A native of Connecticut who grew up in a large Italian family, Judd Canepari, the executive chef at the landmark La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, credits his grandmother and aunt for inspiring his lust for the culinary arts.
"They are very accomplished home cooks, and watching them really inspired me to want to learn to cook," he says. "My grandmother used to make her own pasta, grow her own fruits and vegetables and can her own tomatoes. I was puttering around in her kitchen as soon as I could reach over the counter."
At the age of 16, when he got a job in a country club restaurant, he says he witnessed for the first time "how much respect and influence the chef had over other people in the kitchen and the restaurant, and I said to myself, 'Wow, I want to be like that.' "
By most people's yardstick, Canepari, who has risen through the industry ranks to become the executive chef of La Valencia's three restaurants , the Sky Room, Whaling Bar and Grill and the Mediterranean Room , is a success. But it has come at a price, he admits.
After graduating from culinary school in 1990 and working as a sous chef in his home state, Canepari traveled to San Diego in 1998 to be near his son, who at the time was 2.
"I came with everything I owned in a four-door Jetta and I slept in my car for many nights before I could finally afford a down payment on my first apartment," he says of his job as one of the opening sous chefs for Rappongi Restaurant, Bar and Cafe in La Jolla.
Through a succession of jobs, including that of private chef, he continued to pursue his goal of becoming an executive chef at one of the city's top restaurants.
During the lean years, he supplemented his diet of Top Ramen and cereal by eating where he worked. A good night's sleep was hard to come by, but on-the-job injuries weren't. And he never seemed to find enough time to spend with his son.
"It's not easy having a normal relationship with a child when you work long hours, nights and holidays. I have a head full of gray hair, although I'm only 36, and I have burns over 50 percent of my hands and arms."
Job title and company name: Executive chef, La Valencia Hotel.
Education: Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., culinary school.
Birthplace and date: New Haven, Conn., April 13, 1969.
Residence: San Diego.
Family: Son, Dylan, 10.
Essential philosophy about the restaurant business: Consistency, dedication and love for your craft are everything.
Best way to keep a competitive edge: Never forget that you can learn something new every day.
Goals yet to be achieved: To be in charge of multiple facilities, possibly as a corporate-level chef.
Best career decision: To start up my own company, Edible Entertainment, an in-home cooking, catering and entertainment business in June 2003. I still run the business while working full time by subcontracting with people to do various jobs.
Toughest management task: Initially controlling the finances for my business and making sure everyone got paid. I have an accountant now.
Missed opportunity: I had an offer to become the executive chef at the Westin Hotel in Pittsburgh, but I forfeited the opportunity to become a private chef in Ocean Beach for the owner and CEO of Berkeley Pharmaceuticals.
Mentor: Allan DeCoster, the executive chef at a country club in Westport, Conn., where I managed to get a job when I was 22. It was my first professional position out of culinary school.
I've been told I'm: Intense.
What I like best about my work: The ability to be creative.
What I like least about my work: The fact that we have to work when others are relaxing and having a good time.
Pet peeve: Mediocrity.
Person I'd most like to meet: The dalai lama.
Most-respected competitor: Geno Bernardo, the executive chef of the Nine Restaurant Group in Las Vegas.
Greatest passion: My work.
What I'd be doing if I weren't doing this: There is nothing else. I was born to do this.
Favorite quote: "Life has been good to me."
Favorite book: "It Must've Been Something I Ate," by Jeffery Steingarten.
Dream vacation spot: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
If I could have any car in the world it would be: The one I just bought , a 2006 Infinity M45, 4.5 liter, 335 horsepower V-8 with a sport package, a spoiler on the back, low-profile tires, titanium rims and a GPS navigational system.