New chef Christopher Gentile will use avant-garde techniques to deliver what he hopes is a Michelin star-worthy experience
If there’s one dish that best encapsulates chef Christopher Gentile’s new menus at the Rancho Bernardo Inn, it’s his edible flower pot.
Handmade gnudi, summer corn, tomatoes, eggplant and truffle are secretly hidden under a “topsoil” of grilled bread crumbs that are “planted” with nasturtium and other edible flower blossoms and herbs in a stoneware bowl.
The surprise flower pot is one of the signature dishes at Avant restaurant, where Gentile — who arrived as chef de cuisine at the Inn in February — has built his new menu around the produce grown in the resort’s 3,000-square-foot garden. Depending on what’s in season season, 60 percent to 90 percent of the produce served at Avant was grown on-site, and little goes to waste. Seeds are dried and used to add crunchy texture to dishes and vegetable scraps are burned to create a bitter ash seasoning.
Vegetable-centric dishes are available on the a la carte menu served in the dining room and on the terrace. But for diners seeking an even more elevated experience, Gentile this week rolled out a new once-a-week tasting menu called Avant Garde, a play on the restaurant’s name, its garden and the progressive cooking techniques he’s using to transform veggies and proteins into edible art.
On Tuesday evenings through Nov. 19, Gentile is presenting the Avant Garde menu in the restaurant’s private dining room. The 10-course meals is $149 with optional wine pairings for $75. Seating is limited to 12 diners. The dinners will go on hiatus during the busy holiday season, then return in 2020.
Gentile, a Cortez Hill resident who turned 29 last week, said the Avant Garde menu will give him a chance to experiment and deliver diners with the sort of cutting-edge fine-dining experience that Avant’s predecessor, the El Bizcocho restaurant, was famous for.
“We’ll give it the vibe of ‘El Biz’ but with food from 2025,” he said. “We’ll be doing a lot of molecular gastronomy things, and we’ll make it more of an interactive meal to give it a 2- to 3-Michelin star experience where I can show off everything I’ve got.”
Gentile has been a boy wonder for much of his cooking career, which began in early childhood when he made raviolis with his Italian father every Christmas Eve. He joined the kitchen team at the Inn on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., at 17, and two years later was promoted to sous chef, making him the youngest chef ever hired at the famed restaurant.
Next, he staged (interned) around the country at four Michelin-starred restaurants, including Thomas Keller’s French-American cafe Per Se in New York and Grant Achatz’s molecular gastronomy mecca, Alinea, in Chicago. Finally he landed in his dream city of San Diego, where he landed a job at Searsucker and was promoted from line cook to sous chef in just one month. At age 20, he was named executive chef at the short-lived Gabardine restaurant. Then he worked at L’Auberge Del Mar’s Kitchen 1540 and La Jolla’s Nine-Ten before being appointed opening executive chef at Double Standard Kitchenetta in the Gaslamp Quarter at age 24.
Double Standard’s elevated opening menu proved too ambitious for its budget-conscious diners, but the restaurant’s owner, David Mainiero, thought Gentile’s finer-dining concept would work well in his native Arizona. So last fall, Gentile headed to Scottsdale, where he quickly renovated by hand a former burgers-and-beer joint to open Parma Italian Roots. It was an instant success.
A Phoenix newspaper named Parma Best New Italian Restaurant and Gentile Best New Chef. But after six months shuffling between the two restaurants in San Diego and Scottsdale, Gentile missed his girlfriend in San Diego, and he wanted to get back in the kitchen again. That’s when the Avant opportunity came along.
Gentile said the Inn has embraced his ideas, which sometimes spill out of his brain so quickly his mouth rushes to keep up. Among the Avant Garde dishes he’s developed recently are sous-vide lamb with beet glass, butter powder and hickory rosemary smoke; anise “ravioli” with cucumber consomme and fermented lime oil; cured and ash-crusted scallop in a nasturtium vinaigrette; and roast pumpkin served in a petrified pumpkin shell.
Gentile likes using molecular gastronomy techniques to create new textures, enhance flavors and ensure consistency, but he knows the scientific cooking methods have turned off many diners in past years. Execution, he said, is everything.
“Molecular gastronomy can give a dish the ‘wow’ factor but nothing disheartens me more than having a tasteless foam or powder,” he said.
Gentile said he’s excited to be working in the same kitchen where famed chef Gavin Kaysen became a breakout culinary superstar with his modern cooking techniques at El Biz, which closed in 2012 after 44 years. Avant has never been able to match the fame of El Biz but Gentile said he’s gotten positive responses from longtime local diners.
“It’s humbling to be here, and obviously what that means to me is we have the potential to be the best and to do a fantastic job,” he said. “We have the clientele, too. They used to come to El Biz, and we’re slowly winning them back.”
Avant Garde Tasting Menu
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays. Through Nov. 19.
Where: Avant restaurant, Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo
Phone: (858) 675-8551