Marshall Williams
Chef Paul McCabe of L'Auberge Del Mar in his garage test kitchen, San Diego, California
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Le Garagiste

Merrill Shindler / October 2009

Kitchen's gutted for a restaurant makeover, so what's a rangeless chef to do? Why, take the old stoves and stuff home to set up an ad hoc kitchen lab. Merrill Shindler reports.

In the garage of Paul McCabe's modest suburban home in the University City section of San Diego, just one block away from where an F/A-18 crashed last December, killing four civilians on the ground, his wife stores her ProForm XP treadmill next to her Kenmore washer-dryer. He's also stacked several mountain bikes against a wall. And if this were an average suburban garage, there would be room for the chef's SUV as well.

But there is no room. Because the rest of the garage is taken up with a TruTemp refrigerator; a stainless-steel worktable; a Cecilware deep fryer; a PolyScience immersion circulator; a KitchenAid mixer; a Mr. Induction induction cooker; a Sodir plancha; a CryoVac VacMaster; a liquid nitrogen dewar; a Cuisinart precision scale; a Braun hand mixer; a bunch of Vollrath tongs; a rack of herbs and spices, sundry vinegars, olives oils, and verjus; and a line of shiny copper pots. This being a garage, there are some screwdrivers and wrenches as well. Though, understandably, it's easy to overlook them.

This is actually just a fraction of the infrastructure that McCabe used to keep in his garage. McCabe is executive chef at L'Auberge Del Mar, an oceanfront property owned by the Destination Hotels & Resorts Group in the sedate town of Del Mar (home of the fabled Del Mar Racetrack), just north of San Diego. During the months leading into early 2009 when the hotel underwent a $25 million renovation--and the restaurant, Kitchen 1540, received a $4.3 million face-lift--McCabe had time on his hands. And so, rather than just hanging around watching the workers build soffits, he decided to do some menu development. And to do it in his garage.

"It hit me one day," says McCabe. "We were going to gut the entire restaurant kitchen. So, where was I going to cook? And I figured, why not take the entire kitchen home? I wanted to reinvent myself and the food. So, we moved it all into my garage. Stainless-steel tables, immersion circulator, vacuum sealer, refrigeration, induction burners--a test kitchen with inventory. It was a fantastic thing to do. I was able to get focused. I could work on my own, make mistakes, come up with new techniques, work with liquid nitrogen, with transglutaminates. I got really inspired."

At the time, the restaurant at L'Auberge was called J. Taylor's. Says McCabe: "It was dark, with heavy tablecloths, a bit like a country club restaurant. It was tired. And the people at Destination Hotels decided it was time for an update." Nine months later, what had been J. Taylor's had morphed into Kitchen 1540 (the hotel's address on Camino Del Mar). It's no longer dark; floor-to-ceiling windows look out on a mini grove of kumquat trees. The kitchen is open, with a wine and charcuterie bar off to one side. Where the restaurant used to be so quiet that McCabe would go home early most nights, it's now busy morning, noon, and night. It's the hottest ticket in town. Amazing what a mere investment of $4.3 million can do.

The menu--a sampling: roasted wild prawns with toasted garlic and chile oil, bison tartare with smoked bacon sabayon, organic cauliflower soup with smoked paprika and crispy parsnips, and molasses seared elk with blackberry compote--was developed in McCabe's garage while those multimillions were being spent on warm polished wood and high-tech lighting fixtures. And though it sounds idyllic (essentially the chef's version of telecommuting), McCabe says it wasn't always easy. He had to stay focused--not easy for a guy who loves mountain biking and who lives in a city where the sun shines year-round.

"I had certain rules I had to establish," says McCabe. "First of all, you don't work in flip flops and shorts. I'd always get dressed to cook in the garage. I always keep a chef's jacket hanging from a hook; it's there right now."

And then, there was the simple issue of staying motivated, of keeping focused. "I had to work on that all the time," he notes. "That's why I planted a garden in my backyard. In San Diego, our season is all year-round. So, there were vegetables that were always coming up. And when they're ready, they have to be eaten. Basically, I scheduled my research around my vegetables. I put myself on a timeline based on what was coming into season.

"I also worked out a schedule for each section of the menu, so that it would be developed by a certain time. If I didn't stick to that schedule, I knew it would be crunch time at the end. But still, there were days when the air was warm and the sky was blue and it was hard to be motivated. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a job. I had to push myself to get my butt out there and get it done. I had to work on that caramelized yogurt. The clock was ticking. There was no fooling around."

