Say Cheese

By David Nelson / Photos by Sara Norris

Want to enjoy crazy success in the food biz? Try coating a hunk of Brie with sesame and pumpkin seeds, baking it to melty-creamy- fragrant perfection and jazzing it with feverish accents of jalapeño jelly and roasted garlic.

Escondido" src="http://www.pacificsandiego.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Vintana-Dining-Room.jpg" alt="Vintana Wine + Dine in Escondido" width="370" height="277" />Chef Deborah Scott realized long ago that baked Brie may be the best idea since sliced bread, a belief recently adopted by the grander poobahs at Costco. The wholesaler has hefted Scott's exceptionally popular appetizer from her restaurant kitchens to refrigerated cases in its stores around the county, where one-pound portions (complete with cups of jelly and garlic spread) sell for $9.99. How it got there is unsurprising: a Costco employee who was a regular at Scott's long-running Kemo Sabe in Hillcrest so loved the dish that she spoke of it to a company official who requested a tasting - and then quickly yielded to the Brie's cheesy charms.

Now, anybody with a yen for molten nirvana can take a block home, bake it and have reason to exclaim, "Great, Scott!"

A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Scott attended Baltimore International Culinary College, took graduate courses at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and sensibly moved to San Diego in the 1990s. In 1994, she introduced baked Brie at her first Indigo Grill (then in Little Italy 's La Pensione Hotel). The original incarnation luxuriated in a coat of chopped walnuts, but when Scott closed Indigo to open Kemo Sabe, she upgraded to a crust of mixed nuts.

"After the nut allergies came along, I started using pepitas and sesame," Scott says. "We sell it in all my restaurants, and it's always been a top seller. The Brie is conducive to drinking wine - it's great for sharing and it has lots of elements that people like, such as savory, sweet, spicy and crunchy. When you take a bite, it explodes."

Despite spending years in proximity to explosive cheeses, Scott remains cool and calm when supervising the busy kitchens at the four Cohn Restaurant Group establishments in which she owns a 33-percent equity stake. Besides Little Italy's Indigo Grill, that list includes Island Prime/C Level Lounge on Harbor Island and the sky-high Vintana atop Escondido's swanky Lexus Centre.

An even more ambitious eatery is on the horizon. In partnership with David Cohn and his wife, Lesley, and Mexico-born entrepreneur Aaron Feldman and his sons Uri and Dan, Scott will build a sprawling hospitality multiplex on the Harbor Island site once occupied by an antique paddleboat-turned-restaurant called the Reuben E. Lee.

The 27,000-square-foot building, expected to open early 2015, will almost touch the edge of C Level Lounge, will feature upscale Mexican cuisine and will ramble through a banquet facility - a 4,500-squarefoot floating barge designed for weddings and social functions - and a large terrace that will wrap the island's end in profitable views.

One benefit to the venture is that the group soon will travel to Mexico City to "get a feel for what upscale Mexican food looks like in Mexico," Scott says, especially in the city's many elegant, European-style neighborhoods.

Asked what it's like to partner with the Cohns, Scott says, "It's funny, David describes our relationship as his second marriage. It's hard to believe we've never had any major disagreements in 20 years. We both have great work ethics. Lesley is always there to help, and it doesn't matter if the issue is business or personal. When I had stage four melanoma in 1997, Lesley went to every appointment with me and took diligent notes."

Known for spotting talent, David Cohn sought the association. When Scott ran the original Indigo Grill, she says, "David and Lesley used to come to eat. He called one day and asked to meet at Corvette Diner [the Cohns' first smash hit, then in Hillcrest]."

It was there that Cohn proposed partnering in a new restaurant.

"David helped me be where I am today," Scott says. True. When they developed Kemo Sabe, David loaned her the buy-in money.

These days, when not greeting guests at her restaurants, Scott says she makes a point of mentoring cooks, "to bring them to that next level in the kitchen. I've had a lot of line cooks go on to have pretty impressive careers."

One, Travis Swikard, is chef at New York's top-rated Café Boulud.

If you've ever had one of her desserts, then you know Scott takes the cake... in addition to the cheese. One thing she doesn't take is all the credit for her success.

"I would be remiss not mention my partner, Sharon Bristol. We've been together for 20 years," she says (they married in 2008). "She was a big help to me getting started at Indigo Grill. Now, she takes care of me, our seven animals and our home."

Indigo Grill
1536 India St., Little Italy
619.234.6802, cohnrestaurants.com/indigogrill

Island Prime/C Level Lounge
880 Harbor Island Dr., Harbor Island
619.298.6802, cohnrestaurants.com/islandprime

Vintana
1205 Auto Park Way, Escondido
760.745.7777, cohnrestaurants.com/vintana

Brie cheese available at Costco locations throughout San Diego county. costco.com

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