Trish Watlington, owner of The Red Door Restaurant & Wine Bar and The Wellington in Mission Hills, practiced child, adolescent and family therapy for 17 years before turning to restaurants.
Q: How did you become involved in the restaurant industry?
A: Serendipity. Coming from a large Italian family, feeding people had always been a part of my DNA. After our son Justin became involved in the restaurant industry and our daughter Sarah went to design school, my husband, Tom, and I decided that it was a family project that we should jump into. Quite honestly, we didn't really think it through, we just did it. Had we actually stopped to think about what we were doing there might not be a Red Door or a Wellington.
Q: How did you come to acquire The Red Door and The Wellington?
A: When we decided that we should do this, we had originally planned to open the restaurants in East County. East County is our home, and we think it needs more nice dining choices. However, just about the time that we started looking for a location, the site of the former Parallel 33 became available. Mission Hills is such a wonderful neighborhood, and it was in true need of nice but reasonably priced dining, so we jumped on the opportunity. We had a vision for two restaurants: one that was affordable and accessible and elegantly homey with elevated comfort food as the mainstay of the menu, and the other a bit more “swanky,” serving great steaks and killer martinis. Mission Hills is such a traditional neighborhood that both visions seemed like they would be well-received. Then we turned over the design of our concept to our daughter Sarah, and she made it come to life.
Q: When did you start your “family garden,” and what prompted your decision?
A: The first two years we were open were difficult. We struggled with partner problems, family problems and financial problems. When the dust finally cleared, we decided that we had two choices -- to sell the restaurants or to do something bigger than just providing great meals to our guests. We wanted to reduce our negative impact on the world, increase our positive impact, teach our guests that you can eat seasonally, especially in San Diego County, and have better tasting food that retains its nutrients and is better for you.
Q: What do you currently grow and why?
A: Because we have a small growing area, we grow crops that produce prolifically for long periods of time. We also coordinate with farms like Suzie's -- if they are growing certain things and we can get it in sufficient supply I’d rather we grow something else. Chef Miguel has primary control over the choices of fruits and veggies for his menu, and he likes to grow crops that are unusual, that have a big impact on the plate, and of course we plant what is successful in our micro-climate. Currently we are growing lots of greens; all of our fresh lettuce comes directly from the garden. We also have colorful, strangely shaped cauliflower, Swiss chard, spinach and some fantastically peppery arugula. In a few months we will have yellow pole beans (Fallbrook farmers grow loads of the green ones); purple peppers; Italian eggplant; multiple types of melons and squash; and heirloom tomatoes that are green, pink orange and yellow; and loads of berries. In addition we have devoted the back third of the garden to native California edible plants: white, pink, black and blue sage; wild strawberries, elderberries, gooseberries; and two types of California native currants. We also brought in three bee hives to help with pollination and to give us our own honey.
Q: You have a new executive chef, Miguel Valdez. What qualities were most important to you for bringing on someone to lead your kitchen?
A: Drive, humility and talent, and Chef Miguel has all three in abundance. He strives every day to expand his horizons, to learn something new, to experiment, take some risks and to be open to feedback. Nothing is beneath him -- I've seen him jump on the dishline when our dishwasher goes home sick. And he never settles for “good enough.” If it isn’t beautiful and wonderful tasting it never hits the table.
Q: Most restaurant kitchens get pretty hectic, but you have a unique policy for yours. Tell me about it.
A: Our kitchen is especially hectic because it serves both restaurants at the same time, and it is a cramped space. Chef Miguel and our GM, Ashley Phillips, and my son Justin Watlington, who is front of house manager, have a hard and fast rule that everyone -- whether it's chef, server, busboy or dishwasher — gets treated with respect and treats each other respectfully all the time. Sure people get frustrated and it gets tense in there sometimes, but you won’t hear cussing or berating — there’s no Gordon Ramsay in our kitchen. If you need a moment to vent your frustration, take it. Go outside, but don’t ever take it out on your team. Tom and I believe in the people who work for us, and we really think it’s our responsibility to support them. If you have a sick child and need to take off, you don’t lose your job and you're likely to still get paid. If you work hard, you move up. Our restaurant and its staff are a family.
Q: How do you determine which food purveyors and vendors you work with?
A: First and foremost, local vendors with an awareness for their impact on the environment. Some things we just can't get locally, then we choose the most humane, environmentally friendly purveyors of a product. We also choose vendors based on what they do for the community. Companies that are at the forefront of charitable giving are first on our list, like Catalina Offshore or Specialty Produce, even if it means we spend a little bit more.
Q: What will The Red Door and The Wellington look like in a year? In five years?
A: In a year, I hope that our menu reflects all of Chef Miguel's ideas and creativity. It will give more weight to produce, and we will be doing exciting things with our garden, such as canning garden tomatoes that can last us through the winter; making our own preserves; and finding more local sourcing for proteins, grains and nuts. We also will have a small outside patio and grow some grapes and edible flowers right there. In five years, we’d like to open a third operation and move us more in the direction of social entrepreneurship. Right now it’s just a kernel of an idea, but it would be a venue that might only be open for dinner but could be available to the community during the day for meetings and art classes and whatever the neighborhood needs. We would want that restaurant to feed folks who are in need for free at least weekly, to provide training opportunities or externships for graduates of places like Father Joe’s culinary program, and to teach server skills to populations who really need a useable skill, like aged-out foster kids, for example. I was a social worker/family therapist for 17 years -- I know there are lots of needs out there.
Q: Who are your culinary heroes?
A: Alice Waters. She pioneered the local, sustainable movement and the idea of bringing healthy food to schools and neighborhoods; Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, who has elevated local sourcing to an art form; Michelle Obama for her focus on food justice and healthy eating. And locally Julie Darling -- not just because she's a talented chef but because she is devoted to giving to those less fortunate, and we are truly grateful for the many opportunities to partner with her to do something charitable.