I had the pleasure of talking with James Boyce back when he was executive chef at Loews Coronado Bay Resort on the gorgeous Coronado Island near San Diego, California (James has since moved on). In addition to his duties at the resort's signature restaurant, Azzura Point, James is in charge of the huge resort's entire food and beverage operation.
James' love of cooking began in his home town of Poughkeepsie, New York, when at the age of fourteen he started working in a bagel shop. From those humble beginnings, he went on to graduate from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. His cooking career really took off when he worked at New York's famed Le Cirque Restaurant (follow this link for an interview with another of Le Cirque's great chefs, Jacques Torres). From there, James went on to head up kitchens at such world-class resorts as The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona and Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.
But Boyce is quick to point out that he's happiest living in Coronado where he's close to the sea and the wonderful cooking bounty that it provides. Under his guidance, Loews Coronado Bay Resort's Azzura Point restaurant has won numerous awards and accolades, including "Best Hotel/Resort Dining" and "Best Sunday Brunch" from San Diego Magazine and rave reviews in Travel and Leisure. Simply Seafood Magazine selected Boyce as one of the top three "Seafood Chefs of the Year" in 1996.
A quiet, intense man, James comes alive when he starts talking about things that really interest him. This was best illustrated during the time we spent walking through the resort's extensive herb garden, a project that James and horticulturist Rene Mares teamed up to create. The garden contains more than 40 common and exotic herb varieties and is one of the largest of its kind in Southern California. The first part of this interview took place in the newly refurbished Azzura Point, the second part in the above mentioned herb garden.
In our interview James said that one of the most important things he brought with him from his roots in New York was his work ethic. He wasn't kidding. In addition to the multitude of every day duties involved in running the food and beverage operation for a first-class resort such as Loews, James still finds time to arrange special events such as Farmer's Markets, cooking classes at the resort and for outside venues, and he is very involved with the Share Our Strength program.
Cheri Sicard - How important is classical training for a chef?
James Boyce - I was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America, that was reinforced during my time at Le Cirque, with a little twist on it. It's sort of a mix. I rely on a lot of the classical training and cooking techniques, but I mix a different variety of foods. I wouldn't categorize it as Mediterranean or French. I use California ingredients a lot of the time. So, you'll see my menu, like tonight I'll do a mix of fish and meat, but then again I'll use foie gras and lobster creme brulée, you know, a lot of things. I like to have fun. I think I portray that to my cooks, so it's "dare to be different". The wines we mix a little bit - California, French. It doesn't have to be California because we're in California. We get away with a little more because of our location too. This is a Mediterranean setting, so I think they categorize my food as that. I do have a little training in such. I worked with Boulud in New York (Daniel Boulud of Le Cirque), he's from Lyon. Then, at the Phoenician I worked with a Ducassé protegé so it kind of had that Riviera feel. And then just by picking up this and doing that I arrived where I'm at today. I mean it's sort of hard to say, when people ask 'What do you like to cook?'
Cheri Sicard - Where are you from originally?
James Boyce - I was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, so I'm from the east coast. I went to college in the south for a while, then I graduated from Long Island University, then I went to the Culinary (the Culinary Institute of America). I really caught on to cooking when I was young.
Cheri Sicard - How have your tastes evolved over the years?
James Boyce - I think now I'm more concerned with healthy food, things more along that line. But people want that splurge food. Not decreasing flavor by cutting fat. You know, the grand things like foie gras and sweet breads, the bad stuff for you. It's about decreasing size. Cream is good for your diet, fats are good for your diet, I mean in moderation. People don't go out to eat the splurge foods every day. So, I alter that by using a lot of fresh herbs, portion sizes. If you increase the quality, you can decrease the, well I don't want to say quantity, but cheaper quality stuff contains more fat and more by-products. If you go up in the price then you get the good quality fish that are low in fats, things like that.
Cheri Sicard - I hear you're proud of your herb garden.
James Boyce - Yeah, I am. You'll see that tomorrow, but you'll see tonight some of the tables will be decorated with fresh herbs. (Editor's note: And in fact, they were, each table was adorned with a large centerpiece overflowing with beautiful, fragrant fresh herbs.)
Cheri Sicard - What are your favorite ingredients? If you had to pick one or two things that you couldn't do without?
James Boyce - I like shellfish a lot. That's a pretty big category, but I like prawns, shrimp, scallops, lobster. Fish is probably more of my strong point than the meat side. Just from the fact of my training and where I came from. I'm not saying that New York is great for fish, but it was portrayed to me how important it was for flavors and you can get away with a lot of diversity with it.
James Boyce - Probably a good, sharp French knife. But, besides that, I would say a good French steel sauté pan. It's very important in cooking fish. Those two are probably the most important ones.
Cheri Sicard - Are there any types of gadgets that maybe are a bit unnecessary that you still like?
James Boyce - One of those weird peelers, you know they're totally unnecessary, but I kind of like them. I always seem to have one or two around. And a plastic mandoline.
Cheri Sicard - I can never get them to work. I've tried and tried.
James Boyce - (laughs) It's sort of funny, I never could for a while. I was always afraid of cutting myself, but I guess if you cut yourself once in awhile it sort of helps to get over that.
Cheri Sicard - So to learn how to use it, you have to cut yourself, that's the trick?
