Chef Jason Knibb
Nine-Ten | San Diego, CA
Jason Knibb has a pedigree that reads like a travel guide. Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and raised in Southern California, Knibb’s culinary education took him from Los Angeles to Maui to Santa Monica and San Francisco, with a tour in Warsaw, Poland, for climactic diversity. But Knibb is no tourist. He’s an ambitious chef who trained on the job, in a variety of time zones, and in some excellent kitchens.
Besides Wolfgang Puck, who Knibb worked with at LA’s Eureka, the young chef trained with culinary luminaries like Roy Yamaguchi and Hans Rockenwagner. "Each of my mentors has a simple common philosophy about cooking," says Knibb. "They create regional cuisine using the freshest local products available.” Incorporating this philosophy into his cooking has led Knibb to some key positions in California kitchens, including sous chef positions at two beloved California eateries, Moose Café in San Francisco and Joe’s Restaurant in Venice. Knibb even got the opportunity to act as a kind of culinary ambassador, personally overseeing the menu development for Malibu, a California cuisine outpost set in the decidedly less-sunny city of Warsaw, Poland.
After two years at Joe’s, Knibb landed a sous chef position under chef Trey Foshee at the Tree Room in Robert Redford’s star-studded Sundance Village in 1998. Working under Foshee, whom he would eventually succeed as executive chef, Knibb further developed what would become his signature “earth-to-table” style of cooking. Since Knibb took the helm at Nine-Ten in 2003, praise for the chef and his updated Californian cuisine flows in at a steady rate. Knibb was one of the first three chefs to be inducted into the 2009 San Diego Chef Hall of Fame.
Emily Bell: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jason Knibb: I started in 1990. I started out just enjoying food and working at restaurants and it evolved into something bigger. It took off for me. I’ve always worked in restaurants, starting out as a busser and working my way into the kitchen and enjoyed it and went from there.
EB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
JK: I’ve worked at the Sundance Resort in Utah.
EB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JK: I hire either or. Somebody with a degree might not have that same passion, it’s an individual thing. Usually we have people come in and stage and it usually makes or breaks the individual. How they work and how they conduct themselves is usually what we’re looking for, as opposed to just culinary background. We’re looking for good workers and people who are motivated.
EB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JK: There’s a lot of stuff out there I’ve learned. Trey Foshee is kind of a mentor of mine, and being that he works right down the street from me I tend to talk to him about experiences and get advice from him. He was a Food & Wine Top Ten chef so he’s been around and gotten a lot of good exposure. He helped me make the right choices, and helped my career get on the right path in terms of press and understanding the business and how to be mature about things.
EB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
JK: I haven’t really staged in a long time. You kind of get a sense of what’s out there. It puts things into perspective and makes you appreciate what you have. You learn a little bit about how other kitchens are run, or what people do with less or more.
EB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JK: I ask them if they do a lot of cooking at home. It usually tells me where the person’s at, if it’s just a job or if it’s a passion. When people don’t cook for themselves at home, to me it’s someone who’s not really super passionate about food. It gives me a good idea of what that person’s about.
EB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JK: I’d probably say curry and goat. I don’t know if those are just two flavors. I tend to do a lot of carrots and cumin. I think I like the aroma and the flavors. They meld together really well with the sweetness of the carrot and the nutty aroma of the cumin.
EB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
JK: A Vita-Prep. I cannot live without it.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JK: For me it’s really about staying true to who you are and what the product is. I try to showcase the product, not so much mask it. Let the product speak for itself without all the fluff, really straightforward and elegant food.
EB: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
JK: I think you really need to have a goal in life. Set some goals. Put yourself in some of the top kitchens in the country and aspire to be great. That might not be the avenue for you, but you’ll see a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work and that usually grounds you in what direction you want to take and puts things into perspective about how difficult it is to make it at the top. It’s about having good, sound goals.
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