighborhood restaurant Leroy’s Kitchen and Lounge. It has a fun colorful vibe and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that let you look out on to the picture-perfect views of San Diego Bay and downtown.

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?

My advice is to practice your craft, read, travel, and taste everything. If you’re in a good kitchen, stay for a couple years and learn as much as possible before moving on.

This business is a grind — work for someone you trust and ask for advice. Where you work will play a big part in who you become as a chef, so choose wisely.

What is the key to creating the perfect dish?

The key to creating the perfect dish is nature. Perfection comes in ingredients, and focusing on seasonality, freshness and utilizing offerings at their peak. If I’m starting with a perfectly ripe tomato at the peak of the season, or fish straight off the boat, I’m on my way to a perfect dish. It’s all about sourcing. Once you’ve done that well, you just have to focus on not screwing it up.

It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?

Cooking and eating are acts of intimacy. This is exactly why grandmas are often the best cooks — it’s how they get everyone they love to gather in one place. It’s like their super power. I guess that’s it! Being able to cook great food is like having a super power to connect with almost anyone. Food is a common thread that can cross cultures (thank you Anthony Bourdain!) and bring family together. Everyone has to eat, and most people love to.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. It’s a path of great personal sacrifice that affects the people closest to you. You miss out on a lot of holidays, weekends and events. You never get New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day off if you run a restaurant. My wife has had to share in that sacrifice over the last 15 years.

2. Work abroad. One major regret I have is never having a year or two working in another country. I’d like to have to worked and spent time immersed in another culture.

3. Be nice. You don’t have to be mean or aggressive to be effective in the kitchen. I think the old school hyper-masculine way of running kitchens is becoming less common. I was seldom overly aggressive, but I could have been nicer in my early years as a chef.

4. Make physical exercise part of your routine. I’ve always been active with board sports (snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing), but I never had a disciplined workout routine. Staying in shape and managing stress are really important to longevity in the kitchen.

5. Wear good shoes and use two pairs for long days. When I was a cook in my 20’s, I woke up one Sunday after a grueling work week and I could barely stand. I went out that week and bought good shoes and never had a problem again. If you have two different pairs at work and you change shoes midway through a long day, it’s life changing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
 I’d like to get people to find common ground and focus on the universal challenges we all face. The world is getting more politically and culturally divided every day, and there are so many issues around food that affect everyone on some level. Food safety, sustainability, overfishing, feeding the hungry, raising enough food to feed the planet, farm subsidies, import and export tariffs, the list goes on and on. These are universal social issues that should transcend culture and politics. Anything that would help mend that divide and create a healthy dialogue would be progress.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?

I’d like to have a dinner party with Quest Love and Phil Rosenthal as guests. They couldn’t be more different, except for that fact that they both really love food. The idea of having them at the same table is hilarious to me. I think the conversation would be great!

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