San Diego’s Culinary Underground – “Local Is Where It’s At”

I met Mark Kuhlmann a few months back at a media dinner at Orfila Winery in Escondido. Not only did he prepare a scrumptious dinner, we had a good visit and I learned he’s a big proponent of why local matters. He left Corporate America to follow his dream and launched Culinary Underground a few years ago.

Mark’s vision is pretty simple. He loves taking care of people. He grew up in New Orleans with a mother and grandmother who inspired him. His earliest memories involve going to the French Market and making relationships with the vendors, buying oysters from the shuckers and walking the half a block from his house to the butcher shop. To Mark, using local ingredients isn’t trendy or hip, it’s what he’s always done.

About once a month, Mark hosts a food themed event. To Mark, it’s all about the experience his guests receive. He wants you to have fun. “Wherever there’s not a kitchen is where we want to be”. Mark will bring his Weber grill, or whatever the event calls for with him, and venues range from wineries, to friends’ beach homes to private yachts. One night it might be a Moroccan dinner with Saffron soup, beet salad, vegetables with cous cous and lime juice, lamb and for dessert, fresh figs with honey and vanilla gelato.  A New Orleans night is always a possibility as is Sushi On The Roof. Mark loves trying new things, cooking things he’s never cooked before.

Whenever possible Mark likes to get to know the farmers who supply his produce and he’s a big fan of Suzie’s Farm in San Diego. He loves walking the fields and says the farmers like the interaction with the chefs, too. He shops the Farmers Markets frequently and is a big fan of the one in Little Italy where he finds an abundance of edible flowers. Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe is another favorite. Don’t be surprised if you bump into a few celebrity chefs there. They don’t deliver.

“Fresh is the most important thing you can do” he says. The difference in taste from produce picked the same day is remarkable. If it’s fresh you don’t need to season it as heavily. Just laid eggs are another example he cites, noting how much the color and flavor changes in a very short time. I asked Mark how to educate people on the importance of using fresh, local ingredients and he says he thinks it has already begun. Cover stories in Time Magazine don’t hurt, nor does the fact that prices for organic produce have fallen dramatically over the past few years.

Mark is the father of nine year old triplets and what he sees being served in the schools makes him shudder. He thinks parents need to put pressure on the schools to offer kids healthier alternatives. He visits schools whenever he can, touting how good fresh, local tastes and how good it is for you. Mark cooks seasonly using what is fresh and prepares his menus around what’s available. I hope you get the chance to sit down to a meal with him. His passion is contagious. You’ll find him doing a food and wine pairing at Orfila on July 28.


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