April 4 2012 12:58 PM

The famed San Diego DJ, event producer and chef introduces us to his experiental food philosophy

Chef Gage showed us his production skills at the photo shoot for this week's cover.
Photo by Kelly Davis

An old wooden door creaks opens to reveal a huge, beautiful warehouse. Shiny glass chandeliers hang over a smattering of old, ratty couches. Two painted mannequins with the tops of their heads cut off stand guard in a bar area labeled "Wonder Land," and a makeshift kitchen is carved into an old steel shipping container with a giant dragon kite suspended in flight nearby. And what surrealistic scene would be complete without a handful of umbrellas hanging upside-down from the ceiling?

Welcome to Chef Gage's lair. On a nice spring day a few weeks ago, he sported a faux-hawk, thick-framed glasses, mismatched socks and black shoes salted with white spray paint. A well-known DJ (Wolfgang Von Cope) and event producer (Merge Life & Music), it's easy to picture him behind the turntables or hosting an avant-garde party. It's harder to envision him in an apron with a frying pan in hand. But when Chef Gage gets around food, it's clear that he's earned his title.

"I love the whole idea of creating the space, creating the ambience and then putting the food and other experiences all in there and seeing how the chemistry and alchemy come together when people populate it," he says, comfortably seated on one of his couches with his newly remodeled and branded Gage's Global Gourmet food truck parked nearby.

His ingredients, in other words, are much more than garlic and turmeric. A dish is never truly complete until surrounded by the right atmosphere.

One of Gage's most memorable events was Project Cathedral, an ambient-music happening at St. Paul's Cathedral on Sixth Avenue in Park West that lasted for a few years more than a decade ago. He treated the event like a building-wide art installation, meticulously designing the soundscape to fit the visuals and interior. He eventually added food to the mix, cooking Indian dishes he felt paired well with the mood.

"It's about the whole picture for me," he explains.

Gage's résumé reads more like an IMDb entry profiling an actor who chooses diverse roles—he jumps back and forth between food and music. born Jonathan Gage Copenhaver, he trained in Ayurvedic cooking in India in his 20s; was the first promoter to bring electronic acts like Nortec Collective and Thievery Corporation to San Diego; eventually got hired as a chef at the Deepak Chopra Center, where he cooked for stars like Madonna and Demi Moore; spent a few years doing high-end event production for Hollywood B-listers; was recently hired by Dr. Bronner (the soap guy) to tour the country, attending festivals and helping introduce the company's new line of fair-trade coconut oil; and occasionally cooks at an intentional community (where often-likeminded residents share responsibilities) in Vista called Emerald Village. He managed to study anthropology, too, getting close to his doctorate but eventually bowing out to focus on other passions.

Gage's new food-truck venture won't be the typical gig, either. He'll serve only healthy vegan and vegetarian food, and he's already teamed up with Green Truck and the Kava Lounge for something they're calling "Conscious Playground," an event that'll focus on food, farms and sustainability and is set for a soft opening sometime in April.

Longtime friend and fan Vernon Franck says Gage has used his background in anthropology and his talent for bringing people together through music and food to create a community.

"He understands social systems intimately and, whether consciously or not, has utilized his cultural, musical and culinary predilections to influence many," Franck says. "A bit of a genius, no doubt."

Franck says he's been attending Gage's happenings since the Project Cathedral days. After one of the events, Franck called the chef to get his recipe for the dal he'd cooked the night before.

"I thought it would be simple and straight-forward—a list of ingredients and preparation instructions," Franck says. "What resulted was a philosophical discourse on flavor, texture, the virtues of sweet versus sour, how spice works not only on the palette but in the gut, digestive concerns, nutrition and on and on. I was unable to translate that into a meal… but what I gained was an insight into how this guy thinks and therefore cooks—in a truly holistic way."

Yet holistic cooking isn't Gage's only culinary cunning. Earlier this year, he teamed up with scientist Andrew Rabinovich for a molecular-gastronomy series at the Bulthaup San Diego showroom in East Village, playing with ingredients like liquid nitrogen to change the form and composition of food.

"One thing we did, and this is definitely not my vegan-chef side, but we took pork belly and we wrapped it around a sugarcane stick and we deep fried it until it was crispy," Gage smirks. "And then we took maple syrup and put it in a cotton-candy machine and made maple-syrup cotton candy and wrapped the bacon with it. So, it's sort of like that moment when your bacon falls into your syrup during breakfast."

He says he often thinks of food as conjuring up memories. When he's mixing in an ingredient, he's thinking of the sentiment that goes with it.

"That's kind of a comforting moment when you're eating bacon and pancakes," he says, "isn't it?"

Chef Gage
Photo by Kelly Davis

For our cover shot—snapped by Kelly Davis—chef Jonathan Gage adorned model Ji Hea Kim with organic produce and edible flowers from Suzie's Farm and Specialty Produce. Matsu from Azuki Sushi, Yuka Otaka and Joy Houston helped stage the shot. Thanks to Travis Houston for loaning—and assisting with—the lighting.

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