The Chef And Garden Showcasing San Diego’s Fresh Farm-To-Table Scene

Sergio Jimenez has traveled to Denmark and Iceland. He’s made his way to the outskirts of Copenhagen and Reykjavik and buried himself in the culinary art of one of some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs. He’s trekked up and down the California coast delving into the origins of America’s farm-to-table movement. Jimenez has basked in the flavors of the globe’s freshest menus, absorbed the experience around him. He’s taken notes. And he’s taken those notes home to San Diego.

Jimenez starts most mornings with a stroll to the chef’s garden at Rancho Bernardo Inn about 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego. He browses aisles of tomatillo, rosemary, fennel and fig. He pilfers through plants, picking ingredients for the night’s menu the way an artist might carefully blend oils on a palette. Flavors are his colors. His canvas—the kitchen and tables at AVANT—is just steps away from the garden.

Here, the 28-year-old chef de cuisine lets his culinary creativity run wild.

The tables take some time to get to: a bit of a drive from downtown San Diego, out into the rolling hills of its suburbs, through a residential neighborhood, onto the refined grounds of the Rancho Bernardo Inn and up to a terrance with sublime sunset views of the valley below.

Increasingly, it’s a drive that patrons seem delighted to make.

Daily Deliveries from the Garden

The Rancho Bernardo Inn opened its doors in 1963 as a 30-room retreat tucked neatly beside a golf course designed by Torrey Pines architect William Bell. In the ensuing decades, a residential community sprang up around the course which busied itself hosting PGA and LPGA events while building a devoted following and adding 250 more guest rooms.

Along the way, a dedicated group of diners began frequenting the inn’s former on-site restaurant, El Bizcocho, which underwent a $2.5 million transformation in 2013 to become AVANT. A decade into AVANT’s life, Jimenez is guiding the restaurant into a farm-to-table destination built around Southern California’s endless growing seasons.

The on-site chefs garden located beside the golf course illustrates Jimenez’s inspiration. “I usually come out to the garden once a day,” Jimenez says. “I spend a couple of minutes look at what we have, picking our garnishes for the night. Then, I collaborate with our gardener and my crew to pick out things for our mixology program and culinary pieces.”

As Jimenez browses the garden, he pauses to point out burgeoning ideas: infant grapes that could one day become a signature wine, grape leaves that can become a flavorful ash, ghost apples with a sweet and sour tang, eggplant grown specifically for a single event, and lime leaves whose oil smells “like Fruity Pebbles.” Each is destined for a unique twist on Californian cuisine inspired by Jimenez’s family Mexican restaurant in Chula Vista.

“I want to make something that’s unique, and modern. I never want to stick to the traditions. I’m not going to put creme brûlée on the menu for the rest of my life. I have to evolve, because I owe it to diners as guests of mien to deliver an experience unlike the same one the’ve already had.”

Nontraditional Dishes with Classic Flavors

Having a garden puts Jimenez in a small percentage of chefs with access to fresh ingredients right outside of their backdoor. And the payoff can help transform a guest’s night out.

Jimenez recalls an evening this summer when a pair of diners was having a bad night. “You can tell they’ve had a bad day,” he explains. “I do a private chef’s table, so I am able to see people’s reactions and I can tell if someone is not enjoying their time.”

“I had a chef’s table event in July and one of the guests during her first and second course wasn’t really looking at me. At first, only her husband was making eye contact and engaging in the conversation. But slowly, I started talking and telling her my direction, and as soon as I said one of the ingredients was a guajilo chili, it reminded her of one of the dishes that she grew up eating.

“Her eyes got wide. She was perked up and engaged and her whole night seemed to turn around.”

The dish was a hominy risotto. Born of a desire to connect guests with nontraditional dishes with classic flavors, the risotto—a classic Italian dish—showcases a blend of peppery, smoked flavors from a chili prominent in Mexican cuisine that reminded the guest of her grandmother’s kitchen. “As a child, she didn’t know what the ingredient was because her parents were half Mexican and half Italian,” Jimenez explains. “So we just happened to hit the nail on the head with that one.”

A Gathering Place for San Diego’s Chefs

Though Jimenez wears formal chef attire and makes no secret of his aspirations to earn a coveted Michelin star, he hasn’t strayed far from his beginnings in a neighborhood Mexican restaurant. San Diego, he says, is one of the best places in the world to experience garden fresh meals; and its culinary community is brimming with other creative cooks and chefs building their own dishes from its abundant cornucopia of ingredients.

“We’re bringing in chefs from all over the world now,” says Jimenez. “They are staying here and they are opening up their own restaurants, beaucse they see the market and the opportunity for growth. They see San Diego as an untouched market for modern cuisines in a place that has traditionally been dominated by American and French-oriented fine dining. Now, we see more and more farm-to-table.”

For Jimenez, that influx of talent presents an opportunity to create and to mingle. AVANT regularly hosts collaborative culinary events that combine the ideas of Jimenez and flavors from his garden with the skills of San Diego’s mixologists, cooks and chefs. The result has become a calendar of events that serve double duty as signature community festivals and a proving ground for AVANT’s quest for a Michelin star. Like the evolving appetites of diners, Jimenez says it’s all about the flavors.

“Michelin doesn’t care if you serve the meal on $1,000 China,” he says. “They care about the food.”

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