Having a Full Plate

By David Perloff
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda

Half-smiling as he looks at the camera, David Cohn says he’d be more comfortable giving a speech to of a thousand people than posing for photographs. Today, Debbie Shumaker, his longtime director of operations, has the job of holding a light reflector and trying to make him laugh so he doesn’t look so stiff.

“Are we done? I think we’re done,” he says after only a few flashes. “I think you got what you need.”

Old Town.” src="” alt="David Cohn at the Cohn Restaurant Group offices in Old Town.” width="279" height="372" />The photo shoot location is Cohn Restaurant Group’s office building in Old Town, from which Cohn and his family oversee the family business of 24 restaurants - “Twenty-one in San Diego, two in Maui and one in Long Beach,” as Cohn describes it.

After reluctantly posing for a few more photos in his warehouse, which serves as storage for furniture and equipment (chairs, tables, forks, dozens of chafing dishes for events, televisions, an antique pinball machine), he’s visibly relieved when the photographer puts her camera away.

Despite running a restaurant empire and being forever on the go, Cohn doesn’t give off the impression of being in a rush. He talks with a man in the warehouse about a new chandelier that’s finally arrived, smiles as he asks a chef in the hallway how his kids are doing, then takes a seat in the conference room for a casual interview.

“So what are we talking about today?” he says, seemingly unfazed that it’s the evening of the grand opening of Coasterra, his new restaurant at the southern tip of Harbor Island that took nine years and $15 million to build. “Let’s make it good - I took the afternoon off for this.”

The project, which he co-owns with chef/restaurateur Deb Scott (see “Playing Fare,” below) and the Feldman family of Sunroad Enterprises, is a 28,000-squarefoot (about half an acre) dining and entertainment mega-plex that at once overlooks the skyline and becomes part of it.

In addition to vast indoor and outdoor dining areas, Coasterra, as the name suggests, is where water and land converge. Validating the name are the incredible waterfront views and the soon-to-arrive barge, a 6,000-square-foot floating event space that’s already booked for weddings and will soon float concerts and other hoopla on North San Diego Bay.

Cohn is San Diego’s preeminent restaurateur, and he’s humble about it, giving credit to his colleagues making great strides in hospitality. He mentions one in particular.

“Arsalun’s doing a lot of great, smart things,” he says of Arsalun Tafazoli of CH Projects (Soda & Swine, Ironside Fish & Oyster, Underbelly, among many others). “He’s an amazing young guy.”

Cohn, himself, was a young guy when he got started in the restaurant business with his wife, Lesley. Today, the couple runs the show (outside Lesley’s office hangs a sign that says, “Queen of Effing Everything”) with their kids Jeremy and Jessica, and Jessica’s husband, Michael.

And although he hates having photos taken of himself, Cohn is quick to show pictures of his grandchildren, all five of whom appear on the homescreen of his smartphone.

Someday, perhaps, these youngsters will take over the family business. For now, however, their grandfather, one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs, still sits at the head of the table.

PacificSD: I regard you as an entrepreneur. Do you feel like an entrepreneur?
DAVID COHN: My dad was an entrepreneur, and I grew up in that kind of family. My brothers, my whole family - I think all of us are entrepreneurs, whatever exactly you might define that as. I think maybe an entrepreneur is a risk taker... people who are willing to take risks, in some cases very big risks. So, yeah, I guess I am. But I don’t really think about that a lot. You just kinda do what you do.

What are you risking?
A lot of times, you’re risking an awful lot. You know, the day we opened our first restaurant, we were all-in. Had that not worked, it would have been a pretty short career as a restaurateur... and as an entrepreneur, maybe. But, it’s something that gets in your blood. You take risks, and then you continue to take risks, and that’s kinda what we’ve done over the years. One of the things that we’ve done that I think has been a risk has been to create unique concepts. The easier way to do it would have been to start with a concept, hone it, and then just replicate it. And that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make each one of them different. Every time you open up a restaurant, there’s the risk of being an unproven concept as opposed to going with proven restaurants.

