When the Food & Wine Classic decided not to light up Aspen in June for its annual blowout because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The Little Nell seized the opportunity to carry the culinary torch. The ensuing sold-out The Little Nell Culinary Fest was a success, giving foodies a reason to come out of their quarantine pods and gather for several days of exquisite alfresco meals, from a champagne-fueled breakfast to an Ode to Shellfish Dinner.
From June 17 to 20, The Little Nell trotted out top chefs from properties that belong to Relais & Châteaux, a 67-year-old association of independent hotels and gourmet restaurants spanning 60 countries. Josh Holt of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in San Diego, crafted one of the best bites of the three-day eating extravaganza: a grilled, sweet spot prawn alongside a crispy full-on prawn head.
We talked to the San Diego-born-and-raised executive chef to find out how he persuaded diners to be adventurous and eat the prawn heads. And while he couldn’t disclose much about Rancho Valencia’s impending new restaurant that will replace Veladora (“It will be something completely new — it’s going to be reconcepted, redesigned and it will be exciting,” he says), Holt did share why you need to visit the Mediterranean-inspired, all-suite hideaway along with his favorite San Diego beaches and restaurants.
What was your favorite part of The Little Nell Culinary Festival?
Working with the other Relais & Châteaux chefs was probably my favorite part. But also interacting with the guests and educating them on sustainability. The interaction at the Ode to Shellfish event was incredible. We were trying to incorporate the heads in the dish, and we had huge success in getting everyone to try a part of the prawn that’s not normally eaten or utilized.
I was impressed. I pitched it to them as similar to soft-shell crab. Everybody who eats seafood is open to soft-shell crab, and it’s very similar in texture. The flavor is even more delicious, though. Everyone across the board was like, “If the chef says to do it, I’m going to try it.” And everyone was open-minded about it. I don’t know if they had a couple glasses of wine and were ready for it. I received great feedback on it.
I put it on the menu recently [at Rancho Valenica]. We are hoping it will be a great seller. At the very least it’s something intriguing. It’s something we have here to offer in San Diego that you can’t find most anywhere else.
How would you describe your food?
Generally, I would describe it as California cuisine, focused mainly on sustainability and working relationships with farmers, ranchers and local fishermen. Really not overdeveloped but letting the ingredients stand for themselves.
How has the pandemic has shaped the future of dining?
I see numerous large parties coming together. I think people are really looking for an atmosphere where they can enjoy the company of others.
I also feel like there is a need for fine dining. People are going to be searching that out, whereas it might have been fading in the past. Throughout the whole pandemic, everyone had food that wasn’t as refined. It’s my hope that people begin searching for that again, that creative, unique experience.
What’s new at Rancho Valencia?
New and exciting at Rancho Valencia are the classes we hold in our culinary garden. We’re starting off the first Wednesday of every month, and it’s a very intimate class — eight people — cooking with the chef on a farm table in the middle of the garden.
There’s a nice little tour through our citrus grove, and it’s just a really fun, intimate experience with wine, champagne, rosé and really whatever I decide to bring in. It could be local spot prawns one day, it could be vegetables grown in our garden, it could be anything local that I want to bring to the table and really spread awareness about.
It’s an intimate experience to get to know Rancho Valencia and how we are focused on becoming a completely sustainable resort and to educate our guests on the importance of sustainability and sourcing everything from vegetables to beans and beyond.
When you’re at home, what do you like to eat?
I’ve built myself a smoker. It’s a six-foot offset smoker built out of cinderblock and cedarwood, so I’ll be smoking anything from a suckling pig to sides of beef ribs. I love curing and smoking meats.
Another thing I enjoy is fermenting. I brew batches of kombucha, up to 55 gallons at a time. Recently, I got into fermented hot dogs and cabbages and things of that nature.
I also love to treat myself to fine dining. It’s a passion of mine, and I’d do everything I can to keep it alive.
Is barbecue your favorite comfort food?
That is absolutely my favorite comfort food. I can’t get enough of beef ribs. That, my grandmother’s baked beans and some cornbread and I’m golden.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in San Diego?
In North County, as far up as Carlsbad, there’s Jeune & Jolie. Kettner Exchange or Juniper and Ivy in Little Italy.
When you’re not eating or cooking, what do you like to do in San Diego?
The beach is one of the best attributes of San Diego. There are so many beaches, whether it’s going for a run on the beach in the morning, hanging out on the beach, bonfires at night. I grew up in Oceanside, so we spent a lot of time there. It’s a really up-and-coming area. They put so much money into it recently. There are some beautiful resorts being built/newly opened right there off of Mission Avenue, right in the heart of downtown Oceanside. I would have to say Moonlight Beach in Encinitas and Solana Beach as well.
Why is Rancho Valenica special to you?
It’s special because it’s here in my hometown. It’s one of two Relais & Châteauxs in the area. It’s actually what brought me home to San Diego. I had been out cooking, traveling for a while, and I was ready to make my way back home. I heard they were renovating Rancho Valencia and was put in touch with one of my first mentors, and he lined me up with the job. I’ve honestly been here for almost nine years, and it’s like my second home.
What are some dishes you’d recommend for a first-time diner at the hotel?
Definitely the locally sourced spot prawns. We get them straight from the boat and they’re kept alive in our walk-in [refrigerator]. I believe most people probably aren’t doing that. You’re basically eating the freshest prawns that you could ever get. They are extremely sweet compared to the other shrimp and you can experience them raw.
The Cascade lamb. It’s a California lamb from Sonoma. That’s an incredible dish, kind of Mediterranean-inspired.
If you’re looking for a Southern California-inspired dish, we have our pollo borracho, which is a beer-brined half of a chicken served with local refried rattlesnake beans and charred avocado and baby corn from Chino Farms. That dish is awesome. It’s lightly smoked with some of the drippings and fresh flour tortillas made in house.
What’s on your post-pandemic travel bucket list?
One place I’ve always wanted to go to is Tennessee. I spent a lot of time in Florida, and I love the South. It’s a completely different environment than Southern California and I spent almost four years in Florida, and I was able to visit Louisiana — which I love — Alabama, Mississippi, but I never made it up to Tennessee. That is on my bucket list as well as the Carolinas.
What’s next for you?
Something that I want to focus on is the nose-to-tail aspect of cooking, incorporating organ meats and underutilized pieces of the animals. I think there’s so much to be said about the amount of waste in the United States. Other countries have been doing it forever — it’s unnatural for them to throw something away. So much in the United States is tossed aside and considered not good. There’s tenderloin on every menu — it’s the most boring piece of meat to me. There’s so much more personality in the other cuts.