Where did Thomas Hill Organics’ new chef come from? Kurt Metzger, who now heads both the Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo restaurants, was asking himself the same question after his red Corvette was rear ended a few years ago and a severe brain injury from a bad concussion wiped his memory clean.
He was on his way home to Mission Hills from his restaurant, the wildly popular Kitchen 4140 in San Diego. The 44-year-old culinary talent who owned and operated his own restaurant on Morena Boulevard and was married to an absolutely gorgeous woman named Syrisa, had his life taken from him in that moment. Everything and everyone he knew was gone in a puff of smoke. Amnesia had erased it all: Being top of the class at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, cheffing at Roxxi’s in San Francisco and Bistro 45 in Pasadena, running Concept Catering for 15 years, working with Flavors of San Diego and dominating the annual “I Love Poke San Diego” Festival competition. Gone was his childhood, growing up as a twin near Pasadena, as the son of a Sergeant Major Ranger and loving mother who encouraged his cooking. He lost his father four years before, and when he called his mom, whose voice he didn’t recognize, she had to break the news to him again. He couldn’t remember that he’d been a foodie since he was a child, and had loved to prepare food before he had even become a teen. Friends he had, contacts he made, were taken aback and sometimes insulted when Metzger didn’t recognize them, and the menus which he had perfected were as foreign as the tastes of the ingredients that made up every dish. He and his brother had to start a friendship all over again.
Since the accident took place in 2012, and after physical therapy, a three-month leave of absence, and much frustration over the lack of connection to his past, Metzger had to teach himself how to cook again. This took about six months of feeling ‘in the way’ in his own restaurant while his line cooks and chefs rekindled the basics. He had to start from scratch, basically tasting his way through it, while burning himself on the stove and having to search his kitchen for knives and pots. He spent many a day finding refuge in the walk-in at his restaurant, trying to deal with the complex feelings that came with not knowing the customers and vendors who came in to see him, expecting to be recognized by the very accomplished chef.
He had to meet his wife again, and he fell in love with her again too, remarried her in a new ceremony, and realized the love he had for her was not stored his memory but brightly placed in clear sight in the safety of his soul.
Even without the volumes of experience and culinary training, Metzger managed to return as executive chef at Kitchen 4140, leaving the past behind for the adventure that led him to the only thing left to fate: the now.
“I think the accident is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life,” Thomas Hill Organics’ new chef, Metzger said. Metzger has been running the kitchen since the beginning of summer, going back and forth from the Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo restaurants.
“It knocked some sense into him,” added Thomas Hill Organics owner Debbie Thomas. The two have a funny relationship — teasing, joking with her about sending too many photos of food to taunt him. The organic-sourcing restaurateur finally took a vacation river cruise in France, after working non-stop, and Metzger was kidding with her about not buying him a chateau.
“I was a cry baby the whole time she was gone,” he said.
Before and after the accident, his heart has been in travel and he still loves to go to France, Switzerland and the Caribbean. He pulls inspiration from the spices he found from the bazaars of Istanbul. He was about to leave for the weekend with his wife to get a mani-pedi and massage in Vegas for his 50th birthday.
Chef seems happy to be in Paso. He gets into the Santa Maria ovens he cooks on at winery events. He’s bringing back the restaurant’s wood burning oven with his grass fed rib eyes, Niman Ranch pork, and Mary’s chicken.
“I wanted to be here,” he said. “The opportunity came up and I had to jump on it. To me it’s once in a lifetime to be able to run two restaurants like these.”
Metzger is at home in the wine country, and very open when talking about the accident that may have been part of a grand design that brought him to Paso Robles.
“It reset me,” he said. “And it reset my values in life. My (staff) told me I was very rigid in the kitchen. And after the accident I became more of a mentoring chef as opposed to a yeller.”
He said he recalls the servers saying that he was the most calm chef they had ever met.
“The sun’s coming down, it’s going to come back up,” he said. “There’s no sense being high strung anymore. It helped me explore more because coming out of the culinary academy everything was so tight, so rigid on the plate. And after the accident I explored more outside the box. I became more playful with my food and I started enjoying what I do more, probably because my brain is seven years old.”