What’s exciting about this new one, Coasterra?
Coasterra is one of the most exciting projects because it’s a legacy project. You know, doing something that you’ll take your grandkids to, maybe your great-grandkids. And it wasn’t easy, and that makes it worthwhile. It’s been almost nine years to the day that we’ll open the restaurant - nine years of planning and building and designing and, finally, operating. So, it’s been a long one. It’s in an amazing location, very iconic location, and one-of-a-kind, truly. When opportunities like that come along, it’s just amazing... to be able to work on things like that and to create something from scratch.

What makes it a legacy project? What makes it feel different?
The location and the design and having the opportunity to work with [late architect] Graham Downes for seven years, this being the last major project that Graham designed that got built. And it’s just a legacy sort of location with amazing views that are going to get nothing but better over time.

What’s been the hardest part of the project?
I think the hardest part is the permits and dealing with all the different agencies we’ve had to deal with, and all the different approvals that we’ve had to receive. I mean, we’ve gone to just about every regulatory agency over the years, and everyone seems to love it, but it has taken a lot time to go through it.

Do you have goals beyond Coasterra? What’s next?
I think we’re somewhat opportunity-based. We’re not out looking for a specific location or specific opportunity. We try to find a couple things. One of those is unusual locations... The Prado at Balbo Park, certainly Coasterra. We were early into the Gaslamp many, many years ago, when it was just kinda growing up. We have not gone into shopping centers and strip malls. It has to be a location that’s really of interest to us. We’ve kinda focused on underserved markets, Escondido, Oceanside, Imperial Beach - markets that don’t have a lot of restaurants and deserve good restaurants. I find, oftentimes, that restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are a little bit like lemmings: they kinda go where others have been successful. We’ve kind of enjoyed pioneering neighborhoods. We were early into Hillcrest, the Gaslamp and some of these outlying communities. That’s another part of the risk-taking, of saying, “I’m willing to go into Oceanside,” when everyone thinks you’re crazy, and we think it’s a great community and a great opportunity.

Is it fun, what you do?
Not every part of it is fun, but I basically enjoy every day. Some are more challenging than others. When it hits the fan, it all hits the fan at once, but that’s what it is. You just deal with it. I heard a great quote the other day that said, “Chaos is temporary.” Opening a restaurant is chaotic. I also have a belief that every restaurant and every opportunity or every business that you start and every process you go through takes a piece of you that you never get back. But, in the end, it’s worth it. It’s exciting, but it’s nerve-wracking, and people say to me that it must be easier the twenty-fourth time, but I’m not sure it is. I think one of the things about entrepreneurs is that they tend to be a little paranoid. Maybe “insecure” is the word. But you always think maybe it won’t work in the end. There’s a little bit of fear there, as an entrepreneur, that probably is very healthy. I’ve never understood entrepreneurs or business people who become cocky, because there’s always somebody younger, somebody nipping at your heels. Not directly, but every business is competitive. So I think that fear is probably good. It drives you, motivates you and moves you forward.

I suspect, if you wanted to, you could cash out at this point, play some golf. You know, just stop. What prevents you from doing that?
I really have no interest in retiring or slowing down or not being involved on a daily basis, because it’s a big part of my life and who I am. And I do enjoy it. I have friends who’ve retired and I ask them all the same question: What do you do all day long? And, you know, the satisfaction that I get out of what I do every day sounds very different from just getting together with friends for coffee in the morning, and then getting together with friends for lunch. I just don’t know what people do when they retire at a fairly young age.

You mentioned Coasterra as being a legacy project. What do you want your legacy to be after you’ve had your last bite of Cohn Restaurant Group food?
I want to clarify that. You know, I’ve had the question often, “What’s your favorite restaurant.” And I say it’s like with kids - you may have a favorite, but you don’t say which one it is. I think The Prado and... I think we’ve been fortunate to create a number of legacy projects, and hopefully we’ll continue to do that. But my legacy is probably fairly simple: We worked hard. We created a lot of opportunities for our team members to grow. And, hopefully, we’ve provided great food and beverage and ambience to San Diegans and visitors for a lot of years.

When will you stop?
I think I’ll slow down at some point, but I plan on staying involved. It keeps you young and keeps you energized, and I think it keeps you sharp, mentally, to stay involved in the business. Obviously, we have the next generation that’s taking over the business that Lesley and I created. Yet, I still think there’s a place for the founders not necessarily to run the business, but to advise, coach and counsel, and hopefully help avoid many of the mistakes that many entrepreneurs make along the way.

