James Clark

Executive Chef


James Clark - Seared Scallops with a Lobster Scented Risotto

James Clark’s fearless creativity in the kitchen has spawned such creations as Vermont maple syrup ice cream laced with a caramel ribbon and a crunchy surprise – brown-sugar encrusted bacon crumbles. His innovative approach to food doesn’t stop in the kitchen, though; as he slyly tells us, Chef Clark doesn’t always let people in on the “secret ingredient” until after they’ve tried it. It quickly becomes obvious Clark has a few tricks up his sleeve that have served him well throughout his career: an ability to charm, to take risks, to talk himself up, but ultimately, to deliver in a way that everyone who has tried his food can truly appreciate.

The way James Clark, now Executive Chef at Croce’s, initially arrived on the food scene could be described as a train wreck, or, more specifically, a car crash. After a dare devil vehicular stunt executed in New York, this high schooler found himself saddled with a large property damage bill and began washing dishes at a local restaurant. Coincidentally, the owner of the damaged property also operated the fine dining French restaurant he chose to work at, and thus began Clarks’ journey into the culinary industry. By the time he graduated high school, Clark had begun taking on prep work in the classical technique-style kitchen. Education was still his priority at this point and, unwavering on his path to follow in the footsteps of the men in his family and become an engineer, James continued working small jobs in restaurants while attending college classes. This lasted until “spring fever hit New York,” says Clark, and his failing grades prompted him to drop out of school and spontaneously move to Orlando.

Newly transplanted to Florida, James was quickly hired by Disney. “I went in there and I kind of talked myself up and made them believe that I was better than I was,” he explains. He was placed in a fine dining restaurant at MGM studios, prompting the chefs to band together in an attempt to get him fired. “I had an ulcer when I was 17-years-old working at this restaurant, trying to come up to speed quick enough to keep my job at this place,” he says. The result was an escalation on James’ part of amassing new information and skills; within 6 months he had proven himself to the point that he claimed the role of youngest-ever prep chef at Disney. The prestigious Disney culinary program, rotating participants between various reputable restaurants in Orlando every three months, further enhanced his rapidly expanding culinary knowledge. Having taken full advantage of his risky jump into the business, James found himself growing tired of the wet climate in Florida and craving change. 

A love of snowboarding had left James wishing for the childhood vacations to Colorado he was never able to enjoy, helping to spur his next relocation. Clark says he “called up a couple of my buddies from high school and basically said ‘Hey, let’s move to Breckinridge.’” Here, Clark furthered his career with Vale Associates, working as chef tournant, among other roles, filling in for various chefs at different restaurants -- a job that he found challenging and stimulating since he needed to be able to adequately cover a staggering number of different menu items. At his new location, James found an ideal mix of work and play. He says, “I snowboarded 120-days-a-year. I biked 80-days-a-year and just lived the life out there.” Within 5 years, Clark had earned the position of Executive Chef at the Breckinridge Cattle & Fish Company, located at the base of the mountain. Soon after, James felt that he had grown as much as he could in his position, and itched again for something novel. Remembering this turning point, he says, “After five years of being there, I really took a look at myself and said, ‘you know, I’m gonna wake up one day and be 50-years-old and be doing the exact same thing I was doing the day I walked into this town; so, I need to get out and go to a city and really try and make a name for myself and really see how I can take this.”

So it came to be that San Diegans are lucky the city James Clark chose happened to be American’s Finest City. Contrary to the seemingly effortless way in which he came to be employed in his previous positions, James felt like he had suddenly hit a snag. Having applied to more than 15 jobs before realizing a computer glitch in the human resources department at Vale Associates was resulting in his most important reference looking like it was forged, he took charge of the mistake, but felt like he had wasted precious time looking for a job. One last final “mistake” resulted in a call back from Croce’s. 

Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce’s restaurant, laughs, remembering the incident. “There was actually a mix-up here as well,” she says. “There were two ‘James’ who applied for the position and I wasn’t sure which was which, so when I hired James, I thought I was hiring the other James. And when he came in, it just, it worked out. So, it was a very happy accident.”

“It all worked out,” James agrees, “and I’ve been here almost seven and a half years now. The majority of my growth as a chef has happened right here.” It is obvious James and Ingrid have forged a relationship of mutual respect and the amazing food at Croce’s is a testament to the fact that the two work well together. They travel often, researching and dining at restaurants in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, Seattle, and San Francisco. James lends his kitchen prowess to other restaurants as well. He did so recently “taking over a restaurant” in Philadelphia for a night, featuring his own menu items after appearing on the NBC morning news. 

So it is through this blend of determination and drive, as well as a few “happy accidents” along the way, that have landed James Clark in the Executive Chef position at Croce’s. His spontaneity and dare devil attitude carry over into the kitchen, where James specializes in tweaking classics like concocting creative twists on the Croce’s contemporary American cuisine. “My favorite kind of flavor profile is mixing sweet and savory,” he says. “You’ll see it throughout the entire menu. I just love the salty/sweet combination. It’s beautiful.” Signature dishes include Golden Ahi Poke with Mango, Ginger and Sesame, and Wild Mushroom Potato “Lasagna.”

James’ enthusiasm and genuine love of good food is apparent as he talks about the Croce’s menu.  “In San Diego, we’ve got the wealth of produce and fish right at our doorstep,” he says. Taking pride in serving his individualized menu items to diners every day and pushing himself to remain creative and constantly creating new, fresh dishes, James has truly hit his stride as a gourmet chef. For our sake, let’s hope that his roaming spirit has found a place to come to rest, and that he continues to provide diners with an amazing experience at Croce’s. 

Restaurant Info

  • 802 5th Avenue
    San Diego CA 92101
  • Restaurant: Croce's
  • Address: 802 5th Avenue, San Diego CA 92101
  • Cross Street: F Street
  • Location: Downtown | Gaslamp Quarter
  • Cuisine: American |
  • Cost: $$$ | Moderate | $50 - $75
  • Category: Fine Dining
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Dress Code: Business Casual
  • Meals Served: Breakfast | Lunch | Dinner | Late |
  • Parking: Street |
  • Payment Options: VISA | Amex | MasterCard | Discover |
  • Corkage Fee: 20.00 | Per 750ml bottle.
  • Phone: (619) 233-4355