It’s the eyes. When she sees you, she smiles a smile that crinkles her weather-beaten face all the way up to the eyes. Very sharp. Twinkling with friendliness.
That is my first impression of Chef Deborah Scott, who immediately conjures up a coconut margarita for me. She takes another sip of her glass of white wine. My margarita tumbler develops a faint sheen of condensation, its chill mixing with the warmer breeze of San Diego’s harbor at dusk. Before us lies a stunning view of the skyline along the Pacific Ocean.
If you don’t live on the West Coast, you might not have heard her name before. I learn quickly that Chef Deborah Scott is nothing like any other celebrity chef of her caliber. You’ll rarely see her on TV. Her name does not adorn any entryways. And any guest who walks into one of her five restaurants in the area has a 75% chance of walking out with her phone number stored in their cell phone.
“Most of my best friends are guests,” she candidly admits. “It astounds me when I don’t see chefs in the dining room, getting to know their guests. Guests are the reason why we’re here.”
I saw her myself, sweeping through the dining room with the ease of Martha Stewart hosting a casual tea party for her nearest and dearest. She’s usually accompanied by a glass of wine for herself and a tray of margaritas for the table. For the record, the margarita is reason enough to become her good friend. If they were old faces, Chef Scott sat down and chatted about their lives, their jobs, their families. If they were new faces, they were soon moved to the good friends category.
Anyone can tell she’s been doing this for years.
“When I was a line cook, I would run out and ask the table how they liked their meal. Stop by and ask them how their kids are doing. My chef would think I was crazy, but it’s important!”
Call it crazy or call it diligence, it works. After all, Chef Scott is one of San Diego’s most renowned chefs, with multiple hits, accolades and awards over the last three decades.
During Chef Scott’s early days in San Diego, there was next to no competition as far as creativity in the kitchen went. One day, she was approached by a restaurateur by the name of David Cohn.
“He drove me to three locations,” Scott recounts, “and said, ‘Choose one. You’re going to be a famous chef in San Diego and we’re going to be partners.’”
The first location she decided on became Kemo Sabe, a Pacific Rim infused concept formally housed in Hillcrest. After that came the opportunity to reintroduce Indigo Grill in Little Italy, where Scott had a hand in everything from the menu to logo and décor. Then came C Level & Island Prime, a duo concept of fine dining and more casual steak and seafood under one roof. Her largest operational project at the moment is Coasterra, where I leisurely sipped on a coconut margarita and had the best scallops of my life.
The seafood dishes are particularly outstanding, not just thanks to flawlessly fresh product but to fond memories from Chef Scott’s childhood.
“I used to go camping with my dad. We’d never stay in hotels; we’d make these elaborate campsites with an outdoor kitchen that had tarps, tables, stoves, and a box oven for baking cakes outside. We would have crab bowls, rake for clams, throw out fishing lines for flounder…that was the beginning of my love for cooking.”
If you were to ask her teams to describe her approach to work, “hands-on” would be the fan-favorite phrase. “They call me the Queen of Trash Cans,” she laughs. “Because I’m always checking for waste. I’ll clean up messes in the bathroom or at the tables. I’ll clean up the trash. If you’re not willing to do it all, you can’t expect your team to do it. If your employees see you lead by example, it instills a feeling of wanting to keep everything looking great and being proud of the environment you work in.”
Her leadership extends far beyond example and well into emotional and financial support of her staff.
“Doing things for other people is my great pleasure of having some level of success,” Scott explains.
“I get involved in their lives. I invest in them and they invest in me. It’s something I’ve been criticized for but it’s a positive way to approach things and the good always outweighs the bad. I like to help people that need help. I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s probably why they’ve been with me for so long.”
Chef Scott’s restaurants have employees who have been with her for over twenty years not just because they trust her judgment but because she trusts theirs.
“You have to be able to let go of your great ideas. Humility is important when it comes to being a successful person in any business.”
As a seasoned chef and restaurateur who has worked in the same city for most of her career, Chef Scott has seen the comings and goings of many businesses.
“Some people think it looks fun. They try it. Sink their life savings into it. And then they lose it. But really, it takes years of experience and knowledge and pulling from other people to guide you along the way.”
Chef Scott emphasizes how important it is to work with a good team, hers being the partnership with Cohn Restaurant Group. “It takes a village. You can’t just be a great cook or just be good with people or just know numbers.”
For years, Chef Scott has cooked for well-known personalities ranging from Julia Child (the one chef she most admires) to Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. She has helped many young chefs rise to stardom of their own. But at the end of the day—every day—Chef Scott is in her restaurants, passing out margaritas and smiles, caring about every single person involved in the experience. When you’re a guest at Chef Deborah Scott’s places, it’s almost like you’re just catching seafood together, cooking and digging holes in the sand, making fond memories with a woman who genuinely loves food and getting to know you. That is hospitality worth celebrating.