Today we’d like to introduce you to Ashley Phillips.
Ashley, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up in Oceanside in an incredibly warm and wonderful family and moved to Santa Barbara for college. Not knowing in which direction I wanted to go I pursued things that interested me – English and Philosophy. My indecisiveness led me to hold multiple jobs including but most certainly not limited to coffee shop manager, florist and the shake chick at the Kahuna Grill. All of these jobs allowed me to help pay my way and pursue what makes me happy, taking care of people.
One morning one of our regulars at the coffee shop asked me to come interview at a nearby resort. The thought of trading three small jobs for one was awesome, and I went in fully confident I’d be hired. The sprawling perfectly manicured walkways and impressive buildings at Bacara Resort gave me the jitters, I had never been somewhere so breathtakingly beautiful. Three questions into the process I knew I was in way over my head. I knew nothing about fine dining; Olive Garden was usually our “fancy place” growing up. The interviewer knew it, and I knew it, but he trusted my sincerity of having a servant’s heart.
I got the job and started studying everything I could get my hands on. Food, beverage, all of it. I was starting from ground zero attempting all positions. One day, the Wine Director offered a sample of the wine pairings for an upcoming wedding to which I declined. He urged me to try the Champagne, and that first sip was a catalyst for my new career. Passion for wine and its complexities, its ever unique stories, the humans behind it… ran deep through my veins right then and there.
I am thankful for his role in my life. He introduced me to hundreds of wines over the years that I never dreamed could have existed, and opened my eyes to not just the intricacies of food and beverage, but to myself as well. I remember the first time I had Chateau d’Yquem we were sitting on the beach and we were discussing how every day that passes, every company you keep, the wine will taste differently… And I tasted it – my brain exploded. How could something taste so crazy wonderful? I couldn’t wait to share with my guests these new and magical experiences.
As time progressed at the resort a supervisory role was offered, then management, and while I nurtured my growing passion for wine outside of work, the wine director position for the main restaurant became available. I jumped at the chance. Training became my new obsession, empowering my team with knowledge, with opportunities to better a guest’s dining experience and hopefully make a lasting impression in someone’s life.
Several years later I took a job with Southern Wine & Spirits in San Diego to be closer to my family, and quite honestly the pay was fantastic. I made a ton of money in that short time, but I missed taking care of people. I missed growing and nurturing my team. I jumped back into restaurants after about a year, and was the GM of a few restaurants along the way (a managing partner for a minute), and learned of an opening with the Cohn Restaurant Group at their formal steakhouse, Island Prime.
Knowing what a fantastic company they were, I jumped at the opportunity to interview. I was to take over a 500 plus bottle wine list and manage over 80 employees. It was a daunting task, but once again I succeeded. A few years later, the group opened Coasterra, an upscale Mexican restaurant right next door. I guess they liked what I did at Island Prime and I was offered a position as wine director for both properties. While managing a 500 bottle list, I added another list of 100 more wines with an emphasis on Baja, Spanish and California wines.
I can honestly say that this young girl from Oceanside with a passion for taking care of people (and champagne of course) has grown up. I am loving every minute of it.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I never went for want when I was growing up, but I had no idea what existed outside of Oceanside. It was a steep quick learning curve once I began at Bacara Resort & Spa, and I had to work so hard to adapt to an incredibly inspiring and magical level of service and expertise.
When I stepped into the Wine Director position, it was exciting putting together all of the study materials and building the information for the team… there was no Guild Somm website to sneak your staff training off of, it was a labor of love. There were plenty of personal obstacles along the way, but I feel like those things are what make you stronger. If you would like more info just let me know.
Island Prime, CLevel, & Coasterra Restaurants – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I’m tremendously proud to work for the Cohn Restaurant Group. I have never in my life worked for owners who care so truly for their guests. Their policy of “absolutely” – or, whatever in the whole world that the guest wants, whatever will make them truly happy – that. And not with an eye roll or a sigh- but because making people happy is the right thing to do. When there is a conflict there should not be just resolution, but the guest should truly feel that they mattered, their voice was heard, their concerns were validated.
I think so many people in our industry do just a passing mark and think that that is good enough. With the Cohn Group, the intention is to hold the standard of excellence and hospitality, and over-deliver on your promise. My Grandpa always used to say, “If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right.”
I also think its wonderful that they let people run their restaurants. They put talented individuals in place and allow the personalities to flourish in each individual location. I couldn’t begin to tell you how each different restaurant has their individual SOP’s, each one has its own vibrancy… the main thing that ties us together is the integrity of the Absolutely policy and our internal guidelines.
I have so much respect in regard to how Maurice DiMarino runs the beverage program for the group, maintaining ongoing encompassing trainings for the group, fostering individuality within each of the restaurants, and allows us to nourish each of the programs uniquely.
What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
I am blessed to say that I have so many that I can’t pick just one of my proudest moments. Having a role created just for me for the entire Island sure didn’t hurt. I will say, however, given my humble beginnings, I’m tremendously proud of how far I have come and have overcome to get to this point. I can’t wait for each new challenge.
- Address: 880 Harbor Island Drive San Diego, Ca 92101
- Website: www.cohnrestaurants.com/islandprime for IPCL, Coasterra: www.cohnrestaurants.com/coasterra
- Phone: IPCL: 619.298.6802 Coasterra: 619-814-1300