Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Trish Watlington's Second Act in San Diego's Food Community

The time is winding down now. Before long Trish Watlington will no longer be the owner of The Red Door. After opening the Mission Hills restaurant eight years ago and coaxing it into one of the most forward-looking farm-to-fork eateries in the region, including running her own small farm on her Mt. Helix property to supply it with produce, Trish is handing over the keys to Luciano Cibelli. Cibelli, an Italian chef who has lived in San Diego for 20 years, is bringing in two partners from Italy as chef and pastry chef. The plan is for them to keep The Red Door on its current path for now and slowly transition it into their own vision.

And Trish? What's going to be on her plate once she hands over the keys?

I met Trish about a year after she opened the restaurant, when farm to fork meant a special event tour of the nearby Mission Hills Farmers Market with then chef Brian Johnston before a market-driven dinner. She and I became great friends and I watched as both she and The Red Door evolved to  embrace a mission dedicated to highlighting local producers. Over time she even closed meat-driven sister restaurant The Wellington to open Bar by Red Door and celebrate craft cocktails and community. Over the years, with different chefs, including Miguel Valdez and Karrie Hills, the original special event that highlighted growers at the farmers market evolved into regular and distinctive Farmers, Friends and Fishermen dinners featuring the often anonymous hard-working people who grew, caught, or created what was served at The Red Door. And Trish isn't giving those up, even if she is giving up restaurant life.

"I intend to keep holding these dinners three to four times a year," she told me recently. She'll host them at her garden or at other restaurants.

The farm-to-fork movement is close to her heart and the focus of her activism. Last year Trish launched Farm to Fork San Diego. It's a synthesis of many of the issues she's worked on over the years. The most prominent element is the now annual autumn Farm to Fork Week, which promotes the chefs and eateries that are closely tied to local farms, fishermen, ranchers, and producers. During the week, there are special events and participating restaurants offer special menus and discounts.

"Farm to Fork San Diego is high on my list," said Trish. "I want to go big or go home with this." To that end, she said, Farm to Fork Week is part of a larger membership organization she's creating.

"I want to be able to connect everyone on the website via categories like farms, wineries, restaurants, farmers markets and farmers market vendors, food trucks, fish markets, and related businesses--say, breweries if they're sourcing from farmers. I want the site to become a big directory and database for restaurants that source locally."

Not only does Trish envision it as a resource for those in the industry, but also for consumers and tourism resources so that locals and visitors who want to eat at venues that have ties to local food production can be guaranteed that the listed eateries are legitimately "farm to fork." So far 18 eateries, 27 farms, and four wineries are listed as partners on the site. Trish is planning on establishing tiered memberships to make it affordable for everyone and wants to get even more sponsors to help support programs. Farm to Fork San Diego plans also include collaborating with the San Diego County Farm Bureau and the San Diego Food System Alliance's FishTales, which connects local eaters with local fishermen.

"The point of the program is to encourage eateries to source locally and to verify that they're doing it," she explained, "understanding that there's been a history of some fraud."

The qualifications aren't onerous: eateries must have at least one regular ongoing relationship with a farmer that the farmer would verify.

"Our job is not to vilify restaurants for not doing enough, but to encourage them to do it better," she said.

Trish will also continue her farming. She working on getting her Community Food Producers certification by the California Department of Agriculture so she can sell her produce directly to chefs.

And she's remaining active on the boards of the Berry Good Food Foundation and Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, which includes chairing Olivewood Gardens' annual fundraiser, Seedling Soiree.

Finally, said Trish, after all is said and done, her greatest joy that she's anticipating is being able to spend more time with her year-old granddaughter Sterling. "I'm just so excited to be able to hang out with her."

Stay tuned for Trish's participation in an upcoming episode of Nan Sterman's KPBS TV series A Growing Passion, which will feature three chefs paired with three farmers. 

Print Page