It’s not every day you meet an individual as passionate and creative as Chef Davin Waite. Davin is a sustainability advocate, innovator, craftsman, and Oceanside restauranteur responsible for local favorites Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub, Shoots Fish & Beer, and The Plot.

We stopped by Wrench & Rodent, Davin’s inventive sushi and seafood restaurant, to pick his brain on zero waste cooking, pushing the boundaries within the plant-based movement, the craziest thing he’s ever put on a menu, and more.

Photography by Jack Antal.
Where did your love of food originate?
My love of food has always been there. My aunt had a pub in England and there might not have been any Michelin stars, but it was a damn good cheese sandwich. My dad used to cook a lot too. I’ve even got old pictures of myself standing on milk crates trying to cook. But back then, for a middle-class kid to tell their parents that they wanted to cook professionally was almost to say that you're running away to join the circus, you know? Life would've been way easier if I would've gone to college and do the same thing everyone else is doing... I tried that and it didn't really work well for me.

So after I got out of school, I was looking for a summer job and was still kinda fooling myself into thinking that I was going to go to college. But my brother told me to put that I enjoyed cooking on my application and so I did. I walked into Sushi Taisho looking to be a busser or something and they're like no, you don't want to be a busser or server, you want to be a sushi chef. I'm like, okay. They told me to go home, trim my fingernails, and come back to make California rolls. From there, it just stuck. I had a similar experience up in Santa Barabara which really pushed me into my career in sushi.
When did the notion of sustainability come to the forefront of your values and process?
I think the initial dose of it came from my dad. He'd be running around the house turning lights off after the kids left them on; he was recycling aluminum cans before anyone else really did that. So that rubbed off on me. I'm sure some of that just came from him growing up after the war, but I think some of it came just because he cared. I definitely can't talk about the sustainability part without mentioning my wife Jessica's name—she runs the plant-based part of it all that we do with The Plot. She had similar parents growing up and that kind of stuck with her, so we turbo charged each other.

Tommy Gomes, a longtime figure in the San Diego food scene—he took us under his wing in the early days and encouraged me to play with things that were different in my food. I loved the idea of turning something that doesn't make you initially hungry into something beautiful.

“I loved the idea of turning something that doesn't make you initially hungry into something beautiful.”
It also became a challenge to be resourceful and use whatever ingredients and techniques we could to make something great. Like if you can take a plant and use all the layers of the plant to support the part of the plant that we typically eat, you've got this multi-layered palate that are all kind of supporting flavors. Mother Nature put that stuff together for a reason.

There's the environment, there's the animals, and there's respecting life, but respecting life also means respecting the life of my guests. I love all the people that come in here; it's family with a lot of the locals and even some people who live in other cities that fly in just to eat here. That's a huge honor and I want to give those people something that's going nourish them and make them live longer.
Can you explain the concept of zero waste cooking through how you break down a fish?
It starts with having an open mind and an imagination. Second would be looking to other cultures because none of the stuff I do is new. The only thing I've done is put a California spin on it or put my own spin on it.

With cutting the fish, you basically look at every piece and you figure out what you can do with it. It starts with the guts, reproductive organs, eggs, livers (these can also be really good if it's the right season and the right fish), stomachs (tuna stomachs can be cleaned out and made into like a calamari), hearts... the list goes on.

For example, with fish blood, if it's fresh enough and it doesn't coagulate, we have made fish blood black pudding before. And that's where looking to places like Southeast Asia really helps. Filtering it through lemon grass really helps pull out some of the fishiness too.
Bones are great for stocks and sauces and that's not really anything new, but somewhere along the line, labor became super expensive. So there are some cases where it's cheaper to buy pre-made stock than it is to do all the little labor-intensive things, or at least that's the perception. In reality, once you customize your systems and correct the inefficiencies, then you actually save and you provide a more unique experience.

So it's just that knowledge of technique that's like your vocabulary or your box of crayons that you pull from when it comes to looking at an ingredient and thinking ‘how are we going to pull this off?’

Are you more inspired by ingredients or by a concept of a dish and sourcing components for it to come to life?
It goes both ways. There's nothing more inspiring than somebody bringing an insane ingredient to you. The more insane the ingredient, sometimes the less the chef has to do with it. So much of cooking is about knowing when not to do something to it just as much as knowing what to do with it. I think you'll notice as chefs are younger, they may put more ingredients in something. As we get older, we figure out how to do more with less.

