New Pacifica executive chef keeps cuisine classy and casual

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.

The daughter of a mother from Lima, Peru, and father from Arkansas, O’Mary-Berwald said she was highly influenced by food — a mixture of Southern and Peruvian — growing up. But her own style has morphed into being very ingredient-driven and Italian-influenced, she said.

“I want people to enjoy their food in a casual environment, and I really compare what I do at Pacifica to the style of Del Mar itself — upscale but relaxed,” said O’Mary-Berwald. “That juxtaposition of things is good in that it’s classy, but still a beach town. You can come in wearing flip-flops and jeans and feel like you’re at home.”

O’Mary-Berwald said she has been revamping the dessert menu at Pacifica, transitioning from the traditional cookie plate to macarons and adding some more modern yet nostalgic items such as red velvet cheesecake and a white almond milk panna cotta.

She also said she is taking advantage of California’s year-round fresh ingredients by adding seasonal items like a kabocha squash ravioli.

But one of the most important things about joining Pacifica is understanding that the customers have been coming back to the restaurant for years — just as many of the employees have been with the company for a decade or more. When you have a solid team and no imminent need for change, she said, you have to keep things fresh and new without taking away the Pacifica qualities that people have loved for so long.

“It’s nice to have people who have been coming here for so long,” she said. “That’s why we keep a lot of the classics on the menu that will never change.”

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