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Savoring success: San Diego chef nominated for esteemed culinary award

 February 9, 2024 at 5:09 PM PST

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman , the chef of one of San Diego's most Instagrammable restaurants. Anime is receiving high honors. She joins the show to tell us about her Asian infused cuisine. This is Midday Edition , connecting our communities through conversation. Welcome back to Kpbs midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. The James Beard Awards announced this year's semifinalist for their esteemed culinary awards. And only one San Diego area chef was among the nominees. Chef Tara Mansard , executive chef at Anime Restaurant in downtown San Diego , was selected a semifinalist for Best Chef in California. And Chef Tara joins me now to talk more about her nomination and her culinary journey. Chef Tara , welcome.

S2: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

S1: I'm really glad to have you here. Um , okay. First , congratulations.

S2: Thank you , thank you. Yes.

S1: Yes.

S2: It's not something they just hand out , obviously. And , um , to be one of the semifinalists , I'm super honored. I think it's it's a great thing for San Diego. I don't think San Diego gets enough love in the culinary world. And I think just to represent San Diego and my team , I know it says my name on it , but I look at it as a as a team win. And I think it's it's something really , really great for us all. Hard work pays off and it's nice to get some recognition for it. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. From now on , every time you post a picture of photos or yourself hashtag kind of a big deal.

S2: Kind of. I know the people that got it before me are some of my friends. So and to be in the same category as them , I'm , I'm super honored because those are people that I look up to. And to be saying that I've , I've a JDF semifinalist is something pretty good. Pretty cool. That's great. Yeah. Okay.

S1: Okay. But you mentioned that you don't think San Diego gets enough love for its food.

S2: I mean , we're a small but big city. We're not that far from , um , from LA. I'm born and raised in LA. It's only a two hour drive. Right. And then Mexico is right there in Mexico has such a great food scene , it's just separated by a border wall , you know ? Um , but I think there's a lot of talent down down here. And I think it's a city , especially with a lot of transplants and tourists. Like , I don't know why we don't get more love than we do. Um , but I think slowly , slowly , like , now that Michelin's coming and we're in that category of people being seen , I think it's a lot more movement will happen down here and motivation for people to do even more food.

S1: Yeah , well , you're certainly getting love and , uh , you're you're at anime. So tell us about the cuisine that you create over there.

S2: Uh , the cuisine. Um , well , it started as a Japanese steakhouse. That was kind of the identity. And when I took over , I kind of veered away from that. Um , I , I like , I like steakhouses , you you want your mashed potatoes , you want your stuff. Um , but , uh , at anime , I just wanted to do food that kind of represented me. And I , as a first generation Asian American , Filipino American , I just started creating things. And now it's two point where people are not even ordering a steak sometimes. So I'll do what I have. Um , what's the biggest thing for me is I get to put Filipino food , uh , in a fine dining room where people never experience Filipino food like that versus like maybe a to go box or. I mean , we have one of the biggest communities in the United States. And so I get people opportunity to experience food like that. Um , but I can do anything from Korean to Thai to Chinese. And honestly , it's just whatever I want to do that's great creative. And it it seems to be going well so far. People are having fun with the menu. It's a good combination of like Asian and like American influences because that's what America is. It's it's a melting pot. Yeah , yeah.

S1: So you say food , the food that you cook is it's really a reflection of your heritage. Yes. Um , tell me more about that.

S2: Um , well , let's see , um , being born in LA , there's diversity. So there's some. That's how I learned about food. So some days I'd be eating Mexican food. Some days I'll be eating Italian , some days it would be a baked potato and steak. So like for example , like I have for a steak as people kept asking for potatoes. And Asians don't eat potatoes as a side like that. So but I had to create something. So I basically made a A5 potatoes that are crispy potatoes with a Koji sour cream and then a Chinese bacon sausage jam. Basically , it's a deconstructed baked potato with Asian influences like that. So that's kind of what it is. It's like very American thing of potatoes , but having little Chinese or Asian influences pop here and there. And that's kind of like what a little bit of that. And then some of it is very in-your-face Filipino food. But uh , with French technique that I've learned over time because I did other cuisines other than Asian food , because there's not that much of choices here in San Diego to work in. And I just. I took all of my experiences from those places and kind of implemented them in the food that we're doing here.

