Trey Foshee is the executive chef and partner at La Jolla's George's At The Cove, which includes two restaurants, a bar, and TBL3, an intimate tasting table open three days a week. Foshee has called George's and San Diego home for over ten years, since just after he was awarded Food & Wine's Best New Chef award in 1998. In the following interview, the distinguished chef — who cut his teeth L'Orangerie and La Folie on his way to George's — talks about his cooking, what sets his terroir apart, and what it means to have a San Diego restaurant.
How did you end up in San Diego?
I was the chef at Sundance Resort right before I came here. I had been there for about two years, was super happy, and had bought a house with my wife. I ended up getting the Food & Wine Best New Chefs Award around then.
This was 1998?
Yeah. So the calls started coming in, and I kept saying no. But I got a call from a headhunter who said I really needed to talk to George. He was pretty convincing and flew out to Sundance the next day. He explained that he wasn't looking for a chef, but for a partner. That's how it all happened.
What was the restaurant — and the city's dining scene — like back then?
Back then, San Diego was a pretty conservative restaurant city and the food hadn't really progressed really far. At that time, there were maybe two or three restaurant that had some clout, and George's was one of them. The food was kind of dated, so that's why I was hired. But it was run then and it continues to be run as professionally as any restaurant I've been at. George Hauer, as a restaurateur, does not get enough credit.
Most of the things written about you talk about using the bounty that surrounds you — the local, the quality of products. That's an important part of what most successful chefs are doing right now, so I wonder how you think you distinguish your approach?
I really don't want to come off as a jerk saying this, but Chino Farms is one of the best family farms in the United States. In my opinion, I have not seen quality like that from one farm ever. A lot of people will take exception to that, but that's how I see it. We get the opportunity to source from there every day, and at least 80% of our produce comes from there. What's unique is that our menu really revolves around what one farm can produce. It might be a limitation in some ways, but to me it's necessary. I know that every product I get from them is going to be mind-blowingly good.
Is it ever the case where you are developing something and hit a wall because you don't have something available?
That doesn't play into it at all. It's sort of unconscious now, but all of our development comes from what Chino has. For instance, they have a new Jerusalem artichoke. Normally, those are small and knotty and look like a small potato. The ones they are growing now are a foot to a foot and a half long. They're fairly straight, and I've never seen them before. We're playing around with that. A lot of our inspiration comes from what they have. It's not about saying, "We're going into the Fall and let's think about all the Fall products." That's kind of like a cliché now, since there are a lot of people that are growing their own product or working with small farms, and I'm not trying to say we're above any of that. We've been doing it for the last thirteen years.
Do you think about what "California Modern" means?
We just cook [laughs]. I enjoy all kinds of food, but I tend to find vegetation more interesting than animal products in general.
Has it always been that way?
It's always been that way. My mom was a little hippie, and I ended up going to a vegetarian high school. I worked at a restaurant in central California called the Ranch House, which Colman Andrews actually did a piece on years ago. Back then, they had their own garden and they were using things people had grown in their own backyard. This was long before Chez Panisse started! That was my first restaurant job. I started as a bus boy and I remember that everything was a verbal. In order to take the coffee and tea order, you had to lift all these teas that were growing in the garden. Once they chose the tea, you had to go out in the garden, pick it, and then brew it. This is like 1983, so those experiences had a huge impact on my taste. If you pick lemon verbena off of a bush and smell it and make a tea from it, it's a lot different if you order it from your produce company and you get something that has been sitting in a bag for a day.
So the Chino thing makes sense. When we pick up the corn, it has been harvested that morning and not the night before. One day does make a difference with products like that. If we can capture the essence of when that vegetable is at its peak — that's what we try to do.
You're extremely close to Mexico. How does that influence your cooking, if at all?
I've been traveling to Mexico for close to twenty years to surf and eat. I'm paying attention to it even more so now, because everyone else seems to be really looking at it now, finally. You have a lot of tradition there but also a lot of modern guys. We're friends with Benito Molino and Solange, as well as Jair Tellez, in Ensenada. I almost have a jealousy about what they do there, because they have incredible product and this reservoir of history that provides endless possibilities.
Do you often feel like you lack that tradition?
You know, this is a fairly new country. Sean Brock and other people are doing wonderful things and exploring our food culture. That's important and brings about deep food. California has always been kind of a melting pot, so we have a lot of Asian culture and Mexican culture, but those are outside or relatively recent influences. So for a while I was struggling with figuring out what our historical reference was. What can we develop? You have to sort of make it up on your own. But I started thinking about what the story — not the history — was. What's the lifestyle? What is San Diego and what should a San Diego restaurant mean?
What did you come up with?
What I came up with was the lifestyle. If you boil it down, it's healthy, it's relaxed, it's light, it's outdoors. How does the food reference that? That's the path we are on.
I remember your tasting table getting an extremely strange review a few years ago, which makes me want to ask: are there challenges when opening a concept like that in San Diego?
A lot of our business is from out of towners, about 50%. There's also a very large and growing foodie culture, which may not be as developed and as sophisticated as somewhere like San Francisco, but it's on its way.
The TBL3 experience is not a huge part of the restaurant. Here, on a busy summer day, we can do 1,200 meals. TBL3 is a few people, three nights a week. It allows us to really play and do whatever we want, since it's not going to have that huge of an impact on the rest of the restaurant. We don't have to worry about its popularity or how the broad spectrum of guests will react to it. The people that tend to come for that experience are open to whatever we'll give them, so being in San Diego doesn't really affect that.
You say it's mostly to have fun, but is part of it also a statement that you are capable of — and that the city should have — something ambitious like that?
That's part of where it came from. Honestly, it came from a sense of jealousy about the restaurants out there that are very small and very controlled — where the chef has a lot more control, for good or for bad. We've never been one of those restaurants. I always felt like I had the palate and chops to take a stab at doing a place like that. But at the same time, I couldn't be happier in this city and with the restaurant that we run. I can now play in that little controlled world without being in it nonstop.