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La Jolla’s Trattoria Acqua continues to win big

By Brandon Hernández

La Jolla’s venerable Trattoria Acqua has won its share of accolades for its high-quality cuisine and service over the years, thanks largely to the efforts of its owner, Michael McGeath, a 40-year veteran of the restaurant industry with a pronounced passion for his food, employees, patrons and community. It was that all-encompassing ardor that led him to join the board of directors for the local chapter of the California Restaurant Association (CRA) 15 years ago. And it was the recognition of his efforts by his colleagues throughout California that led to his recent election to the CRA’s 50-member State Board of Directors.

The CRA preserves the best interests of more than 22,000 members in the food service industry by providing legislative protection and education on a vast array of topics including labor laws, health codes, workplace ethics, harassment and best service practices. It is the oldest restaurant association in the country and one that McGeath has been proud to assist in its efforts to improve upon, and ensure, a vibrant future for California restaurants.

“This is a great opportunity to give back to the industry I love so much,” proclaims McGeath, who sees it as his job to “push the envelope to make San Diego a top culinary destination.” He has always demonstrated a sincere devotion to this objective, both as a CRA member and a restaurateur, as have many of his fellow CRA members.

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In 2001, the year before McGeath was appointed president of CRA’s San Diego Board of Directors, his predecessor, Chris Cramer (CEO and co-founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company) headed development and institution of a multi-year plan to make San Diego one of the top five culinary destinations in the United States. The plan called on restaurant owners to take the lead by challenging themselves, their venues and their collective staffs to be a cut above the rest. This was to be achieved primarily via recruitment and training.

“We wanted to get top chefs,” explains McGeath, who cites the hiring of executive chefs Trey Foshee (George’s At The Cove), Jason Knibb (NINE-TEN) and Brian Malarkey (Oceanaire) as prime examples of the influx of gastronomic talent San Diego has benefited from in recent years. Foshee received Top 10 New Chef honors earlier in his career from Food & Wine Magazine, Knibb was named La Jolla’s Best Chef in 2005 and has been featured in a number of dining publications, and Malarkey recently gained national fame by coming in fourth in this year’s season of the Bravo reality show phenomenon Top Chef. Never before has San Diego’s chef population received as much national attention as it is right now.

By bringing in top-caliber chefs from around the globe to fill San Diego’s kitchens, not only did owners gain valuable talent, but teachers passed their knowledge on to their subordinates, thus fostering the future of their establishments and the region’s scene as a whole. Because there are only so many nationally-recognized top chefs to go around, it was extremely important that restaurant owners play an integral role in not only encouraging, but also facilitating the educational development of their existing chefs. A large number of owners have either personally funded or assisted in the establishment of scholarship funds to send deserving chefs abroad to study their craft.

To this end, McGeath has sent Trattoria Acqua’s Executive Chef Damaso Lee to the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa campus on several occasions. This year, McGeath is funding a one-month tour of Italy for him, during which Lee will collaborate with and learn from renowned practitioners of the culinary arts. His first stop will be La Pergola restaurant at the Cavalieri Hilton Hotel in Rome where he will work with Executive Chef Heinz Beck, regarded by many to be the best chef in all of Italy. From there, Lee will move on to Tuscany, a region steeped in culinary tradition, where he will visit several cooking schools so that he may return to Trattoria Acqua and put to use a plethora of new ideas and techniques.

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Lee’s first opportunity to showcase his new-found knowledge will be at Trattoria Acqua’s annual Game and Truffle Fest, which begins on Friday, Nov. 6 and will run through Sunday, Dec. 2. A staple of autumn, this event offers patrons a nightly menu featuring a bevy of farm-raised game such as buffalo, wild boar, Guinea hen, pheasant, ostrich and partridge as well as fine black-and-white truffles imported directly from Italy.

“Game and truffles have stunning flavors that just burst in the fall and are signature flavors of the Mediterranean,” states McGeath, who is eager to see the influence that Lee’s pilgrimage to Italy will have on Trattoria Acqua’s menu both now and in the future. Using such teachings to improve on classic recipes and develop new dishes is a prime example of how restaurant owners are rewarded for going the extra mile right along with their valued customers.