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Chris Powell is the new executive chef at Solterra Winery & Kitchen in Encinitas. Photo by Solterra Winery & Kitchen
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Lick the Plate: Executive Chef Chris Powell takes over the kitchen at Solterra

Solterra Winery & Kitchen is still my go-to place to take out of town guests for their unique, wine country at the beach atmosphere, impressive wines and solid menu. When I heard they brought on a new chef who had worked at some of my favorite restaurants in San Diego, a conversation was in order. Here are parts of that with Chris Powell who is slowly making his mark on the menu.

Tell me about growing up in Southern California and some of your early culinary influences. 

Growing up here was all about riding bikes and skateboards every day. Upland was famous in our area for having a place called the pipe that all the famous skaters went to.

Soccer was a big part of my life from (ages) five to 20 and my high school years were spent exploring the canyon lakes and natural water slides and finding secret fishing holes.

As for culinary influences it was pretty standard fare for me growing up as Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga were tiny towns with no restaurants worth mentioning back then.

You went to culinary school in Portland, what was that experience like?

Culinary school was about being out on my own and learning about responsibilities. I explored many different hairstyles and fashion statements, some I wouldn’t mind forgetting. School was structured but relaxed.

I met people from around the world and had a ton of great times fishing, hiking, rock climbing sailing, really exploring all that Oregon had to offer.

Your road to Solterra included stops at some notable San Diego restaurants. Take me from culinary school to Solterra with stops at the gigs that really had an influence on the chef you are today. 

Post graduation I did an externship at the Hotel Del Coronado and my first job was to butcher all 800 turkeys needed for Thanksgiving celebrations throughout the property.

After that, at age 21 I was leading a culinary team at the Grande Colonial Hotel in La Jolla. Roy’s restaurant was one of the first restaurants that really impacted me both as a person and as a chef. They showed me new techniques, new products, and new flavors, Chef David Abella was, and still is, a person I hold in the highest regards as a great chef who believed in me and helped me accomplish my goals.

At Rancho Valencia again I found myself as the executive chef of a 4-star 4-diamond resort in Rancho Santa Fe.

Both George Mahaffey and Barclay Dodge gave me the discipline and direction I was missing that afforded me great opportunities after Rancho Valencia. Whisknladle would be the place that still warms my heart. Great people, great food, and even more than that an amazing plan for success. Ryan Johnston and Arturo Kassel and the team they have assembled are the strongest restaurant group in San Diego.

What is it like cooking in a winery environment with an owner like Chris Van Alyea who is so immersed in that world?

Cooking at Solterra is amazing. I have fun at work again. I walk into work and am excited to be there. I can’t wait to see what we will come up with together in the kitchen and in the restaurant. CVA is insane in the best possible way. Not only is CVA an amazing winemaker but he loves food and has allowed me to do what I do best, his trust in me allows me to develop our cooks into chefs and take an already amazing cuisine to the next level and add great layers of technique and bold flavors that I think San Diego will love.

You have been slowly making your mark on the menu at Solterra since your arrival in October. There are a couple of dishes that really stand out, the first being the braised octopus. It is as tender as I’ve experienced. Tell me about the preparation of that dish and what would be a good wine pairing with it?

The octopus dish uses two techniques. The cooking of the octopus is a Whisknladle secret but involves wine, water, a cork and time. The second is the peperonata mix which is a Roy Yamaguchi technique of thin slicing ingredients and them pouring smoking hot oil over them to release their oils and flavors into the oil and slow cooking herbs and mirepoix into the vinegar to soften it’s flavor and then combing the two. I’d pair a Sparkling Rose or Chardonnay with it.

The Calabrian Pepper Shrimp is another new favorite, tell me about that one with a wine pairing.

I was looking for a shrimp dish and wanted to incorporate Calabrian peppers and it just kind of came together. It’s a blend of shrimp (head on) garlic, tomato, Calabrian peppers, and butter. It has been the signature dish so far that has really taken off at Solterra. My wine pairing would be a Grenache Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc.

And the braised lamb shank is perfect for this time of year, how is that prepared and what am I drinking with it?

The lamb shank is one of my favorites as it reminds me of Ratatouille the movie when the food critic tastes the dish and immediately it transforms and returns him to his childhood of warm comforting flavors that just make you feel good inside. I feel that same way when I eat this dish. Pair it with a Cab or Zin.

Solterra is located at 934 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas

(760) 230-2970

David Boylan is the founder of Artichoke Creative an Encinitas based integrated marketing firm. He also hosts Lick the Plate Radio that airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. on FM94/9, Easy 98.1, and KSON. Reach him at [email protected] or (858) 395-6905.