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Behind the Line: Breaking the rules
Marine Room chef Bernard Guillas blends taste, texture, integrity to produce fine-dining menu
By Lauren Kramer
July 01, 2010
Many chefs who preside over a seafood restaurant that's literally on the Pacific Ocean would insist on buying local. But for Bernard Guillas, executive chef at the Marine Room in San Diego's affluent area of La Jolla, anything harvested from within 10 miles of the local shoreline is taboo.
"This water can be highly contaminated," he says. "We have street runoff entering the ocean, and pollution from the Tijuana River. I don't want to feed my customers lobsters that have been scavenging in polluted waters."
As much as 65 percent of the Marine Room's menu is seafood, but the majority of it is sourced from other parts of the United States and the world. There's Tasmanian steelhead, Alaska king salmon, Maine lobster, Maryland blue crab, trout from Spain and prawns from Mexico. Guillas' main criteria for all of his ingredients at the fine-dining restaurant are that they be sustainably sourced, organically raised or wild, and in season.
The 48-year-old chef was raised on the coast of Brittany, in northern France, and remembers gathering oysters, mussels and shrimp on the beach as a child, and spending time with uncles who were bakers, butchers and chefs.
"It was natural for me to go into the [restaurant] business," he says.
He started his career in Europe, moving to the United States in 1987, when he worked at the Maison Blanche, a restaurant opposite the White House. Later, he moved to the US Grant Hotel in San Diego as chef de cuisine at the Grant Gille Restaurant. Fifteen years ago he took the helm of the kitchen at the Marine Room, where his job description includes overseeing the kitchens of the Shores Restaurant and the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club next door.
Together with co-chef Ron Oliver, Guillas self-published "Flying Pans" in November 2009, a cookbook inspired by his travels to 40 countries and the recipes he learned along the way. To date, the pair has sold 5,000 copies, and Guillas is hard at work on his second book, "Flying Solo."
"But this is my baby," he says, gesturing to the 140-seat Marine Room that sits on the cusp of the beach. At high tide, waves break against the restaurant's large windows and guests can watch leopard sharks swimming, birds diving into the water and dolphins playing in the surf.
Guillas believes that the popularity of the Marine Room is due in part to his tendency to break the rules when it comes to cooking.
"As long as everything makes sense there are no boundaries," he says. "There has to be synergy on the plate though, a balance of colors, texture and taste, with everything developed in the context of the dish. If you do this and experiment, you can have a very exciting restaurant."
Among the seafood dishes on the Marine Room menu is the blue crab timbale, paired with cherimoya, a pear-
"We make a cold soup out of it, mix it with buttercup squash and serve it with trout caviar from Spain," says Guillas.
For his prawn and scallop dish, he dusts the seafood with homemade zatar (a Middle Eastern spice) and cashew nuts, sears them and serves them with saffron couscous, pain d'epices, crabapple and citronelle foam.
"The nuts enhance the flavor while the zatar provides the aroma," he says. "With scallop and prawn you have different textures, so you have two different journeys on the same plate."
Guillas reinvents the menu every two months, but his staff has forbidden him from removing or even changing the sesame-peppered ruby red ahi tuna from Hawaii, which has had a place on the menu for the past eight years.
"Do you know how frustrating it is for a chef, not to be allowed to change a recipe?"
Preferring to focus on wild seafood, Guillas tries to be as practical as possible with
"Everyone knows you cannot go wild all the way, it's just impossible," he says. "So you search for natural, sustainable or organic farm-raised product that doesn't harm the environment. I research the farms to find out about their recycling
programs and what feed they use, and I get updates from my vendors every month."
The proteins on his menu are expensive, Guillas admits, but the price is worth it.
"You pay for the best quality. It's important to add integrity to your product, and this is the integrity I provide to my customers," he says.
"I also believe it's important to be, on a small level, a caretaker of our oceans. I do this by educating, by using species that aren't endangered, and by being involved in organizations like CleanFish, Passion Fish and the Monterey Bay Aquarium."
Guillas teaches at the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute, on the Regent Cruise Line, at Macy's School of Cooking and through local schools. He relays to his students words that came from his grandmother.
"I remember her telling me we would never go hungry because the ocean has so many fish. When you see how many species of fish are on the brink of extinction today, it makes you feel differently," he says. "The big picture is that if we don't take action, a lot of species won't be there anymore."
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine