Meet Bryan Tublin, owner and co-founder of Kitava in San Francisco. Tech-manager-turned-chef, Chef Bryan Tublin shares his passion for food and health, sourced ingredients, and vegetable-centric dishes by deconstructing the Cuban Bowl.
Today: We chat with Bryan Tublin of Kitava (San Francisco) about his inspiration and thought behind his signature dish: the Cuban Bowl.
Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the menu, the Kitava brand, and the ethos of the restaurant?
Bryan Tublin: The first thing I think about when it comes to our menu and our brand ethos is that we are trying to create real food that everyone can enjoy. We fundamentally believe that you’re going to be your best if you’re putting good inputs into your body; if you’re feeding yourself with good food that you enjoy and tastes good but has a baseline of really good ingredients. We view it as nourishing the people in our community as well as nourishing the upstream vendors that we source from: the farmers, the ranchers, the communities that support agriculture. It’s nourishing our guests and community with real food and conscious sourcing; all done in a way that everyone can enjoy.
If we have these highfalutin values but the food is out of reach or not approachable and doesn’t taste good, then it doesn’t really matter. So that is why I start with the fact that it has to be food that everyone can enjoy and be approachable. We try to make the food healthy by default, and then it is our job to make it really attractive and tasty.
BT: When we talk about food, the first thing is taste, sight, smell, but also what the ingredients are themselves: they have to be approachable and recognizable to a degree. There are going to be some things that don’t appeal to everyone; and it’s not about making every single item appeal to every single person; rather, allowing everyone to look at our menu and find something they identify with — whether that is something from their childhood or something nostalgic. We put a better-for-you and healthier twist on our food.
In terms of cuisine, we think of it as modern American with a local twist. To us, this means representing the eclectic diversity of what the United States has become and what it is today. American cuisine has transformed from just meat and potatoes, rib-eye steaks, or an apple pie. American food is actually very diverse and inspired by the cuisines and flavors that a lot of people have brought from their home countries and different regions of the United States. If you walk down the street of any major city in the United States, you will see the influences of these different cultures. So when we talk about being approachable, we also want to take flavors from the diversity of the United States and have it be apparent on the menu, while having this tread of vegetable-centric dishes that use clean oils and fats in the cooking, and ethically raised animal products that are good for you, the ranchers, and the animals.
What is the Cuban bowl and can you deconstruct it for me?
BT: All our dishes are, by default, plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, and dairy-free. The core foundation of the Cuban bowl is your choice of rice, generally long-grain Jasmine rice. We have a low-carb option of cauliflower rice that is made with turmeric and scallions that a lot of our low-carb, Keto, and Paleo customers like. We also have Quinoa.
Then there is a Cumin-spiced bean blend we make out of small, red beans and Mayocoba (or Peruano) beans. We soak them overnight and then cook them in cumin and bay leaves. Soaking the beans overnight actually helps mitigate some of the effects beans have on some people’s digestive systems: this method “softens” the beans. We also have an option to remove the beans as well; if someone is Paleo and they don’t want the rice and beans, they can remove it and we can add extra greens.
The greens portion of the dish is a Kale slaw that we make: curly green Kale mixed with cabbage and tossed in a housemade tomato vinaigrette. It has that nice, bright, citrusy, and tangy flavor. However, the star of the dish is the sweet plantains that are naturally sweet and cooked in sustainably sourced palm oil from Ecuador. That is a whole great story for another time. The dish is topped with Avocado. That is the core of the dish.
BT: For those who do eat meat, I always recommend adding our pulled pork. The pork is a local farm called Marin Sun Farms where the pigs are pasture-raised, fed a natural diet, and the farm’s animal husbandry is really great. Our pulled pork recipe adds a little bit of a kick to it from some chili. Overall, it goes really well with the creamy Avocado, the sweetness of the plantains, and the rice and beans. There is also a Cuban-inspired Mojo sauce that tops it all off.
This bowl is not meant to be the most authentically Cuban dish; but, rather, its components are inspired by Cuban and Caribbean cuisines: the Mojo sauce, the plantains, the rice, and the beans (although not Black beans, which is commonly found in Cuba). We are putting our own little twist on these traditional ingredients. This dish is a well-rounded meal with all your macronutrients and options for people who are on restricted diets. Honestly, it is just delicious: the bowl will fill you up without slowing you down.
What are the key components of this dish?
BT: Going back to the modern American with a local twist theme, there are Latin American and Caribbean influences in the Bay Area and the United States. We wanted to pull those out. It wouldn’t be the Cuban bowl without the plantains, the rice and beans are a piece of that, the citrusy Mojo sauce is a piece of that. Now, the local twist from Northern California is the avocado. Flavor-wise, the pulled pork is not necessarily something you would find in the Caribbean, but we are supporting a local ranch and serving it in a way that is unique to our restaurant. Even the kale slaw is very Northern Californian. Overall, it is really the blend of all of these ingredients that make it a uniquely Kitava dish.
Was this dish an instant hit?
BT: It was on our menu since day one, but it wasn’t always our best seller. However, now it definitely is. It’s grown over time, and as people discover it they gravitate towards it. The main ingredient that people were not super familiar with were the plantains; but once they gave it a shot and tried it out, they loved it…. “most delicious bananas.” It’s like a sweet potato and a banana had a baby [laughter].
Do you think the Cuban bowl brings a cohesion to your menu and allows people who are not familiar with gluten-free or vegetable-centric dishes to try something new?
BT: The Cuban bowl does serve as a great entry point for a lot of different perspectives. For example, people who are skeptical about vegetables and hate the idea of eating kale, but love rice and beans, or even the plantains, will try the dish and after one bite of the kale slaw, they usually say “oh yeah this is actually done really well”. They like the blend of the flavors and the dressing. The Cuban bowl brings people into trying new things, especially the more leafy vegetables.
On the other hand, the vegans of the world who only eat kale and cold salads for lunch, come in and try the Cuban bowl which is a hot dish and find it to be hearty, filling, delicious, and cohesive. So, you definitely get both ends of the spectrum with this dish which is cool. People from different cultures and walks of life join and unite over this dish, which I think is great and really awesome.
Sourcing ingredients is a labor of love in the restaurant industry. What goes into choosing a supplier?
BT: It is bigger than just what happens at the table, when we say we nourish people and communities that is the definition I believe in. When choosing a supplier, we see if they fit the food standards that we are trying to achieve. For example, on the vegetable side, we follow something called the “dirty dozen, clean 15 sourcing.” This is a list put out by the environmental working group that ranks vegetables and produce products that are most and least exposed to pesticides in the growing process. We are not 100% organic on the produce side, because we highly prioritize our animal protein sourcing and the fats and oils we cook with. We always ask: do they meet our standards and can we accurately source organic veggies where we need to? And is the conventional produce we get going to be of good quality and ideally local?
BT: On the animal protein side, for our chicken, beef, pork, and fish, we have very stringent requirements, especially for a fast-casual establishment. We only get certain products that fit our definitions of what is good for human consumption and what’s right for the animals and the land that it is grown on. For chicken, it’s either free-range, organic, or pasture-raised. For the beef, it’s always 100% grass-fed and grass-finished. The pork comes from pigs raised on a natural diet, and ideally, pasture-raised. For the fish, it is always wild-caught or sustainably farmed. It has got to hit on each one of those. We want to support the folks doing this.
To use, the fats and oils side is just as, if not even more, important than the animal protein side. This is something that we choose to focus on because we think it has a huge impact on people’s health without them even knowing. So we get oils that are from whole food sources, that are not highly refined or industrially processed, and are going to hold up well on high-heat cooking. That is why we fry a lot of things: plantains, brussel sprouts, and chicken nuggets. It’s all fried in sustainable, regeneratively farmed, certified organic palm oil from Ecuador. My business partner [and I] have visited the farms in Ecuador and talked to the organization about the sources of the oil. We’ve spoken to the farmers and families who make it. We just believe that we have to do right by the inputs. We take this stuff very seriously. Our olive oil is done in a similar fashion, we vet it very well and make sure it is 100% pure, extra virgin olive oil and not cut with any other types of oil.
BT: We try to take this approach to everything we do: does it meet our standards? And if so, can we get it in the quantities we need? Since we’re fast-casual, we have more volume and a lower price point than a fine dining establishment. It has to be for a reasonable price without sacrificing the standard. It’s about finding the right vendors who are doing it at scale so the costs are reasonable and the availability is guaranteed. Their reputation in the industry is important and we ideally choose local but have to be flexible because our standards are really high. The net benefit of sourcing from where we do is beneficial for the world, the environment, and the health of the people, we are serving. We are making trade-offs, but we don’t consider it to be a compromise.
What’s the weirdest modification you’ve had for a diner request?
BT: Someone once ordered a Cuban bowl with no rice, no beans, not even Cauliflower rice or Quinoa. It is odd for a Cuban bowl. I can understand someone not wanting beans or not wanting rice, which is why we have the alternatives. We also have the option to order the plantains, kale slaw, and avocado separately. So having someone specifically order a Cuban bowl without any of that was odd.
If you could sit down and eat the Cuban bowl with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
BT: The name that comes to mind first is Anthony Bourdain. I would love to chat with him about his experiences in Cuba and tasting the food there. We have a picture of him on the wall in our office, a very inspirational person. Reading his first book was an insight into how deep of a thinker he was and I respect anyone who is as introspective and open as he was. He is always on my “dead or alive” lists.
