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La Jolla restaurant’s chef-bartender pairing builds partnership from divergent backgrounds

Mermaids & Cowboys executive chef Erik Freshley grew up learning how to grow and make his own food.
(Courtesy of Mermaids & Cowboys)

Mermaids & Cowboys restaurant in La Jolla thinks it’s found the right recipe for menu synergy in its hiring of executive chef and pitmaster Erik Freshley and cocktail curator Praveen Das, who have taken unusual routes to their posts.

Together, they blend years of travel and experience in every dish and drink.

Freshley brings to his first executive chef role a background built on barbecue and growing his own food.

Before a career in cocktails, Das was a civil engineering professional in Dubai.

Freshley grew up in rural Illinois, “doing a lot of hunting and fishing and catching wild game. … That pushed me into my professional career,” he said.

After sharpening his skills in kitchens from Virginia through Florida, Freshley, who’s also a certified forager, perfected his barbecue chops, winning trophies at nationwide barbecue competitions such as Kansas City’s American Royal World Series and Houston’s World’s Championship.

“I’ve worked for a lot of cool restaurants throughout my career,” he said, including at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar and La Valencia hotels, Dolce in Rancho Santa Fe and Grand Ole BBQ in San Diego.

At Mermaids & Cowboys, Freshley’s menu “is really derived off things that I love to do,” he said, combining elements of barbecue and fine dining.

Freshley said he enjoys “taking a lot of vegetables and manipulating them in different ways that people don’t traditionally do.” His knowledge of raising his own vegetables and animals leads to “a better outlook on food than most people,” he added.

Praveen Das, cocktail curator for Mermaids & Cowboys, left a career in civil engineering for one behind the bar.
Praveen Das, cocktail curator for Mermaids & Cowboys, left a career in civil engineering for one behind the bar.
(Courtesy of Mermaids & Cowboys)

In his previous career, the India-born Das was “predominantly working with industry and project management,” he said.

His various civil engineering projects took him to destinations around the globe, where he would take cooking classes. He transitioned to bartending and eventually left engineering for positions behind the bar in Prague, London and elsewhere.

Das moved to Northern California in 2014 and worked on small farms to learn about sustainable agriculture.

After relocating to San Diego in 2018, he began his own cocktail consultancy, Mixology Vida, and tended bar at Born and Raised, The Lion’s Share and Red Marlin.

Das didn’t entirely cast off his engineering and management training, however — many of his skills transferred to mixology.

“You have to create value, no matter what you do,” he said. “My mentors and my peers are all about understanding the client, learning the client.”

Das said he uses the same skills in his approach to bartending, similar to a sommelier.

“I always try to create an experience … by telling them about the new cocktails, giving them a little sample, matching a taste or personality or something you might like,” Das said. “That is what brings people together.”

“There’s such a value in an experience coming to a bar where you can actually have the bartender know a little bit about the guests, where they’re coming from, and come up with something” that enhances their visit, he said.

Das said he and Freshley “connected so well,” sharing knowledge of where ingredients come from and how to use them, whether for a dish or a drink.

“It’s a really good teamwork,” Das said, and rare, since chefs and bartenders don’t often share the kitchen.

Seven months into their culinary collaboration, Freshley says he appreciates Das’ knowledge.

“We team up all the time,” Freshley said. “He just loves taking hold of [an ingredient] and making something magical every time.”

Michael Matthews, owner of Mermaids & Cowboys, which opened in October 2020, said, “We feel great about our new team in place and are looking forward to really setting down roots within the La Jolla community.”

Freshley said he’s most proud of the restaurant’s staff.

“We have a really diverse staff and ... very committed staff” who, despite the many challenges of the past two pandemic years, “show up every day and give 110 percent,” he said. ◆