Published on November 10th, 2012 | by Sandra Fong Young2
Culinary Spotlight: Executive Chef Eli Freebairn, Uptown Tavern
By Sandra Fong Young
Uptown Tavern’s Executive Chef Eli Freebairn looks like he could be a “tough guy” – American flash tattoos covering his arms and hands, a nose ring, closely cropped hair, black chef’s jacket, the type of bright blue eyes that people always call “piercing.”
But, he’s quick to tell you: “I believe I’m the one chef out there without an ego.” Seriously? Is that possible? Have you seen all those chef reality shows aka Gordon-Ramsay-cursing-continuously? To clarify, he adds, “I take pride in things I create, things that I’ve worked hard for, but I’m not yelling, screaming … I’m a pretty mellow guy.”
And that he is. The humble and soft spoken Freebairn encouraged us to interview his sous chef Dana Francisco to learn about the menu collaboration efforts of his staff and let us know how he washed dishes earlier that day. He rarely boasted about anything except for his attention to detail (see below) and his fondness for his mom (Important note: The “Better Than Your Momma’s” Charred Brussels Sprouts is not a literal claim).
Freebairn, who originally started working in the front of the house at restaurants, became executive chef at Uptown Tavern when it opened in July 2012. At one point, he was leading both Verant Group’s West Coast Tavern and Uptown Tavern. Now, he focuses on Uptown, preparing “fun, not stuffy” small plates and entrees.
EatSD: Why do you think Chef Stephane Beaucamp, who is renowned in the greater LA area, choose to mentor you?
Chef Eli Freebairn: I try really hard. I’m a fighter. He actually almost fired me a couple times. Being new and starting out, kitchens are tough places … and if you’re not making the cut, you’re out the door, and that’s it. A couple times he pulled me outside and was like, “Eli, you need to speed it up. You need to do this and that” and I just said, “Yes, Chef” and went back in and got stronger … I started making my own prep lists on Excel.
EatSD: How did you get started with the Verant Group?
Chef Eli: I was cooking at La Playa Bistro, and it didn’t work out. It was one of the ones that flopped, unfortunately. … It’s on a main street and seemed like a great location, but after 8 p.m. there’s no crowd. … Chef Peter at West Coast Tavern was looking for a sous chef, and that was my position at La Playa … I was Peter’s sous chef, and within four to six months he moved on and [the Verant Group] asked me to step up.
EatSD: That was a quick rise! What was going through your mind during that transition?
Chef Eli: It was scary, and there was a lot I thought I couldn’t do. But, it wasn’t until I was thrown into the fire that I realized I was more than capable. I didn’t go to culinary school, so everything I learn takes a little bit more. I have to really do my research, and I go home and I work.
EatSD: How did you deal with the challenges of opening up a new restaurant?
Chef Eli: I’m an extremely organized person. … Now that’s something I would brag about. That’s something I did teach myself. I learned how to do the food costing; I built my own costing worksheet. It’s pretty cool. … My recipes in the book all have to have the same font (Times New Roman, italics); same with my order guides and prep lists, my temperature logs.
EatSD: One line is out of place … ?
Chef Eli: I can’t handle it.
EatSD: Does it bother you that the Uptown Tavern menu isn’t in Times New Roman italics?
Chef Eli: But … check this out [shows place where his name is listed on the menu – in Times New Roman italics].
EatSD: Very nice! What about the taste buds of your guests: Have you noticed any differences from West Coast Tavern in North Park to Uptown Tavern in Hillcrest?
Chef Eli: You know what’s crazy? Hillcrest loves bacon. I don’t know what it is, but we do a Brussels sprouts dish, and we have an “add bacon” option. Check this out: We get three- to four-pound cases of bacon a week just to add on the Brussels sprouts.
We sprinkle it in our waffle; we wrap our dates with it; we did a bacon crème brulee when we opened. … I ran West Coast and did the food ordering there, and then I come here, and realize we’re out of bacon again!
EatSD: As a culinary scene, what does San Diego excel at?
Chef Eli: Fresh. From the seafood to the produce, I don’t think there’s anywhere better. It’s all right here. I don’t have to order from LA. I know a lot of restaurants that do, and I’m like, “Why?”
EatSD: What does San Diego still need to work on food-wise?
Chef Eli: Hmm … I see a lot of similarities from menu to menu. You always hear of San Francisco and New York as being the food capitals. I think we have some great contenders here, and whatever [we need] to get the push to the next level … let’s do it.
EatSD: Any suggestions?
Chef Eli: I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, I guess, trying to be inventive, taking risks. And putting bacon in crème brulees.
1236 University Avenue
San Diego, CA 92103
*kitchen open until 1 a.m. seven nights per week*