S1:

S2: I mean , like food , fruits and veggies here in US versus the Philippines are completely different , right ? So , um , I think it kind of limits us on some of the cuisine that we're able to have here. Some of it is very native in the Philippines where you can't get some of those products , but if we're able to get them , maybe we'll do our twist on it. Like , um , green tamarind is in a soup that is in called sinigang , which is a sour agent. But here I've seen it done with rhubarb. I plan to do it with tomatillos. I've seen with just simple lime juice like it's it's what's available here. So we do our take on it but still hits where it's still very , very Filipino.

S1: So it's more of a regional take.

S2: Yes , exactly.

S1: And what's available rather than exactly sampling from this culture , that culture and so on and so forth.

S2: And exactly and because some of us are limited to products , a lot of even Filipinos here haven't had some of the food that is native to the country because it's not available. But so what's kind of nice is when you do regionally , and if you do enough research , you can make something that somebody doesn't even know , like some people don't even know that there's different versions of chicken adobo , but everybody knows what chicken adobo is. But there's a red green , there's a red version , yellow version , a white version. And some of the people , even my friends , don't know that even exists. So I have an opportunity to even educate our own people about our cuisine that they don't they don't know about yet. Yeah , it's pretty cool. I mean , so.

S1: This might be a tough question to answer because , you know , I mean , you've got to taste the food to know what it's like , and I get that.

S2: I like to say it's a melting pot a little bit , too. There's influences from the Chinese because the Chinese were there certain places , depending where I have Muslim influences or more spices. And then there's stuff that is very native to the Philippines like. And then there's also the biggest one is Spanish influence because we were colonized by the Spanish. That's why a lot of our dishes have similarities. There's even , um , a city in Philippines called Mexico , you know , and there's like , we have tamales , but our tamales are made with banana leaves and instead of , like , corn husk. And that's another , another thing. So it's a lot of making a lot of something out of a little bit , you know , a lot of humbles , a lot of one pot meals , a lot of simplicity. Just simple fresh fish with steamed vegetables , um , fish sauce , uh , shrimp paste , a lot of very fermented things. Depending where you're from , spices can be introduced , but usually it's more of the Muslim influence and based off the spice trade. So , um , it's just like most countries there's it's all regionally different. You don't think that there's mountains in the Philippines , but there is. And even up there , they have the same climate as we do here. And so it's not as tropical. So even the food in that area can be different. So it's it's um , like most places it's how do you feed a lot of people with very little. Yeah.

S1: Do you see the cuisine growing in popularity ? Oh , very.

S2: Much so here. If you look at the list this year , there's Filipinos in almost each category. And I think that's because there's a generation of us , especially after Covid , who are really trying to push our food forward. I think a lot of us are first generations where most of our parents moved here in the 70s and 80s from , you know , the Philippines. And now that we're all old enough and a lot of us are doing jobs that aren't the most typical , like I always tell people , I used to be a nursing student , I tried to be a nurse and it wasn't for me. And then I changed my career at a very later age compared to most , to become a chef. And I started from the beginning again. So I think there's just a lot of people who want to be creatives. They want to be kind of break the mold a little bit and go against the grain. Yeah , I'm excited for it. Wow.

S1: Okay , so from nursing to becoming a chef , um , you made some sharp turns there.

S2: So it's completely different. Yeah. Well , you know , it's still science. It's still science. I've always loved food. You know , I was a kid. Um , instead of watching cartoons , I was watching the Food Network. I was watching Iron Chef when it was only in Japanese. Like , what kid does that , like like , I , I mean , not a lot of us do , but you could tell at a young age I was really , really into food. And I would force my friends to watch it with me instead of watching MTV. That shows my age. I'm aging myself. Um , and.

S1: I remember when that.

S2: Was dude , MTV was it like TRL and all that stuff ? Yeah , but they wanted to watch that , and I wanted to watch , uh , great Chefs of America. Delightful. Yes , yes. And like , walking through How to Make a Burbank like. But I should have went to culinary school right out of high school , but I didn't , you know. You know , when you're young , you don't know yet. But that's what. That's what's great about going to college. You figure yourself out. Exactly. You.

