The Cork and Craft, North County San Diego’s talk of the town, might be located in a business park, but once you walk in the door, you’ll find yourself in a lively space with an up close and personal view of an open kitchen, wine vats and brewery in-cased in glass. “We are the only concept in San Diego and on the west coast with an urban brewery, winery and restaurant all under one roof, ” says Executive chef Phillip Esteban. “The closest similar concept is located in Florida.”
It was clear to me as soon as I entered the restaurant that Esteban is hugely influential in his kitchen, possessing an intuitive characteristic that enables him to serve carefully orchestrated and natural presentations of modern Californian cuisine with an emphasis on French techniques. He believes that educating his staff is one of the core values of being a chef. “Watching my kitchen team learn, grow and succeed in our industry is really amazing, but the one thing I HATE is that everyone is a “chef” these days. The term has been so loosely used and romanticized that the position itself has been watered down. Anyone can be a cook, not everyone can be a chef.”
A graduate from the Culinary Arts Program of The Art Institute in San Diego, Esteban quickly found his rhythm, relieved to be free of the politics involved with restaurants located in the greater San Diego area. “We do need to be agreeable to the demographics in our area, but for the most part we can be creative and experimental with our menu,” he says.
So many things on The Craft and Cork menu are worth trying, including the Wagyu Beef Tartare (nominated as the best dish of 2015 to try in 2016 by the San Diego Union Tribune and DiscoverSD). “The story behind that dish brings me back to when I worked at Momofuku Ssam Bar in NYC,” explains Esteban. “I’ve tweaked the recipe to reflect my own style, but it’s definitely a nod to some of my roots.”
Believing every young cook must have a mentor, Esteban told me that it’s important to know someone who’s been through it, someone that can teach and guide you throughout your career. “I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors, Melissa Mayer (The Guild, Olympia Oyster Bar), Jason Knibb (Nine-Ten), Peter Balistreri and Rian Brandenburg (Tender Greens), and even non-industry people like Julian Ahumada who’s a great businessmen, to name a few. Though many have stood out, it’s been a culmination of all of my life experiences that’s made me the chef I am today.”
Although breakfast is Esteban’s favorite meal of the day, he says that pizza, cheeseburgers and French fries run his life. But not at The Cork and Craft, where he strives to use any and all local and sustainable ingredients throughout his menu. He likes to source from a multitude of vendors to seek a variety of options as well as competitive pricing, including Sysco Newport Meat Company, The Heart and Trotter Butchery, Cook Pigs Ranch, Santa Monica Seafood, Catalina Offshore Products and Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. “The industry, and our society for that matter, is going through a huge renaissance phase and I personally love the change,” Esteban says. “From butchers, farmers and fisherman, to fashion, design and more, the “creatives” are reaching back into history and using old world techniques in our modern day lives. To say I support or follow the Slow Food Movement is not enough anymore. It has become more of a lifestyle.”
Throughout the three entities of the company (The Cork and Craft, Abnormal Wine Company and Abnormal Beer Company), beer dinners are offered as a collaboration between a guest chef and guest brewery, uniquely curated specifically for each beer, producing a distinct dining experience. “We use our monthly beer dinners to test out new menu items that eventually, once adjusted, make it to our daily menus,” Esteban says. “We fully change the menu every two to four months based on product availability.”
©Written by Maria Desiderata Montana