Do you have a motto?
No, I don’t think so. I lost my dad early in the year, and this was my dad’s motto [points to his rubber strap bracelet]: “Life is simple. People are complicated.” I guess I gotta work on some kind of motto. I will tell you one that I tell my grandkids. From the time they were young, I taught them to say, and they still say - when I say, “What does Papa always say?” And they say, “No big deal.” People worry about so much stuff that you can’t control or, in the end, isn’t going to make a difference. I guess it goes back to “chaos is temporary.” At times, everything happens at once, where it’s just like not one more thing can be happening right now. And then, sure enough, three things happen tomorrow.

Playing Fare

How a seasoned chef is having fun with food

By David Nelson

Even when she’s up to her neck in frijoles, Deborah Scott isn’t one to count beans. The former Virginian prefers to spend spare minutes welcoming guests and hearing appraisals of her cuisine.

On the other hand, San Diego’s leading chef/ restaurateur has her nose on the numbers at Coasterra, of which she is a partner - as she is Indigo Grill (Little Italy), Vintana (Escondido), C level Lounge and Island Prime (Harbor Island, adjacent to Coasterra).

The statistics include four elaborate “Carritos Coasterra de Guacamole” that wheel the cooking of sophisticated Mexico City neighborhoods to the table. These fancy carts glide through the indoor and terrace dining areas under the direction of eight highly-trained guacamolistas, tableside blackbelts who masterfully blend avocados, lime juice, serrano chilies and other sensuous seasonings into gourmet fare. Given Coasterra’s dedication to all things luxe, the carts also feature optional “Cadillac toppings,” such as butterpoached Maine lobster and spicy lump crab, that transform chopped avocado into guacagastronomy.

Seventy-five kitchen staffers, dressed ninja-like in black from caps to shoes, perform in the vast, wondrously equipped kitchen, undertaking tasks as simple as prepping greens for the nicely authentic Caesar salad, and as complex as grinding and seasoning the restaurant’s utterly delicious chorizo sausage. Scott prowls the kitchen more or less constantly, suggesting, advising, coaxing and sometimes demonstrating how it’s done. When the action amps to the level of a Die Hard film, she directs the scene from a chair in a glass-fronted office that resembles a producer’s booth in a television studio.

“We’re anticipating serving a couple of thousand people a day,” she says. “Of course, we’re putting chips and salsa on the tables, and per 1,000 guests, this takes 250 pounds of tortillas [cut and fried on the premises], and 25 gallons of salsa. We make salsa by the five-gallon bucket, and we’ll be doing 40 to 50 of these daily.”

Scott’s partner in salsa - Coasterra serves nearly a dozen varieties, including a five-alarm, five-chili “salsa macha” - is Executive Chef John Gray, whose credits include The Ritz-Carlton Resort in Cancun and making wine in Baja’s Guadalupe Valley. Gray assisted Scott in crafting a menu intricate enough to please locals who frequent the stylish new eateries in Tijuana, yet sufficiently user-friendly that it won’t intimidate visitors from around the country and globe who can’t tell Mexican rice from refried beans.

“John Gray and I meet in the middle when designing dishes,” says Scott. “The cuisine is ‘modern Mexican,’ and we’re adapting traditional food to contemporary tastes.” It only will be more fun when she and Gray craft one or more signature wines for Coasterra in the Guadalupe Valley.

“I’m excited,” says Scott. “At this point in my career and my life, I just want to do interesting projects that are very unique. My goal here is to make anyone from anywhere feel comfortable with the food.”

To that end, the dinner menu offers easygoing appetizers like the “tamale champignon,” filled with crimini mushrooms and goat cheese, decorated with pomegranate seeds and doused with smoked poblano chili cream. The scallops tamarindo arrive with creamy corn polenta, a warm baconkale salad and a tart tamarind glaze that, Scott says, makes the plate itself “good enough to eat.”

“What I’ve tried to do is present simplicity, but also intricate flavors and great presentation,” she says. “Mexican food is my favorite cuisine. I just love it, so this is fun for me.”

880 Harbor Dr., Harbor Island