In the kitchen with Josh Thomsen. Photo courtesy

Josh Thomsen knew from a young age that he wanted to be a chef and credits his late father, Jerry, for sparking his culinary interest. His dad would put in a long day as a stockbroker, come home, go to the market, and then cook up a storm — making a mess, using every pot in the house, and turning out a delicious dinner.

The Culinary Institute of America grad has done his dad proud. Thomsen’s resumé includes stints at the French Laundry in Yountville, Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, and The Lodge at Pebble Beach. He’s also worked in kitchens in big-buck Las Vegas venues like Tao Restaurant at the Venetian Resort, the Mansion at the MGM Grand Hotel, and the Michael Mina-owned Nobhill Tavern.

These days Thomsen, 40, is the executive chef at local landmark The Claremont Hotel, Club, and Spa, known for its regal white facade and killer views. Until recently, though, the hotel wasn’t exactly known as a destination dining experience.

Thomsen is trying to change that. In December 2009 the hotel unveiled his take on contemporary California cuisine (think seasonal farm-to-table fare, complete with wine pairings, the cuisine du jour) in the Meritage restaurant (formerly Jordan’s). Thomsen also overseas the hotel’s hipster hang-out Paragon Bar & Café, its poolside Spa Café, banquet and room service — and manages a staff of 72. In 2010 he was named a rising star by online magazine for dishes like Braised Beef Short Ribs With Seasonal Vegetables and Sonoma Goat Cheese-Potato Terrine with Baby Beets and Aged Balsamic Syrup.

Last year he also founded the Berkeley Wine Festival, an annual event which opens tonight at the hotel. The festival features the Meritage chef’s cooking paired with wines from California, Oregon, Italy, and France. This year Thomsen shares the stage with other local chefs such as Sean Baker from Gather, Amy Murray from Revival Bar & Kitchen and VenusRick Debeaord from Café RougePaul Arenstam of Summer Kitchen, and Maximillian DiMare from Wood Tavern and the new Southie. The two-month long event includes receptions, dinners, and seminars hosted by winemakers and proprietors.

I talked shop with Thomsen, who lives near The Claremont on the Berkeley-Oakland border, in his office, which overseas the hotel’s kitchen.

Thomsen’s Seared Scallop with Cauliflower, Caper, Raisin Relish. Photo: John Benson.
Thomsen’s Seared Scallop with Cauliflower, Caper, Raisin Relish. Photo: John Benson.

How is it working in a small-town hotel restaurant after working in big-name places?

I’m fine with small town; I grew up in a suburb of New Jersey, we used to go into New York City to eat. Yountville is hardly a big city, neither is Boulder, where I worked at the restaurant in The Little Nell Hotel. I’m comfortable in small-town settings and I have plenty of experience in hotel restaurants too. So these are familiar environments to me. I actually like being near a city but retreating in my off hours to somewhere quiet.

What are you most pleased about since taking over as executive chef?

Updating the menu and working with the same staff, who are all union, and getting their buy-in for what I want to do. I’m proud that I haven’t lost a single employee. I started with improving the cafeteria food — I eat there too — I wanted to make it a place where the staff wanted to eat.

Are there challenges running a hotel restaurant here?

Well, we remodeled and revamped the menu in a horrible economy. Michael Bauer [the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic] won’t review hotel food. And people from San Francisco don’t seem to want to cross the bridge. What is that about?

Some challenges — making the front gate and entrance more accessible and welcoming, updating the marquis — are structural things we’re working on.

Mostly, we’re just trying to get the word out that people can have a meal here for a reasonable price, similar to other comparable restaurants in town. There’s no need to think of us as just a special occasion place. I tell people: we may be high on the hill but we’re not high on your pocket book.

How has the hotel’s recent bankruptcy filing affected how you do your job?

Not a bit. It’s a debt restructuring and the owners seem committed for the long haul and prepared to put some money into improvements. I gave out raises last week. I’ve fielded a lot of inquiries from vendors and employees but it’s business as usual in the kitchen.

Why a Berkeley Wine Festival?

There’s so much talent in the local restaurant scene, we’re so close to the Napa Valley, and we have the money and the venue to hold this event. I’m not trying to be the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, where people fly in to attend, but why not come together to celebrate some of the best food in Berkeley?

How did you choose the chefs in the festival mix?

I chose chefs who run restaurants I like to eat at myself. These are all people who share the same work ethic, sensibility and approach to food as I do. The food starts with the best ingredients and it’s not played with too much.

I went to Gather three times this past month. I can learn something about cooking with vegetables from Sean Baker. Matt Di Mare at Wood Tavern is a friend; I like the bolognese pappardelle there. For some reason that sounds good to me at 10 at night. I also like the pork sandwich he serves at his new place next door, Southie.

Amy’s food at Venus and Revival is true to the season, changes often, and is fresh and clean. I ate a great salad at Revival recently. Café Rouge is my meat and charcuterie go-to place. I like their pork chops; they don’t waste one bit of the animal. And the atmosphere is friendly — on my day off I might go sit at the bar for lunch.

Sometimes I’ll call Paul [Arenstam] at Summer Kitchen and tell him not to close down the pizza oven and I’ll swing by to eat and kibbitz while he cleans up.

Where else do you like to eat in Berkeley?

House of Curries [formerly Naan ‘n’ Curry] on College Avenue. They do a great Rogan Josh, though they don’t call it that. It’s a rich lamb stew. I call it in and pick it up on my way home. I would have included them in the festival if they could have found a way to make it work.

Claremont’s Thomsen named a rising star [05.12.10]
Gather chef Sean Baker named best of the year [10.11.10]
Berkeley Bites: Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster [03.26.10]
Berkeley Bites: Amy Murray, Venus and now Revival [06.11.10]
Berkeley Bites: Paul Arenstam and Charlene Reis, Summer Kitchen & Bakeshop [08.06.10]

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.