Writer in the Kitchen

Chef Paul McCabe looked down at my feet, making sure I was wearing correct shoes for the kitchen.

‘Those will do’ he said, motioning for me to follow him through the open kitchen and back into the prep kitchen of Kitchen 1540, the award-winning restaurant at L’Auberge Del Mar, a boutique getaway just north of San Diego on the California coast. Walking past chefs prepping for lunch and dinner service, we stepped into the walk-in fridge, stuffed with ingredients for his organic and local cuisine. Seeing all the bright colors and farm-fresh ingredients it was easy to see where Chef McCabe gets his inspiration.

Back outside he showed me the pride and joy of his kitchen, a fire-engine red Berkel hand-cranked slicer. We talked about sustainable fishing and the importance of restaurants not to order fish that hasn’t been sourced responsibly. Moments later we were standing in his vertical garden, breathing in the aroma of over 140 plants that provide the finishing touch to many of his dishes. From Thai basil to arugula, these plants were thriving under the Del Mar sunshine.

I was traveling on assignment for Luxury Travel Magazine, and this interview with Chef McCabe came the morning after I dined at Kitchen 1540. My article on L’Auberge Del Mar was just published last week; find the full article here. Here’s a sneak preview:

One dish Chef McCabe is widely praised for is his organic beet salad. Bold flavors and contrasting textures combine to make a salad that is downright craveable – something I’ve never said before about beets. Pistachio brittle brought the surprise of a crunch, Valdeon blue cheese gave a pleasurable salty note, and the roasted organic beets were both vibrant in color and flavor. The organic beet salad seduced me into trying any combination Chef McCabe deemed worthy of his menu.

During any interview, there are always plenty of intriguing details that must be left on the cutting room floor. I didn’t have the space in the article to mention how Chef McCabe conceptualized his organic beet salad, for example. He told a great story about experimenting with caramelizing yogurt in his at-home test kitchen in his garage. It turns out he wasn’t working on a beet salad at all, but after successfully caramelizing yogurt, he pulled some beets out of the garden, and the dish organically came together from there.

vertical garden and Chef McCabe

Sitting down at a table in the corner of the restaurant, Chef McCabe shared details about upcoming changes at Kitchen 1540. I listened to a creative mind spell out ideas about how to move dining forward, how to change the concept of the way people eat. All the secrets have yet to be revealed, but one special feature is the chef’s chalkboard menu, a list of 4 -8 items that will change daily depending on the freshest ingredients.

After chatting about favorite New York restaurants (Chef McCabe mentioned Momofuku and Daniel) I was delighted when he suggested we get in the kitchen. I learned that everything at Kitchen 1540 is made from scratch, from the pickles to the mustards. Gazing at all the fresh produce, the chef told me about one of his favorite dishes on the spring menu, a farmhouse salad with 14 – 17 raw, shaved ingredients. Standing at the salad station, I got to see how his famous beet salad is assembled. One thing the chef emphasized was the concept of mouth feel, how the size and texture of each component feels in your mouth. As we dug into the beet salad, it was clear that every detail of this dish had been thought through.

As we moved over to the stove I confessed my love for the chef’s Meyer lemon ricotta pancakes. I had just tried them that morning, sitting on the waterfall terrace overlooking the Pacific, and couldn’t get enough of their texture and aroma. Next the chef took out three plump scallops and offered to demonstrate how to cook them properly. Scallops being one of my personal favorites, I gladly accepted.

outdoor dining area at Kitchen 1540

He started out by patting the scallops dry and giving them a good seasoning of salt only , ‘never any pepper’. Next he heated a pan with extra virgin olive oil (and a touch of grapeseed oil). Dropping the scallops into the pan, he gave them a good 45 second sear, without poking them around in the pan. It seemed as if he could tell just by smell when it was time to flip the scallops to reveal picture-perfect golden brown edges. For cooking scallops at home, the chef warned me about crowding the pan. Thinking back to my own kitchen, I realized this was a mistake I had made in the past.

Next he hit the pan with butter, garlic, and fresh sprigs of thyme. Basting the scallops with nutty brown butter, he put the polishing touch on the scallops. Removing them from the pan, we ate them piping hot right off the counter top. In between sweet bites of the scallops and trying not to burn my mouth, I managed to mumble my approval with a series of sound effects. It is a pleasure to interview someone who shares such an intense passion for food. I learned in Kitchen 1540 that it is an even bigger pleasure to eat something they have cooked straight out of the pan.

Check out this photo gallery for mouth-watering images of Chef McCabe’s creations.

Details: Kitchen 1540, 1540 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, California 92014. Open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Must try dishes:

  • Diver scallops with popcorn puree, salted caramel marcona almonds.
  • Organic beet salad with caramelized yogurt, Valdeon blue cheese, pistachio brittle, and arugula.
  • Whole roasted snapper with grilled lemon vinaigrette.
Photos: 2 outdoor shots courtesy of L’Auberge Del Mar. Garden shot from the personal collection of Jessica Colley.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jenn Adlam says:

    I absolutely adore Kitchen. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego. The beer ice cream is to die for and the key lime “pie”…. Try Paon as well they are further up the coast in Carlsbad.

  2. I am a huge fan of Chef Paul’s, Kitchen 1540 and L’Auberge. In fact many refer to the location as my “office west”.

    I send friends/associates to Kitchen 1540 on a weekly basis and have never been disappointed in the quality of the cuisine, the service or the PRIDE that goes in to every dish that is presented.

    The new menu is fantastic and I have had a few opportunities to bring larger groups as well, all of us leave with big smiles and the quest to return very soon.

    Chef Paul McCabe puts his heart and soul into his culinary creations and we are lucky to have this wonderful Restaurant in Chef in our own beautiful city of San Diego!

    Thank you to the team at Kitchen 1540. Great story, thank you for sharing!

    1. Jessica Colley says:

      Thanks for your comment Mary Beth! I’m not surprised at your enthusiasm, I adored everything I ate here as well.

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