Metzger made the best of his fresh lease on life while back at Kitchen 4140, taking on a mentorship with at-risk youth in a 14-week program that included teaching them the values of work in a restaurant, pulling from the garden, and cooking for them in their homes. He saw the cafeteria food the kids had been eating at school, stuffed full of MSG and powdered gravies. It made him want to cry. Teaching youth the value of organic food and sustainable practices gave Metzger pride in the rustic farm-to-table approach and zero-waste kitchen his restaurant was committed to. He would like to begin similar programs in San Luis Obispo County, and his food philosophy remains loyal to local farmers and wineries.
“My vision has always been to pull a table out in the middle of the vineyard with the farmer and the winemaker and make dinner,” he said. “We try to keep everything sustainable and organic as possible. I like the rustic value of it. Plate presentation is important, but I love the artistic side of things. Putting layers and flavors and textures together.”
One of the quintessential summer starters on the Thomas Hill menu is the Paso Robles Loo Loo Farms Heirloom Tomato Burrata, served with sliced artisan bakery bread and crunchy olive gremolata, calabrian chili tapenade, pesto, garlic confit and saba. Every ingredient is sourced from local farms or the local farmer’s markets: Templeton, San Luis Obispo, and Los Osos being Metzger’s favorite stops. The burrata tastes like it sounds: buttery with love, and is a product of Peacock Farms in Arroyo Grande.
“Burrata alone is wonderful but needs things to heighten it a bit,” Metzger said. He spends a good part of his day forging relationships with local farmers, visiting farmer’s markets, and receiving daily boxes of fresh produce from his favorite local farmers. He wakes at 7 a.m. and checks his emails and watches farm market reports to find out when avocados are spiking or when beef prices are coming down. He organizes the Thomas Hill kitchen in San Luis, meets with his chefs, plans out the night’s reservations. Then he heads back up the hill around 5 p.m. to meet with Thomas in Paso Robles. He works with her on the specials. Then prepares for lunch the next day. By 11:30 p.m., he heads home, and the cycle continues day by day. Metzger doesn’t mind the work load. He welcomes the constant action and daily challenges.
Lately he’s been sourcing from local Morro Bay fisherman, as seafood has always been his forte. Metzger was happy to report he just met a farmer who harvests every 36 hours after sundown.
“They are the most amazing summer squash I’ve ever seen!” he said.
Corn is late this year, so Metzger joked that he made a scene at the San Luis Obispo market, in an unreasonable demand for corn. He also kidded that the little baggies of micro greens he finds at the San Luis Farmer’s market make him feel like he’s going to get busted by the DEA as soon as he slips the samples in his coat. The peaches are just coming out now, but he’s waiting for optimum sweetness. Loo Loo is supplying peaches for Metzger’s peach cobbler, as well as organic, cage-free eggs. Metzger said that when he made a dinner for Thomas and her entourage, auditioning for the chef position, he “hit it out of the park” but he didn’t make a dessert, and almost didn’t get the job because of it. But Metzger makes delicious sweets, and his desserts have incredible appeal, including a vanilla panna cotta with citrus luxardo compote and brown butter crumble, as well as an olive oil cake with Olea farms lemon verbina olive oil and seasonal preserve.
The wine at Thomas Hill is mostly local, with an Adelaida Paso Robles Picpoul Blanc and a Herman Story Nuts & Bolts Paso Robles Syrah on the list, but there are the French Rhone Whites and Reds and the Napa Valley choices as well.
“We want the people who live here to have something besides local wine and the tourists can have Paso wine,” said Thomas. “We make sure that we cover both.”
Debbie Thomas said the restaurant’s signature Black Lentil Tacos, which have been on the menu since 2009 (even before Metzger’s arrival), changed her mind about liking lentils.
“I could eat 20 of them,” she said.
The soft corn tacos are layered beluga lentils and a carrot ginger purée, candied jalapeños, cashews, pickled watermelon, coconut cream and cilantro. The dish satisfies the vegan guests and Thomas said the chef is happy make dairy free or gluten free dishes. He can make his trademark short rib sandwich (a staple from his 4140 days) with gluten free bread.
