By Claire Harlin
Stephanie O’Mary-Berwald has a degree in English Literature, but it was during college nearly 15 years ago when she discovered her real career passion — food — that has carried her to where she is today, working as the new executive chef at one of Del Mar’s most well-known culinary institutions, Pacifica Del Mar.
But it wasn’t easy getting there. As a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City, O’Mary-Berwald became inspired to step into the culinary world after talking to friends who worked in restaurants and loved their jobs. She was 19 and had no experience, but she set her heart on working in celebrity chef Todd English’s iconic New York restaurant Olives — a high-end venue that doesn’t just hire anyone.
So, O’Mary-Berwald took an interesting approach — repeatedly calling every day for at least a month asking for a job.
“They would just get sick of me calling and calling. They knew it was me, and every time they’d say to call back,” she said. “I was thinking at one point I would get someone who would say ‘Yes, there’s an opening.’”
Finally a chef offered the student an unpaid position, and she happily worked for free in the kitchen for a year before being offered an hourly wage.
“Back then, that’s the way you got into the business,” she said. “You just kind of slaved away.”
Her experience training under English, who hosts the PBS travel series “Food Trip” and has authored numerous books, launched her into an education at the French Culinary Institute in New York and then heading up several highly coveted restaurants, from New York to Washington D.C. to Los Angeles.
Joining the Pacifica Del Mar team last fall was a fitting transition for O’Mary-Berwald, and a big step for the restaurant that has sat atop the Del Mar Plaza for more than 20 years. Chris Idso had become known as the executive chef there for more than a decade, and his promotion to managing partner of the restaurant left his former culinary position open for the right person. And when a hospitality industry headhunter brought O’Mary-Berwald to Pacifica, management knew they were putting the kitchen in the right hands.
“It was perfect. Our backgrounds were similar and we talked about food in the same way,” said O’Mary-Berwald of Idso, adding that she had a lot to learn filling the shoes of such a long-standing culinary staple in the community. “We both like to work in high volume and still maintain the integrity of the food.”
O’Mary-Berwald said many upscale eateries are low volume because it’s hard to produce high quality at a large volume, looking at every plate before it gets placed in front of a guest. At Pacifica, however, that’s the standard that has been set over the years.
“You have to do high volume for a business to succeed, but as chefs, you have to do that same level of food that gets you excited,” she said.