Inspiration can come from waking up in the middle of the night with something that pops into your head, but for me most of it just comes from travel, music, and collaboration with other chefs. But inspiration can transcend mediums in a lot of ways.
Outside of cooking, what helps to inspire and/or refresh you?
Music gets me amped up. So much of my technical ability is spent on making food. If I go to see a show, that show makes me want to start a band and put on another show. But instead of doing that, I'm able to channel that energy back into food. Surfing puts me in a good mood too, I think there's something about having your skin be the same pH as the fish you're cutting—it just kind of equalizes everything.

I'd be lying if I said that owning restaurants is always happy and there's never any stress, but you learn how to deal with the stress in a positive way. For me, it’s getting out there in the morning and smacking the lip of a wave twice, that's an amazing release. Another thing is going to a punk show and running around in the pit—that’s good fun and it’s rad being able to take my kids the shows and seeing them enjoy themselves too.

What is the most “out there” ingredient you’ve ever featured on the menu at one of your restaurants?
Definitely fish sperm or the eyeballs. Honestly, one of the most insane ingredients I've ever put on someone's plate is a hot dog when you really think about it... but we've been doing weird stuff like that for a while now. You put all this effort and creativity into actualizing something and then the less exciting thing to talk about, but really the most rewarding, is the fine tuning and the refining. So I was excited when I figured out that the fish sperm tastes like liver moose, or that you can make it into a chowder.
What advice do you have for people cooking at home who want to be more conscious of the impact their food choices have on the environment?
I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is don't be scared to ask questions and make mistakes. The idea that it must be perfect or nothing is so untrue. It's a journey, not a destination. Anything we do as humans is a journey and we should enjoy it.

One of my mentors used to take a bowl and put it on top of the trash can and everything had to go in the bowl first before it went in the trash can. When you go look at that bowl a second time, you think, ‘can this be used for something?’ And you might not know if it can, but now you can consult Google and I guarantee that there's some culture somewhere where that stuff could even be a delicacy. It's all about slowing down a little bit and asking the questions. There’s a way to make almost everything taste good.
“The idea that it must be perfect or nothing is so untrue. It's a journey, not a destination. Anything we do as humans is a journey and we should enjoy it.”
Out of all the places you could be to open restaurants, why do you stay in San Diego?
Well this is my home; I can never go more than three weeks without seeing palm trees, it’s just in me. It's the people and the community of Oceanside too. We saw it during Covid, most of our restaurants survived because people take care of each other here. There's also the collaboration and the fact that the culinary world here has each other's backs. On top of that, there is an insane amount of creative people around us too. I don't know if this place has some magnetic force for attracting creative people but there’s just so much talent here and it’s inspiring.

We are spoiled with a year round growing season and the Pacific Ocean for sure... it feels like everything is just right here and the environment here shapes the food that we make in every way possible. I'm sure we'll do restaurants in other cities, but this is always going to be my home. And if there are restaurants in other cities, it's just to start showing the rest of the world what came from Oceanside.
What does craftsmanship mean to you?
To me, a craftsman is somebody who practices their version of art again and again and again until they refined it to the point of just being something beautiful. I don't think it's limited; I think it can exist in any line of work. When I think of a craftsman, some of my friends that are surfboard shapers come to mind.

You've got to be a special person to have the patience to become a craftsman. Some of the older Japanese guys I was lucky enough to work with are craftsmen. I don't even want to think about how many fish they had to cut to get that little twist of the wrist, or how they can grab that perfect size ball of rice every time. Whether you're building something that only lasts for a few minutes before somebody swallows it or something that is a work of art that society can enjoy for hundreds of years after... it's a certain level and it's a certain energy. I do believe that when somebody puts that much heart into something, it somehow becomes charged with that creative juice. People might not know it or be able to put their finger on it, but there's something special about that object that they've created.
“People might not know it or be able to put their finger on it, but there's something special about that object that they've created.”
What is the ideal day through the eyes of Davin Waite?
My philosophy is if you can build a life that you don't need to take a vacation from, you're going to be pretty happy. And that starts with being able to do something I love with people I care about and for the people I care about.

But yeah, just simply getting up and surfing with the crew here, seeing some friends in the water... if there's time to get breakfast, that's always a good thing. So much of life is about making food and eating food. Then I will come into the restaurant, cut some fish or prep some veggies over at The Plot, work around for a little bit, go check on Shoots, have some lunch... oh and a good cup of coffee is always important. And yeah just a good solid night where nothing goes wrong here at Wrench. There's a certain tiredness that you get from getting really worked in here on busy nights, but you're loving every minute of it.
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