An abandoned Escondido taco shop may not have seemed like an auspicious spot for their new restaurant, but Jesse and Catherine Paul followed the time-honored real estate maxim “location, location, location”—which meant close proximity to the farms of Valley Center. Now, after three years (and a charming makeover of the old shop), the Wooden Spoon Restaurant has become a showcase not only for Jesse Paul’s culinary skills, but also for the bountiful crops coming out of San Diego’s agricultural regions.
“We want to support as many farms as possible; it’s part of our business model,” Paul says. “Farmers are passionate about what they do. Farming is hard work—they can’t do what they do without that passion.”
Sustainability has been a hallmark of Paul’s cooking since his job at L’Auberge Del Mar. “I came from a French and pastry background, so it really opened me up to local produce and seasonality, and I made that part of our mission,” he says.
That mission results in an often-evolving menu that incorporates the freshest ingredients Paul can find, whether he’s visiting a farm or getting an early morning text from a farmer about that day’s available produce.
“We never look for specific things at farms,” he says. “The whole point of local, seasonal, and artisanal is asking farmers, ‘What do you have?’” Sometimes, that can lead Paul in unexpected directions. Two seasons ago, a farmer brought him a load of super-hot peppers that were too fiery even for Paul’s compost, let alone his diners. Not wanting the peppers to go to waste, Paul and his team brainstormed until they hit on the perfect idea: lacto-fermenting the peppers to make hot sauce.
“It’s exciting to me,” Paul says of the constant flux inherent in sustainable, seasonal menus. “I don’t like monotony.”
Perhaps his biggest challenge is pricing the menu, as it’s more expensive to run a restaurant this way compared to buying ingredients in bulk, Paul says. But he doesn’t want to charge too much, because he wants to encourage customers to come in and know what it’s like to eat a healthy meal—in many cases, one made with ingredients sourced just a few miles away.
“When we first opened, we had a woman send back her salad. When we asked why, she said it didn’t taste right. She’d never had lettuce picked right out of the ground that was still warm from the sun. We asked her to try it again, and she said she’d never had anything that fresh.”
The Wooden Spoon Restaurant, 805 East Valley Parkway, Escondido