“I’ve never met a chef as personable at Kurt. It’s not about him. He’s brought the level up with the food. He’s a people pleaser, which is very unusual for a chef,” Thomas said of the chef who wears colorful socks with his clogs. Thomas, who used to work in sales and marketing for Adidas, has seen some changes in chefs since she started her restaurant that came out of her own organic farm and CSA. Her restaurant has evolved into a relaxed, elegant restaurant staple in Paso Robles, with a devoted winemaker and industry following, and destination spot for visitors. The romantic, softly-lit covered patio in the center of the restaurant is where everyone likes to sit this summer, for pan-seared diver scallops, broiled barbecued oysters and eggplant ragu over artisan pasta.
Both Thomas and Metzger have similar stories of moving to Paso Robles from the Los Angeles area. Thomas said the Paso community was so friendly, it made her want to move to the area, and she soon began having progressive parties and get togethers with her neighborhood of six sprawled out houses. Metzger, who will live in the area, holding the place until his wife retires from her university hospital physical therapy job in San Diego, said he was sitting in the jacuzzi when his new neighbor tapped on his fence bearing margaritas. He said when he lived in San Diego, for five years he would walk his Scottish Terrier out in the neighborhood, but knew none of his neighbors.
“I’ve found these people to be amazing,” Metzger said. “In just these few short weeks people are talking to me on the street. They’re polite. They’re wholesome, honest.”
Metzger would not be serving a short rib with mashed potatoes because it tastes too similar. He wants the food to be a sensory experience, which includes the pairings of the many local Paso wines on the menu.
“I want you to explore every time you stick your fork onto a plate,” he said.
Chef’s short rib did not need to be served with a knife. The featured entree of the evening was one of Metzger’s claims to fame from the San Luis Obispo restaurant, a 14-hour, local 805 Beer Braised Short Rib in pan jus was served with herb confit marble potatoes, a pea shoot salad in extra virgin olive oil from Olea Farms in Templeton. The pasture-raised beef is sourced from Painted Hills Beef in Oregon, with no antibiotics and no added hormones. It melts in your mouth, letting the natural juices from the short rib and the oil from the garlic naturally flavor the dish.
“A lot of kitchens will braise in wine,” Metzger said. “I didn’t want that heavy richness of the wine. I want you to have wine in your glass. The beer is kind of like a sponge, it just absorbs everything. You want those juices to stay in the meat.”
Metzger’s managed to rekindle his passion for sustainable, organic ingredients and Thomas Hill’s mission is much like Kitchen 4140 with the farm-to-table concept. Not all restaurants are willing to pay the extra money and put in the legwork involved in working with local purveyors of fruits, vegetables, grass fed beef, fresh fish and artisan-crafted breads, but Metzger said the dedication is worth it.
“It’s a lot easier for restaurants to pick up the phone and put an order in,” he said, but he loves to talk to the butchers at Painted Hill beef. He likes the fact that because the restaurant doesn’t even own a freezer, produce needs to be rotated in a constant flow.
“It’s a lot of fun to have product coming in from the back door every single day. Not walking through a huge walk-in trying to figure out what to do with things,” Metzger said. “A lot of what we do here is ingredient-driven. It’s about what we’re getting at the markets. We just love playing with it. The whole kitchen diving in at one time.” New paragraph, “In my opinion..
…make it amazing,” Thomas added.. In my opinion, when you use just-picked vegetables and good meats you can taste the difference. You don’t really need to do much to the food to make it amazing.”
When Metzger saw that Thomas needed a chef, he said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He wanted to live in wine country and after visiting Thomas’ European style kitchen and real wood burning oven, it reminded him of his love for New York. The decor of the Thomas Hill Organics SLO restaurant is modeled after ABC kitchen in New York, with a fresh white interior and open space feel, three-inch wood slat floors, and accordion-like Nano doors.
Though the restaurants bring in influences from all over the world, Metzger said he’s glad to be living in a place where he can find a varied selection of organic, local food.
“The only thing I miss is the 72 degree weather in San Diego,” he said. “In Paso, with the vineyards and the farmers, and everything that surrounds this place, it’s just amazing. I love walking out the door and being on a farm someplace. It’s incredible.”
Incredible indeed, and apparently, meant to be.
You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.