On the Line: Ryan O'Melveny Wilson of Five Crowns and SideDoor, Part One

The first time I met Ryan O'Melveny Wilson, I wasn't sure it was him; I think the plaid shirt threw me off. His kitchen cool extends beyond his attire, as I find when we meet in the greenhouse of Five Crowns. We found a commonality in our Bay Area upbringing, discussing the Mission's ever-changing food scene and his stint at one of my favorite restaurants. Get to know the executive chef behind a duo of Corona del Mar's finest.

Your earliest food memory:
Duck-liver pâté. I was probably 2-years old, maybe 2 and a half? It was one of my first solid foods, oddly enough. From there, and for the majority of my childhood, I was a very picky eater. Despite growing up in a restaurant, I liked hamburgers, french fries, bland pasta, etc. “Shades of beige,” my parents joke about it, like I was destined to become a chef.

Favorite meal growing up:
Freshly ground hamburgers on toasted sourdough. Dry, nothing on it. No lettuce. Nothing. [Editor's Note: Reminds me of a certain restaurant reviewer.].

Your best recent food find:
Fried-catfish spring rolls at Ho Ann in Westminster.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Coriander seeds. We put them into our black-pepper mix. I think it gives food a floral, lightly herbaceous quality. Yet you're not actually incorporating herbs. And I think it's incredibly diverse. There are applications from Southeast Asian food to Italian food, and I just think it's one of those spices. I found people always ask, “What's that other flavor in there?” I like cilantro as well, but dried (or fresh when you can find it) coriander is incredible, adding another dimension to food.

Conceptually, SideDoor appears quite different from the other Lawry's locations. How does it remain true to the brand?
SideDoor's commitment to exceptional food and service in a memorable and unique environment exhibits Lawry's core standards.

What is the history behind Five Crowns?
My grandparents bought the restaurant in 1964. They renovated it for about six months and opened Five Crowns in 1965. It's been in our family ever since. It's gone through a couple of different themes to the dining experience. Then, last year, almost to the day, we closed the restaurant for the first time since the early '80s and renovated it to what you see now.

My first full-time kitchen job was here in 2003. I was working on the pantry, making salads and desserts, doing Sunday brunch service. I left to pursue my training in northern California and Europe, then came back in a developmental role with our past executive chef in 2008. I worked on the opening of SideDoor, then did the renovation.

Tell us about your Five Crowns ambassador, Tommy.
Tommy Martin is an icon in the local community, and personally speaking, he's an inspiration to me as a man and a person of service. He has tirelessly and passionately worked for my family's restaurant for 43 years.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Vietnamese food.

What fast food do you admit to eating?
Carnitas tacos–because it's a carnitas taco.

What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
My favorite cocktail is a Negroni, and I must say Koire Rogers of SideDoor makes one of the finest I know of anywhere.

Where is the cheese and charcuterie from?
We buy from a variety of producers and distributors, but the majority comes from Aniata Cheese in northern San Diego County. It's a program we spend a lot of time training on. We make sure there's a good diversity to our products. It's something I'm very proud of.

What does the big red key symbolize?
The title and conceptual ethos of the SideDoor is just that, a secret entrance to your wonderful neighborhood pub. The red key is something of an intimate billboard for SideDoor. It's what we hang outside the restaurant, calling people in for comfort and warm hospitality.

One food you can't live without and why:
Really good olive oil because it's delicious, complex and incredibly diverse.

Where was your most recent meal?
Breakfast with my nephew at my grandparents' home. He's 18 months old. I was feeding him bananas and strawberries and having toast with butter.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Keep your knives sharp, and use your steel every time you use your knives.

How long ago did you start serving SideDoor brunch?
It's been more than a year now. We do a “beer geek” brunch. We have a couple of standard brunch items, but in addition to them, we take two or three beers and we pair a few dishes specifically to them and package them together. Everybody thinks of the champagne brunch. We thought there's so many incredible beers out there, and people know SideDoor has a great beer program. We saw an opportunity to do something different.

What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
I am fine with people taking pictures of their food as long as it does not offend or affect another diner's experience. I don't understand chefs who obsess over it, and then will actually go to the end of confronting the guest. I see it as, then, you're violating their experience.

Favorite chef:
Tough one, but I'm enamored with Sean Brock these days because of his passion and dedication to true farm-to-table cooking and rejuvenating a forgotten and lost food culture.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Live sea-snail entrails. I was training with a sushi master in Tokyo, after opening one of my family's franchises in Osaka. We were cleaning sea snails, and he literally popped the foot off the snail and cleaned out the majority of the meat. And he rinsed it under the faucet and popped one and said, “You do the same.” I rinsed one under the faucet and ate it, and it was one of the more offensive things I've ever eaten. It was still twitching and tasted like battery acid. It's supposed to be good for your health and men's virility. 

Sweet or savory?
Savory, for sure. I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Definitely meats and cheeses. I would much rather have a piece of cheese at the end of a meal than, say, a souffle.

Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
Locally speaking, I like Mozza for a chopped salad and a pie. Also, all sorts of spots up in Westminster for Vietnamese food, but I cannot recall all of the names.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Usually, just some fresh fruit and a bite of cheese; but when I make something more elaborate, I like poached eggs and some savory, salty meat, such as crispy pork belly.

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