On the Line: John Cuevas of Waterman's Harbor, Part One

Photo courtesy of Community Driven Hospitality

A chef tasked to helm a kitchen is tough work. So when I learned John Cuevas oversees three, I almost felt bad for the man. Yet he is in good spirits when we finally sit down on a hectic Saturday evening to go over his responses.

You could've opened Waterman's anywhere. Why Dana Point Harbor? There is no other place like it, and we've opened something that didn't exist. It's quality, fresh, amazing views and warm service.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best: We're right on the ocean, and able to pull from the abundance of local seafood.

We learned you are managing more than one establishment as Director of Culinary. Tell us about the other two concepts, and how they differ from Waterman's. Each location has its own unique theme, and the menus are designed to reflect that. All the menus use locally sourced meats, produce and seafood whenever possible. I really believe in utilizing local farms and suppliers-- I know where the food is coming from, how it has been produced and how fresh it really is.

Sunsets Capo Beach is a Hawaiian-themed bar. The specialty cocktails are designed using tropical or local Hawaiian ingredients including lilikoi, lychee and Hawaiian liquors. While Sunsets may be a bar, it still offers high-quality dishes. A bit of a more gastropub-type feel. It has everything from fresh poke from Hawaii to Kahlua pork sliders to a local fish sandwich.

StillWater is not only a restaurant, but an entertainment venue as well. So I had to design a menu that offered well-constructed dinner items, as well as lighter dishes for the crowd later at night. There is the coffee-crusted steak for the dinner crowd, and flatbreads and sweet potato tater tots for those looking for something a bit lighter or to share. StillWater has also started to offer featured dinner items each week and weekend brunch. This has given me and the rest of the culinary team a chance to expand our menu to feature what's in season, or to try out new dishes.

Most undervalued ingredient: Any acid-- lemon, lime, vinegar. My "go-to" is fresh lemon, zest or juice.

Your best recent food find: Local sea urchin fisherman out of Dana Point. He brings it right from the water into our back door.

Tell us about the name, and how it ties into the decor. Waterman's Harbor is named after those who make their living from the water. Waterman's reflects the spirit of the "Waterman" through its views, location and decor. The restaurant was designed to take advantage of its location on the water; every interior seat is close to a window, and there are three patios overlooking the harbor. It also has images and personal items from famous surfers, sailors and other "watermen/women."

What do you recommend for first-timers? When are plans to serve lunch and brunch? Crab beignets, chilled oysters, whole loup de mer. We are tentatively scheduled to start offering weekend brunch in November, with plans to offer lunch shortly after.

Where was your most recent meal? At home after a long day, my fiancee's white bean chicken chili and an ice cold Hangar 24 Orange Wheat.

Favorite places to eat. Claro's Italian Market and Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana.

One food you can't live without. I have a gnarly sweet tooth and love chocolate.

Best culinary tip for the home cook: Never cook on high heat.

Give us an example of an element of surprise in a dish. For me, it's all about textures. I love the challenge of playing with textures that often catch our guests by surprise. One example is the rice noodle, which our guests often refer to as pasta, but it eats more like a potato gnocchi. This is added to a really flavorful, briny shrimp entree that is served with smoky chorizo and sour and spicy kimchee. The combination of the different flavors and textures has caught the guests by surprise, and it has become a very popular item.

Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make? Anything pastry. Specifically, I would love how to make chocolate sculptures and showpiece cakes.

Waterman's Harbor is located at 34661 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 764-3474; www.watermandp.com.

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