Chef Ryan Gilbert. Courtesy photo
Chef Ryan Gilbert. Courtesy photo

When Ryan Gilbert first visited The Lafayette Hotel in December 2014, he knew instantly it was the place for him.

Gilbert, who went to the business for a job interview, said the hotel that opened in 1946 felt comforting and unpretentious.

“There was just something about the hotel —it’s almost the lack of sophistication,” Gilbert said. “It’s a throwback to a much simpler time when everything was about food, art and the company of good people. It’s a welcoming place.”

Shortly after the job interview, Gilbert was hired to become chef of the historic hotel’s HOPE 46 restaurant. His task: to bring the restaurant up to par with the rest of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary scene.

A little more than two years later, customers flock to the restaurant for the flat iron steak with Sinaloa-style pinto beans and sweet peppers or the wine braised lamb shank with fresh, spring vegetables.

“They were looking for a chef to create a standard in the culture of the restaurant,” Gilbert said. “But my food is only as good as the people I surround myself with. We’ve built a crew of dedicated people who take their craft extremely seriously and are passionate about food.”

But it was the passion of Gilbert’s family that drove him into the culinary industry.

Gilbert, who grew up in a big Sicilian and Dutch family, said he often spent his days in the kitchen with his family. His earliest memory is frying funnel cake with his great grandmother.

“It was fantastic,” Gilbert said. “There was powder sugar all over the place. To most people, being around hot oil as a kid is probably a concern, but not to my great grandmother.”

Gilbert’s grandfather was also a chef who owned two restaurants in La Mesa during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Our big excuse to get together as a family was always food,” Gilbert said. “We spent our days making sausage.”

In his early 20s, Gilbert decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and join the culinary scene. He went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked at the award-winning Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa.

Now, Gilbert, 36, finds himself infusing different cultures into his plates and promoting sustainable eating. He said he found success by absorbing as much knowledge as possible and having patience —a tip he’d offered to any hopeful chefs.

“Everyday you can learn something new in this industry,” Gilbert said. “At the end of the day, it’s about pleasing people with a plate of food.”