"It started with delis, actually," Susan Sbicca tells me of how she got involved in the food world, "about 30 years ago. I took a job, and then I took [a liking to] to certain people and here I am." She says matter-of-factly.
The actual case is a little more involved than that, peppered with hard work, success, and of late, numerous accolades. While an LA native, Susan took her first serious food job when she was living in the Boston area, where she spent six years working for the specialty food company J. Bildner and Sons. In 1990, she returned to Southern California, where she worked again at a specialty grocery store, as executive chef of Greentree Grocers, as well as at several restaurants: as sous chef at Falco in the Gaslamp and executive chef at En Fuego in Del Mar.
Her hands-on approach to learning has resulted in a culinary style that is fiercely rooted in creativity and inspired by the inherent qualities of ingredients. She describes her approach as based on: "Simple, delicious ingredients. I don't mess around with it too much." She finds that quality ingredients speak for themselves "They're beautiful," she adds, explaining that she doesn't have to rely on ornate garnishes to make the presentation shine.
Quality is important to her, not only from a taste perspective. "I'm very into sustainable seafood, sustainable ingredients, organic produce," she explains, adding: "we've been doing the salmon thing for years." By this she means sourcing only wild-caught pacific salmon rather than using farm-raised Atlantic salmon. "It's getting easier every day," she says of her commitment to sustainable food sources. "There's a lot more information out there. That helps. We don't have to educate as much." Ten years ago, she explains, no one knew the difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon. But now, "the demand is greater," for sustainable food. Which, of course, is helpful as a restaurateur, she explains, because the supply becomes greater, and it has become easier for her to get sustainable ingredients. "People are getting conscious," she observes.
Susan changes the menu seasonally, taking advantage of local produce from Valdavia Farms in Carlsbad, and produce from the Los Angeles farmers' market that she gets through Specialty Produce. She explains how much fun this is for her: "I'm so lucky, I get to write the menu, put on what I like." On the brink of spring she says, "we’re just changing the menu," phasing out braised meats and heavy dishes in favor of light, fresh fish and summery flavors.
Of course, every restaurant has its favorites, and there are some dishes that have been on the menu from day one. "The Ahi has always been a favorite. I can't get rid of that one," she says of the Sesame Seared Ahi served with a ruby-wasabi sauce and cucumber Serrano salsa. But when asked to pick a personal favorite, she just can't do it. "I'm really proud of the whole menu," she says with a smile.
She should be. Since opening Sbicca with her husband Dan in 1998, her cooking has been recognized by both a loyal following of customers as well as many area organizations. Among her most recent recognitions are the 2006 Gold Medallion Award for "Chef of the Year" by San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, and being named "Chef of the Year" by the California Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. Both of these are no small feat—the latter is an honor that has only been presented to one other chef in 25 years.