McCabe was also lucky to have a family and lots of friends--all of whom helped keep him cooking. "My wife didn't love having to do laundry while I was filleting fish. But otherwise, my family loved it. I have a 12 year old daughter and an 8 year old son. They're great eaters. They'll try anything. They both want to be chefs. To which I say, ‘No! No! No!' One in the family is enough."

McCabe preferred to do his cooking with the garage door closed. He had installed overhead fluorescent lighting, which lit the space like an operating room. He'd try out a recipe--sometimes an individual dish, sometimes a bulk recipe for banquets. And when he felt it was ready to take it for a test drive, he'd "open the garage door and my neighbors knew it was time to drop on by to do some tasting. There were times I'd make something like a batch recipe of Caesar salad for banquets. I'd make five gallons of dressing. I'd portion it out, and the neighbors would all get bottles of Caesar dressing. I've got friends who love food, and they'd give me good honest feedback. Most of my cooking was dinner focused, so my family could get in on the tastings. But they had to be patient. I might be working on an issue like how much agar-agar you need to create a fluid gel, and how do you clarify barbecue sauce?"

McCabe learned his techniques working at L'Ermitage in Los Angeles with Michel Blanchet and at L'Auberge and the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona. He's never been to cooking school. Instead, he came up through the ranks, learning classical French cuisine, much of which he assiduously threw out the garage door to create Kitchen 1540.

"I don't like the word ‘molecular.' But during the time I spent in the garage, I tried to make myself comfortable with molecular techniques. But even if there are elements of molecular, at heart I think of my cooking as American comfort food. Just with a twist that going molecular offers. Consider: Everyone does tuna with wasabi and yuzu; it's become a California cliché. So, I asked myself, ‘What could I do that's new?' In the garage, I tried using transglutaminates to fuse the ingredients together. I found I could fuse duck skin to the top of bigeye tuna, crisp it, and when you eat it, you get yuzu and soy and trout roe and tuna and a crispy smoked duck skin. Without molecular, I couldn't have done that. It opened a world of subtleties for me."

Of course, life in the garage wasn't all beer and skittles--or yuzu and duck skin. "Oh, I had plenty of flameouts," admits McCabe. "From the time I had a draft of the menu till the one we serve in the restaurant now, there were 14 total revisions. And since we change the menu based on what's new and fresh at the market, you can say it's revised every day. I remember there was one dish made with octopus that just never came together. I'd keep testing it, and no one liked it. I'd change it every day until I finally let it go. I realized it was too composed, too pretentious. I had to evolve to more relaxed simple food. My family and neighbors helped lead me that way."

The restaurant opened last November, but now, nearly a year later, McCabe is still cooking in his garage. Much of the equipment has gone back to the restaurant, where McCabe has created a Kitchen Visible and a Kitchen Invisible. What diners see is an open-plan kitchen, where they have the option to sit at a marble-topped bar and nibble and watch cooks all-in-a-row frying in a bubbling Frymaster, charbroiling under the flames of a Wolf salamander, sautéing on Wolf gas ranges, and saucing on a Wolf French top. To the right of the kitchen, a Berkel antique replica slicer turns cured salumi into wisps of lingerie, so to speak.

Walk through a door into the back kitchen, and the prep staff is doing support work for the stage set in the front--doing their cooking in a Groen braising pan, a Groen tilt skillet, a Rational combi-oven, a Hatco toaster, a Sunpentown Mr. Induction SR-1151F induction cooker, storing ingredients in plastic bags vacuum prepped with a VacMaster, moving in and out of a Thermalrite walk-in.

It's a proper restaurant kitchen and a proper hotel kitchen. But being back in the real world of day-to-day food preparation has not stopped McCabe from being the Mad Culinary Scientist of University City. "It's a habit I've gotten into; I really love the process of creating dishes at home. When I'm working on something in the garage, my cooks drop by to watch me. It's a place where I can make mistakes, where I can come up with something new, no-holds-barred. The next phase for the restaurant is to do all our own charcuterie. I'm working on it in the garage. If I tried to do it in the restaurant, there'd be too many interruptions.

"What I know about myself is that I get bored if I'm not growing and expanding. And I know I've created the perfect space where I can work. I won't even try it in the house, because the house is about family. This is my place, my laboratory. I love working here. It works, it absolutely works."