James Boyce - (laughing more) Something like that, yeah.
Cheri Sicard - Do you have a secret chef's tip for our readers?
James Boyce - Hmmm...secret chef's tip. Probably it would be that when cooking fish, you don't have to cook it well done now. Most of our fish is farm raised. And also with pork. A lot of people that I teach tend to cook pork until it's extremely well done, but you can get away with a medium pork and a medium fish.
Cheri Sicard - Everyone's been taught to cook pork well done for safety reasons.
James Boyce - Yeah, yeah, especially from the east. You know, cook it until it's dead.
Cheri Sicard - How did you get into being a chef? Was anyone from your family in this profession?
James Boyce - No, my family was real business oriented. I went towards the culinary field because my next door neighbor opened a little deli/bakery/bagel place, so I started working there when I was fourteen. And then I went to college, but I still felt like I had to get back into the kitchen, so I just sort of put myself through school working towards that goal.
Cheri Sicard - You grew up in New York. What do you bring of your roots to your cooking, if anything?
James Boyce - Hmm. A good work ethic. I work...probably too many hours. That's sort of like a New York style, you know.
Cheri Sicard - That goes with the territory of being a chef, though.
James Boyce - Well, there are some chefs who don't put in the hours. But I like to be involved with everything. Growing up in New York, it's sort of a dog eat dog town, and working in New York City it was always, see who could get there first, see who could work more, so I think I brought that with me. It's always the work ethic that I carry on the most. Even if I could take off, I probably wouldn't.
Cheri Sicard - So do you love what you're doing, or is it just a compulsion?
James Boyce - No, I love what I'm doing! You have to love it, you have to be dedicated. It's never a routine. When something's good somewhere, there's a challenge somewhere else. Especially when you control the whole resort. I'd always like to work up here (the Azzura Point Restaurant) every night, but I don't always get the chance. We have four restaurants, many banquet halls, you know, it gets overwhelming. There are just not enough hours in the day. So you have to sacrifice some parts of your life to do it, to do it well anyway. It can be difficult.
Cheri Sicard - Here in Coronado Island, you are very close to the Mexican border. Does that bring any influence to your food?
James Boyce - Yeah, it does. I'd say that 75% of my cooks are Mexican. A lot of them travel over the border. We get a lot of preparation styles that are different. We have a clientele that's attracted to that, so we try to bring some of that influence in here. We have the pool that sells a lot of south-of-the-border style dishes. I write the menus, but the cooks translate them into their own styles. Same thing with downstairs (the hotel's casual cafe), we do a lot of buffets. In this room (Azzura Point) we don't use too much of a south of the border influence but downstairs, it makes sense to. We also have Mediterranean influences with pizza and pastas and salads. So, it's a good mix. We could never go 100% with the Mexican influence, but the influence is there. And I've learned a lot, with the salsas and the raw vegetables and the fruits mixed together. And the juices they have down there, that are phenomenal, that we don't get here. And the way they cook their meat in marinades. So, I have picked up a lot of that.
Cheri Sicard - Tell us about the changes to Azzura Point.
James Boyce - Well, it used to be very white, very austere, very Cape Cod looking. No tablecloths, there was a wood floor, but it was whimsical with the checkers. Now it's sort of a semi-sophisticated supper club atmosphere. In the lounge area we will be offering a lighter menu, sort of bistro style. We serve appetizers out here. We've brought a little bit of an international feel to it, the animals, sconces on the wall, Venetian - style chandeliers and banquettes. My food is still the same. Maybe it didn't match the room before, but it's closer, more well suited now. Before it was sort of a light, airy kind of feel, sort of a California Casual, which I hate to hear. Now we have tablecloths on all of the tables, Limoges china, fine crystal; I think we're ahead of our time here. And you'll see how it transforms at night, with the lights. We have a pianist or a jazz guitarist that comes in. The staff is well trained. You feel as though you're taken out of the resort and into a private restaurant. I don't know how you would categorize the room, it's about each person's own interpretation, which adds to the excitement.
Cheri Sicard - I've heard that you do cooking demonstrations here at the resort.
James Boyce - All the time. We have one on Saturdays at 11 AM in the kitchen of Azzura Point for resort guests. I also do them for organized groups. I do herb garden tours. I do a fall and spring cooking class series. In the fall we usually do it around Thanksgiving. Last year we did an alternative Thanksgiving dinner. We did desserts for the holidays with our pastry chef. What's interesting too, is we do a farmer's market, where we bring in the local purveyors that supply us all year and they set up the last Friday of every month starting after Memorial Day. It's more than a farmer's market because we also bring in micro-brews that are made in the area, local tortilla makers, we have corn on the cob. Pretty much everything we buy in the resort.
Cheri Sicard - Is that just for resort guests, or does it attract locals too?
James Boyce - We started off with like seventy-five people, so then we changed it to more of that market place, where you can get anything from fresh cut flowers to cooking demonstrations. I usually bring in a regional chef or cookbook author and they do a cooking demo with tastings. So now we get over two hundred people.
James Boyce - Yeah, I do. Especially where we sit. We've brought a lot features here that are not usual for a 4-star, 4-diamond resort. We offer a lot for the outside. Cooking classes, our markets, demonstrations, kitchen tours. We are involved.