S1: You. You in distill ended up where you needed and wanted to be. So that is great.

S2: Yes , it's a lot of work , but it's been it's been a cool ride. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Okay. So we've heard a lot about Instagrammable restaurants these days.

S2: From the moment that you walk into the door when you walk in , you're , um , you first your eyes go to this big painting that we have in the middle of our bar that kind of glows , and most people take pictures in front of it , and it's a pretty cool , uh , painting. It's got this kind of , like , kaiju koi fish thing going on , Iron Giant. And then after you pass that , or you go to a long dining room and cut this , there's no hard lines in the restaurant. It has this , um , modern art deco vibe , very dim , sexy. And then but , um , some nights could be like , could play some R&B or FCG. And then Friday , Saturday night you might hear some biggie , some some hip hop playing in the background. So most people think you'll hear , like classical music and have it be super bougie. And it is bougie in a way. But you take out that pretentiousness feel and it's actually just a very good time. And then our servers do a great job explaining the food , and then the food does its thing , does its talking. My team kills it. They kill it every night. And then um , you roll into lovely desserts by Chef Laura , and then you end the night with some good cocktails and hanging out with good music in the background and great service. And then from the point you live , you say , have a wonderful night. And it's a it's a whole overall experience versus a restaurant where you feel like it's transactional.

S1: Yeah , yeah , yeah.

S2: It's not just like , hi , what do you want ? And then , okay , here's your food. Have a nice day. You know , like it's very it's much more than that. You can easily spend two hours there and and be like forget what time it is. Oh wow.

S1:

S2: Like you , you have to pay attention to what's going on around here and have kind of , uh , your food has to look just as sexy as as a dining room , you know , and it's hard to match. But in the end , you could have a pretty plate of food. But if it doesn't taste good , it doesn't matter. Right. So I think flavor flavor is very in-your-face. And we , I think as a team do a good job kind of matching the environment with the food. Yeah. Yeah I think it's , it's a , it's an art. It's hard. Some days it's like , okay , that doesn't matter. Even the color of the plates , you know , I'm not going to put a white plate in anime. It doesn't fit. But it's a it's a combination of working with our front house manager Tori and our team and getting the right vibe when we look it down. Aesthetically , if it looks great. So not only does the plate look good or the food looks good , like as you expand out , there's a glassware match. The napkins match , the chopsticks match. Is this the right lighting ? Is it. Yeah. Yeah , it's it's a vibe. It is. It's a vibe. Yeah. And so much.

S1: Detail that goes into it. I don't think people have for that.

S2: People really don't know how much work goes into running a restaurant. It's a lot of hours. People are like , why do you get there so early ? I'm like , well , do you think this food just magically pops up and is delicious ? No. Like , I have people early as 6 or 7 a.m. , like prepping already. And you know , we have a team that gets out of there , maybe like 11 or 12 a night. And I'm right there with them , you know ? So it's it's a lot of hours and planning and time and studying and it's not just like I'm just going to make something and put on a plate and here you go. Like it ? It doesn't work that way. At least not a proper functioning good restaurant. Yeah. Right. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. I mean , you bring up a good point there. I mean , because aside from the actual fine dining experience , there's also more hidden work in a hidden world of work behind the scenes , I think of the show The Bear. Um , and , you know , it brought to life that aspect of it for a lot of people , that sometimes chaotic world of working in a restaurant.

S2: I think I always tell people , if you want to work in a restaurant , you have to have a little bit of grit. You got to be tough. Because not only that , it's a it's a stressful environment and it's it's people only see white coats and clean white coats and clean. But it's not always like that. Some days I'm cleaning up a grease trap that's overflowing. Some days I'm working in the dish pit because maybe my dishwasher didn't show up. Um , maybe I didn't have a line cook show up and I'm right next to my team bus. In it out on a line during the summertime when it's 100 degrees , right next to the grill , like 110 , like it's not. And we're sweating our butts off , but we do it because we love it. But that's the stuff you don't see. And I think the bear , I think the reason why it's doing so well , because it has people like Matty Matheson , who is a chef , who's giving the real perspective of what it's like to be a chef. I think the first season focus on the it gives you the feeling of that anxiousness and chaotic ness of what it's like. Yeah , I know some days I'm a therapist , some days I'm a yes , you know , I'm a coach. Sometimes I'm a mentor , some days I'm just a chef. You know , it changes. Some days I'm on the radio like this , you know , you never know. But it's it's a it's a very rewarding job.