I wish he had spoken out about his mental health issues. Everyone thought he had the dream life: he could travel, he could taste food from so many different cultures, he had the autonomy, the freedom, and the financial stability to do all of that. Yet, he still wasn’t happy, something didn’t click. The broader lesson for everybody, especially those in the food industry, is that we seek all these external things to say we made it or that we’re happy, but if someone like him can reach the pinnacle and still suffer, it leads me to check myself and think about what will make me happy.
How often does your menu change?
BT: We have been doing monthly specials since the start of COVID to change things up a bit. We contracted our menu over the past year by cutting down the things that were a little more labor-intensive and low margin (didn’t sell as well). However, we made up for that by having monthly specials. We are actually in the middle of a redevelopment project of revamping our menu. Unfortunately, that is something that I cannot unveil in this conversation, but in the next couple of months, we are going to have some exciting things to announce.
We like the idea of having a seasonal focus, which is currently in the form of specials. We are not changing our menu weekly and definitely want to keep the core favorites that our regular customers love. For example, right now we have a seasonal Heirloom tomato salad as a summer special. Heirloom tomatoes are not seasonal all year but right now they are bright, sweet, and delicious.
What got you into the restaurant world?
BT: I actually started as a product manager for software companies before this. I was always interested in health and wellness, but the spark to actually do something in the food industry came from a personal injury that I had. Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet really helped me recover. I started eating really clean, focusing on healthy fats and oils, good quality meats, vegetable-centric, non-inflammatory ingredients, and cutting out refined sugar. I realized that it is really hard to eat this way unless I was cooking at home for myself.
After I recovered in 2012, I was back in the world trying to find this kind of food and it was really hard. So I started learning more about nutrition and what food really does to your body, the sourcing component of food, and realizing how messed up our industrial agriculture and food system is in general. That is what sparked my interest in the food industry: there is a lot of marketing around health, but there are not a lot of businesses and brands that actually put a product out that I would want to eat. It sparked my interest to make good food more accessible to people in a fast-casual setting.
How conscious of a decision was it that you wanted to create easily accessible food, with a nutrition and health conscious focus and ended up in an old McDonald’s building? Was that intentional?
BT: I can’t tell you it was in the business plan, but when you’re dreaming up this idea and hoping and wishing to replace all the McDonald’s in the world it is quite funny. The opportunity came about, it was a cool story, and it is an aspect that a lot of our customers do find pretty hilarious. The idea of replacing what was a McDonald’s that was here for 30 years with something that was clean, casual, and approachable is such a unique aspect of our story. This opportunity also arose during a time where it was hard to come across good real estate. I didn’t know that McDonald’s kitchens were so huge! This actually made it easier for us to cater parties and do large deliveries. We had a front-of-house space that we completely transformed from a stressful space to a zenned out setting. It’s a cool story but it definitely was not baked into the business plan.
In your opinion, what is the relationship between tech and the kitchen?
BT: As far as modern digital technology, it’s all about how it can be plugged into make things more streamlined and efficient: to streamline communications and make sure everyone is on the same page. In our kitchen, we have display screens where the orders pop up on; there is information that you can communicate more clearly through this method. There are downsides too. With every tech decision, there are trade-offs. However, ideally, tech should make things more efficient and not just be a shiny new tool.
How do you use tech in your day to day?
BT: As a business owner and operator, I use tech all the time. A lot of it is cloud-based tools. As it relates to the team, we have a digital cloud-based tool for time clocks, schedule management, and team communication. It is thoroughly integrated into our operations. We have POS systems, order display screens, and we use Cut+Dry for ordering.
What part of your job do you wish tech could make easier for you?
BT: There are always things I wish existed. For example, a single, consolidated platform for all of our ordering to get the best price for things like packaging and dry goods. That area is a black box and it is very difficult to compare vendors and know if you’re getting the best price, the best service, and the best product without actually switching and trying out a new vendor. Say, we wanted to source a compostable packaging of a particular size, what are all options available? From there we could see prices, ratings, ect. It would be amazing if these can be consolidated into one platform.
What do you like (or not) about Cut+Dry?
BT: I really like the whole product catalog. The fact that it is available online allows me to just look it up, compare products, and make a choice. There are even photos of the products which help me to visually filter. Plus, it has the shipping unit size and the price all available in one place. It’s very practical. We use separate software for our invoices, but unfortunately, their software does not use units. For example, if we order asparagus, it will say “case of asparagus;” I do not know how much that case weighs or anything. So in the past, I would have to call up the vendor to find out. But with Cut+Dry, I can just look it up and get the exact size and weight. I can update our inventory system with that information. And that is just one example. Some of our team members like the mobile version, some like the web-based version, but overall, these are all great benefits.
Kitava Locations & Hours
Kitava San Francisco (Mission District)
2011 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
11am – 9pm daily
Kitava Oakland @ Buck Wild Brewing
401 Jackson Street
Oakland, CA 94607
11am – 9pm daily (delivery & pickup)
Follow Bryan Tublin & Kitava on Instagram.
Read more on The Deconstructed Dish.