Interview with The Red Door Restaurant
Fresh, Farm–to–Table Food from The Red Door Restaurant
By Jess Yacovelle
The Red Door Restaurant
Fast food and frozen dinners run the world, but eating fresh, healthy, and sustainable meals should be everyone's top priority. That's where the Red Door Restaurant comes in. Located in Mission Hills, the Red Door Restaurant creates seasonal dishes from food grown and cultivated right here in San Diego! We spoke with Trish Watlington, the owner of the Red Door Restaurant, and got the inside scoop about their "farm to table" system, the Red Door cuisine and what's on the horizon for this stellar business.
What kind of cuisine can be found at the Red Door Restaurant and Wine Bar?
The Red Door, and our sister restaurant The Wellington, feature ethically–sourced seasonal cuisine. Our menu is driven by the farmers, ranchers and fishermen of our Southern California region and what Chef Miguel Valdez can create with what [our providers] can produce for us.
The Red Door proudly states they are a "farm–to–table" restaurant. Can you explain what that means and why you’ve chosen to be "farm–to–table"?
In San Diego, there is a range of commitment by restaurants who call themselves “farm–to–table.” For some restaurants, "farm–to–table" means buying one or two items from one local farm. For us, our commitment to responsibly sourced food is a moral issue. We think that supporting small, local farmers is the right thing to do, even if it means a smaller [profit] margin for us. What sets us apart from other restaurants is our garden, and what we can’t grow ourselves in the garden, we source from local farmers. We actually structure and plan our menus around what our garden and our local farmers can offer us, as opposed to creating a menu and then going out to find a farm that has what we need.
We also pay higher prices for food because it costs local farmers more to grow the food. Small farms don’t get government subsidies, whereas big agricultural entities do. Chemical fertilizers speed growth and the local farms we source from don’t use them...
In addition, produce that travels [a few] miles, rather than hundreds of miles to its destination is fresher and tastes better. Organic and pesticide–free produce tastes better because it has a longer opportunity to mature, while conventional produce is often forced into maturity by fertilizing or picked before it is ripe. We firmly believe that when you know where your ingredients come from, you can better monitor their quality. You know what you’re getting when you can look your farmer in the eye.
Do you grow any of your ingredients yourselves? Where do you source what you do not grow?
Yes, we grow 6,000–7,000 pounds of vegetables per year in our own ½ acre garden. Chef Miguel and I plan together for what grows well in our micro–climate and what he’d like to put on the menu.
While thousands of pounds of vegetables sounds like a lot, it only provides about half of what we use in the restaurant. The rest is sourced from local farms of various sizes, by shopping at local farmer's markets and, as a last resort, through the farmer's market distribution center at Specialty Produce. Chef Miguel makes weekly trips to both the Little Italy and Hillcrest markets. We’re proud to work with Stehly Farms, Suzie’s Farms, Cyclops Farms, Go Green Agriculture, Spur Valley Ranch, Autonomy Farms, Point Loma Farms, JR Organics and a myriad of other small farms in San Diego and Riverside counties.
Our fish is all sustainably sourced through Catalina Offshore products. Because all of their fish is traceable back to the boat, we can be certain that we are purchasing seafood that is caught in a way that’s not harmful to other marine life and isn’t damaging to the environment.
Meat is a much more complicated proposition. We were devastated over the loss of Cook Pigs Ranch in Julian and are currently searching for a local source of pork. Our lamb and most of our beef is pasture raised at Autonomy Farms just outside of Bakersfield. Because San Diego County lacks a USDA processing plant, we have to source meat from outside the area or local ranchers must ship long distances to slaughter their animals. Unfortunately, by law we aren’t currently allowed to serve farm slaughtered meat, but that’s a law we’re trying to change.
And of course we’re blessed with some stand–out local wines in San Diego County and in nearby Baja. We love showcasing some great vintages from Vesper Vineyards, Stehleon Vineyards and Ramona Ranch Winery. We are looking forward to expanding that list in the coming year.
At our recent European Market event, you sold some delicious housemade jams and spreads. Where can people find these products?
Our jams are only available for purchase in our restaurant. You could certainly special order jams if you needed them in a large enough quantity, but we don’t currently ship. We’ve had them ordered as holiday gifts, wedding favors and place card holders. Many of our guests just like to have them on their breakfast table or with a cheese plate.
From Red Door’s menu, what are some of your standout dishes?
That’s a tough question to answer since there are so many dishes that I love. Chef Miguel’s “Battered Radish” appetizer is such a tasty and creative way to use one of the least appreciated and most easily grown San Diego winter vegetables. It consists of beer–battered deep–fried radishes with a chipotle dipping sauce. Much better than any french fry you’ve ever had.
If you’re looking for a signature dish that will likely be on our menu forever, our Lamb Meatballs are a fan favorite. [They have] Autonomy Farms' ground lamb, pistachios, local roasted potatoes, toasted fennel, winter garden greens, feta and chimichurri sauce.
What’s on the horizon for Red Door Restaurant?
On the business end, we’d like to expand to at least one other community in San Diego County and are looking for the right neighborhood that would appreciate what we do. We have more short term plans to offer a larger take out menu and small scale catering. My long term dream is to have a chain of healthy, organic, locally–sourced fast food.
We will continue to work with The Berry Good Food Foundation, Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center and our local legislators to promote the connections between farmers, restaurants, kids and families in need. We’d like to develop an online food hub that could make it easier for chefs to connect with farmers, and we’ll be continuing to support local efforts to teach families how to prepare healthy meals.
Is there anything in particular that you really want to cover?
We have a quarterly dinner series called Farmers, Friends and Fisherman. It is an evening of sharing and connecting with our local producers. It begins with cocktails and appetizers and a chance for guests to mingle with farmers, ranchers and fishermen. That is followed by a four–course tribute to the work that our farmers, fishermen and ranchers do. The meal has pairings of local beverages and narration by farmers, fishermen, wineries, brewers and chefs. The next Farmers, Friends and Fisherman dinner is on February 3rd. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.