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Tech pro leaves industry to establish farm-to-table eating in San Diego

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Jay Porter is the owner of The Linkery and El Take It Easy, a social club.

Q: What made you leave a successful career path in technology to venture into the risky realm of restaurants?

A: Tech paid well, but it couldn't really offer me the opportunity to transform my neighborhood in positive ways. In fact, I was working on DIRECTV stuff, which is pretty much the opposite of that. I knew that if I could build a successful business in my neighborhood, that we could make everyday life better for both our customers and our employees.

Q: When The Linkery opened in 2005, it was among the first local restaurants to commit, whole hog, if you will, to a farm-to-table concept. Explain what that concept means to you.

A: "Farm-to-table" is thrown around by a lot of marketing people, but at its core, it means -- what it should mean -- is that we're buying ingredients from local independent farms, ingredients that have never been in the industrial food chain. Crazy as it sounds, you could barely find ingredients like this in San Diego restaurants in 2005. We had to really put a lot of effort into explaining to our community what's different about this food. We used our blog and e-mail list to show the difference between real food from real people, and what you get at the grocery store or most other restaurants.

Q: Now that farm-to-table is more common in San Diego, do you feel like a pioneer?

A: Well, we certainly were the canary in the coalmine. I think definitely there were a lot of restaurants that wanted to start using better ingredients, but they weren't sure if the market was willing to pay the extra cost. When they saw that we were running two hour waits some nights, they saw that there were a lot of people who wanted to eat better food ... food made from better ingredients.

Q: You often describe your restaurants in terms such as "spaces" and "community hubs." How do The Linkery and El Take It Easy fit those descriptions?

A: Restaurants are public spaces, and most public spaces in America suck. They don't really serve the public well at all, which is one reason so many people feel so detached and isolated. The best transformative effect we can have on our neighborhood is to create a space that brings people together. At The Linkery, we bring diners together with each other and with their farmers and brewers and other artisans. At El Take It Easy, we're creating a space suitable for all kinds of social interactions and events, whatever people want to do together: talk, play games, share music and movies. And we'll just give them good food and drinks while they're there, enjoying each other's company.

Q: North Park is a friendly destination for independent businesses. How hopeful are you that the neighborhood keeps that personality without a surge of corporate competition?

A: Obviously, that's important. The city already has mediocre entertainment districts full of corporate venues. North Park filled a need for a place people can go to eat and drink and celebrate and hang out; where the places aren't corporate. They're run and staffed by real people with great personalities and an interest in bringing quality things to San Diego. Fortunately, there are a lot of businesses here thoroughly committed to that, and groups like North Park Main Street that help make it possible to keep growing in that direction.

Q: Last year, you created the 30th Street Blog and 30th on 30th as a monthly event. How have these emerged as marketing vehicles for North Park?

A: We looked around saw how amazing 30th Street had become, and we knew that almost all of the business owners support each other. It was clear that we, as a group, have this great thing to share with San Diego. So "30th on 30th" was an easy way to get the word out. All you have to remember is: If it's the 30th of any month, then a lot of places on 30th Street are offering specials to make it easy to do a restaurant or pub crawl and check them all out. And the 30th Street blog was just another way to share with the city all the cool stuff that happens on this street.

Q: Beyond our great casual eats, where does San Diego rank as a "food city?"

A: San Diego has made a lot of progress in quality the last few years, but we've got a long way to go before we're a complete food town. You still have to look pretty hard to find restaurants that use top-quality local produce, and even harder to find places that use first-class meat such as grass-fed beef and pastured chickens. And a lot of people who go out here -- even people who love to eat and go out -- don't really understand what, say, a suckling pig, or head cheese, is. Many, many people are scared of offal, or, as we've found at El Take It Easy, scared even of very mainstream cuts like pork belly. And that's not even addressing these sheltered folks who are leading a boycott of El Take It Easy because we serve rabbit! Obviously, all that sort of thing is going to have to change, or fade away, if our town is going to have more than a handful of places worth eating. But, again, that's why we do so much work with our blog and with our emails. We want to show people about all the good stuff that's out there that we could have in San Diego.

In order to raise money for the New Zealand earthquake victims, downtown San Diego's Bare Back Grill is hosting a "Support our Kiwis" fundraiser on Thursday, Sept 30, featuring live Kiwi music, traditional Haka performance, raffles for prizes and Kiwi trivia.

The event takes place from 7-10 p.m. and door donations of $15 will buy you a complimentary draft beer, three raffle tickets and drink specials.

Ranked as one of the top 10 film festivals in the United States, the San Diego Film Festival takes place from Sept. 29 through Oct. 3, featuring five nights of premieres at the Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15.

Visit SDFF.org for more information and ticket prices.

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