Today we’d like to introduce you to Ryan Costanza.
Ryan, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
It started in New York working in my family’s Pizza Restaurants and cooking around my Italian grandmother as a child. Making pasta with her, meatballs, and all of the Sicilian and Naples style dishes that she was known for. It wasn’t until college and wanting to be an interior architect that I fell in love with fine dining. School wasn’t making me happy and I figured it just wasn’t my passion like I had thought. Skateboarding and Cooking is all I wanted to do. Through a close family friend working for David Bouley, I was able to get into some amazing restaurants. While staying in NYC was helpful, opening a restaurant with the first chefs to really hone my skills in upstate new york (finger lakes) was incremental to the success in my career. It was 2005 and there were so many interesting things going on with food. We were doing a lot of molecular gastronomy while being careful to respect and maintain classic French Technique. While at the restaurant as a Sous Chef, I took a leave and traveled Korea and Japan thoroughly. Honing my pallet, studying, and learning all I could in the few months I was there. From technique to flavor, to ingredients and learning to respect them it was truly eye-opening. When I returned, I decided it was time to move on and to keep learning and pushing my career. I moved to Los Angeles and worked at Lukshon briefly until meeting someone that would become a mentor and one of my best friends Govind Armstrong. He really showed me how to be a chef, not an ego-driven chef bro that screams and does everything for social media. But a real, mentor and teacher. How to respect an ingredient from while it’s growing until it’s being eaten. As a true master of classic California cuisine, he taught me things that I will never forget and that I will continue to use and teach to my cooks always. I ran Govinds restaurants Willie Jane/Post and Beam as his chef de cuisine and we gained amazing accolades every year from Jonathon Gold and more. We also had 2 gardens, one an 8 bed all organic garden and another one, a truly mini farm on Abbot Kinney in Venice. The master gardener, Gerri Miller was also someone that truly inspired me when it came to vegetables. When working to close to the grower and the produce, it’s just a different sense of respect than I think even stopping by the farmers market to grab 50% of your menu items cant give you. (I also love farmers markets and will go constantly especially once Cala Cala’s doors open.
After working for Govind, I helped launch a restaurant in Singapore called, Nosh as Executive Chef. A multi-concept fine dining, event space, and casual cafe. The Food in Singapore and south-east Asia really inspired me as well. From Bali/Indonesia to Hong Kong and more, it was all flavors and ingredients that I couldn’t get enough of. I then moved to San Francisco, where I worked at 3 Michelin star Coi and Alfreds, before meeting Dominique Crenn and running her 2 Michelin star restaurant group as Director of Operations. When my wife and I got pregnant, we moved to San Diego since her family was here. (Mine is in New York, and it’s just too cold to raise a baby there, we thought). Knowing that San Diego’s restaurant scene is far different from LA, NY or SF, it brought on a lot of interest in the fact that it’s very up and coming.
Being a part of a growing scene was just so interesting to me, and to bring what I’ve learned from around the world also seemed amazing. Like I could actually help young cooks become great chefs in a city where only 5-6 years ago no one would have thought it was possible for truly great restaurants to exist. But with chefs like Javier Placencia, Drew Deckman, Richard Blais and Jason Mcleod, William Brady, doing great things and in a sense carving a path into a huge city with amazing ingredients that deserves much more attention it’s easy to really fall into wanting to do something here. So, I opened Dija Mara first, in Oceanside with a couple from Singapore and London that are just great people with great style that are also new to San Diego. They understand how important vibe is, and that it needs to be more than just great food but without needing to do a concept for millions of dollars for it to be cool. We opened a restaurant we are truly proud of, where I lead the food and natural wine program. The second restaurant I am opening, with my best bud Matt Bone and our other buddy and business partner Brian Jenson, is Cala Cala bar. A natural wine bar in the north park area that will deliver a tiny but intense food menu, and some of the deepest dive natural wines we can get our hands on, and beer that is in the same realm. Only wild ales, native yeasts etc.
Has it been a smooth road?
As a chef, any chef, I don’t think there is every a smooth road, This career always has ups and downs, from not being able to maintain friendships and personal relationships to never seeing family is just one part. The challenge and pressure you put on yourself if you are truly a chef that wants to be the best is immense and can really tare you apart. I had those personal struggles constantly. Nothing mattered more than work, and everything else could shatter so long as my food is great (or as long as I thought it was great). Being introduced to Buddhism about 5 years ago really changed my perspective on things. I no longer look at struggles the same way. As a practicing Buddhist, I look at struggles and bumps in the road as a way to grow and build a stronger me. Being a father now has also changed the way I look at things. Food is no longer #1 and it never will be. It never should be. For me, now that I have aligned everything else in my life, I feel that my cooking is better than it ever was. I’m cooking and running restaurants as a happy person with a complete life and good food are just something that I love to produce. I think when you eat at Dija Mara or Cala Cala, you can feel that. Once you walk any door to any restaurant I’m a part of, I want you to be happy. I think that’s what hospitality is. Genuine happiness when you come into my house no matter how tough my day was, my cooks day was, my business partners days were. We are all in this business for the challenge of pleasing others while trying to please ourselves as well.
We’d love to hear more about your business.
Dija Mara is a south-east Asian restaurant with the best local ingredients I can get my hands on and a lot of fine dining technique to produce the food. Cala Cala is not open yet but was popping up all over San Diego until
we do (hopefully by fall)more high-end bistro food than Asian but in a bar setting. I think was sets each apart is the detail and the cohesive points that go into the menus and concepts. San Diego has a lot of huge restaurants, and you need all sorts of cuisines packed into one menu to fill all those seats. That’s not my style, I like small details to the point restaurants for my own projects. After being in fine dining so long, I never thought I’d be known for fried rice. Right now, though, it seems everyone is in love with the fried rice as dija mara. We sell about 30 a night in a 28 seat restaurant… that’s crazy to me.
Is our city a good place to do what you do?
I think San Diego is a great place for new restaurants. The best weather, amazing ingredients, amazing seafood. Everyone should want to start restaurants here. I think peoples pallets are changing here too. I don’t think its a city where people have ever really cared for innovative food. Before I ever visited I had just assumed it was mostly a fast food city. Or a fast-casual city. (I hate fast casual). But its so much more, and with Baja right, that man is it amazing. I think in recent years though, this city has really grown into what consumers want. I think another thing that makes this city great, is that the people who live here really back new business in their city. It’s a great family to be a part of. It’s not really competition amongst restaurants, I said just do your absolute best and don’t take shortcuts. I would also say don’t dumb things down for your clientele. People deserve the best of what you can produce no matter if its food or coffee or drinks. Our city can improve by just continuing to support the growth of small business and staying the F away from corporate/chain business and restaurants.
- Dija Mara is an average of 28-50 per person for the whole experience.
- Cala Cala will be a wide range, 20 – 100 depending on the experience the consumer wants.
- Address: 232 south coast highway
- Website: www.dijamara.com
- Phone: +1 760-231-5376
- Instagram: @ryanscostanza / @calacalabar / @dija.mara