S1: You got range , Tara. You got I.

S2: I'm spreading them. Spreading the spreading it out , you know , um , but I'm learning.

S1:

S2: Some dishes come up in the day , some dishes it takes me months and days and weeks. Um , but the point where it's in front of a guest's face and they eat it and they make the face of like. Like that's bomb or that. I always tell my cooks , when you make something , you put it in front of their face and you watch them. Not creepy , not like that , but like from a distance you watch them. And then the first initial bite is the most honest. People don't lie. If they knew , they know they're not being watched. It's a usually it's a slight head nod , you know , or just like a surprise or like , oh , that's they'll point at it and be like , that's bomb. You know , that's so good. And that's that's the moment that's the most satisfying for me. And I tell when they create dishes , I give them opportunity to create things. And I tell them , watch their face like , you don't have to like go watch their face. And then they'll watch him , like , if they're not nodding , you didn't finish it. It's not done. I'm going to be.

S1: So mindful of that from. Now.

S2: Now. You watch , you watch. I swear to you , because I float around the dining room not to be creepy , but , you know , I , I like to see what's going on and then I'll see it. Especially if I know that they're new guests and I'd be like. And usually right away they'll eat something and they'll do the head nod and keep eating , you know , and it's a it's a nod of approval. Yeah. That means it's it's good. You've done good. Exactly. If they're not , if they just eat and go then I didn't. It's not done yet that dishing done. It's got to you got to keep working at it.

S1: Got to do something else. All right. Well I mean what are some of your favorite dishes at NM. Like what must I try if I stop in.

S2: Oh , right now I think it's always been our one of my proudest dishes. But the most our highest dish is the short rib cut of cut A. It's a peanut forward stew usually done with oxtail traditionally. And it's very , um , like it's got this nutty super peanut , uh , stew sauce. Um , mine is a little different. It's a little more balanced. There's a little more technique into it versus just being a simple one pot meal. Um , and that's all from techniques that I've learned working in the industry. And , um , and then it's done with short rib. So it's like fork tender , and then you eat it with rice. And it's been on the menu with , um , on since day one with , uh , Chinese long beans and charred eggplant. Wow. Yeah.

S1: So , you know , I already got my head nod of approval.

S2: Head nod of approval. But yeah , I've added some new couple new dishes this week. One of them , kind of a little more in-your-face Filipino , is a dinner one , which is , um , done with beef cheek. Um , traditionally it's made with offcuts , and then the sauce is thickened with blood. And I know for some people they're like , oh , that's , you know , but traditionally , even in French cooking , there's a lot of sauces that are thickened with blood to make it creamier or change the texture of the sauce. But if I didn't tell people that there was blood in it , they would be like , yeah , still eat it. But the point you tell somebody that there might be blood in it , but there's blood in everything. You eat a piece of steak , there's blood in it , you know , like it's just changing. And like other countries , it's very normal , you know ? And here it's it might not be the most normal , but I think that's why anime is getting love. Because I'm not trying to just meat to the people that just want that. I'm trying to meat to people who are foodies , people who really want to eat traditional things and want to have a good meal and something that's not you can't just get anywhere. And that's that's what I'm trying to do with my team.

S1: Chef Tara Mansard is executive chef at anime Restaurant. Tara. Thank you so much for joining us , and congratulations on that nomination.

S2: Thank you. Let's go San Diego. Let's go.

Chef Tara Monsod by James Tran
James Tran
Chef Tara Monsod by James Tran

The James Beard Awards has announced this year’s semifinalists for the esteemed culinary honors. Among this year's nominees is San Diego chef Tara Monsod, executive chef at Animae in downtown San Diego.

Monsod sat down with Midday Edition to talk about her nomination and her culinary journey.

Guests:

  • Tara Monsod, executive chef, Animae