Trout talks story with Chef Kristianna Zabala of Nomad Donuts over an Americano and a Habanero Peach Guava Donut. Images by Neens.
I admit it. The title wasn’t exactly tough to come up with. I mean c’mon. A Filipino woman goes walkabout (Southern California, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Miami) studying, working and living food and returns a local pastry phenom? That’s what I call a culinary nomad; that’s Kristianna Zabala.
Above Photo: Kristianna (Black Apron) & The Nomad crew
Born in Los Angeles, the Nomad Donuts executive pastry chef was consumed by food from the get-go, and by the time she was 12, Chef Zabala was planning weekly menus, shopping and cooking for her family. Mom lead the way and Kristianna followed… learning the Filipino go-to dishes she loved first: Sinagang, Chicken Adobo and Pancit to name a few. After moving to San Diego, it wasn’t long until she was talking about culinary school and by her sophomore year in high school, her mind was made up. Starting on the line her senior year of high school at San Diego’s own Bali Hai restaurant, she established her love for the art of food and was off to CCA, San Francisco.
I’m always curious what people’s go-to food fixes are so I asked Chef Zabala what her vice was in the city; her eyes lit up. “RoliRoti Food Truck has the best sandwich ever. EVER. I’d go as much as possible to get the rotisserie herb-crusted and lemon zest porchetta sandwich. That was all I could think about. They’d grill the free-range pork loin for about four hours, slice it, add caramelized onion and chicharrones, swab the crusty roll through the cutting board jus and pile it on. I think about it all the time.”
Above Photo: Carrot Chocolate Chip Cake, Ginger Cream Cheese
After graduating CCA San Francisco, she worked through the Bay Area, Lake Tahoe, Miami, and then returned to San Diego. She ran the entire pastry section at PETCO Park… Blanca… Bertrand at Mr. A’s… I think you see where I’m going with this. Chef Zabala quickly put her stamp on the pastry scene in San Diego and never looked back.
I asked if she was always into sweets and she said, “No! But once I became an executive pastry chef I knew there was no looking back. As much as I loved savory, re-starting the clock and taking a pay cut was not an option. But here I am. This is what I’m good at. This is what I do.”
A tough choice for Chef Zabala was walking away from Bertrand at Mr. A’s. One of the most well known and respected eating establishments is a life time goal for most, but Kristianna was able to part ways. With her creative hands somewhat tied (and rightfully so with a tight staff and game plan), she joined with Brad Keiller and Cameron Corley to put Nomad Donuts on the map. Their impact was immediate.
“So, Chef… San Diego Magazine published the Best of San Diego and look who got voted best donut. Nice work. What was the impact on that one?” Kristianna didn’t even hesitate – “It was really big, mainly because we were open less than a year and won. I had just come from Mr. A’s and lots of pressure was on my shoulders, you know, leaving one of the top restaurants to ‘make donuts’ instead. After a lot of second-guessing, the Best of the Year award validated the move as a solid one. That was a building block for sure.”
Above Photo: PB&J, Strawberry Jam
“So what else is there?” I said. “What’s beyond donuts? I heard a rumor of pairings – donut and beer pairings, yes?” “Yes,” she replied. “Yessssssss.” We both laughed. Chef went on to describe the amazing sweet and savory pairings she worked on and I’ll admit she had my attention. “I think I’m most proud of one in particular – Green Flash Belgian Triple on cask with banana and cocoa nib paired with ginger-infused vanilla custard donut with brown butter sage glaze and toasted hazelnuts.” All I could say was, “Yes, please.”
Above Photo: Ube Coconut
I thought about the niche product that Nomad Donuts creates and as hot as the trend is, I had to ask, “What’s the future of donuts?” Chef Zabala replied quickly – “There have always been donut shops. They’ve always been around. Cupcake shops haven’t, so they came and went. Cupcakes are a treat. Donuts are a staple!” Makes sense to me. Goodbye cupcakes – hello donuts! But it’s true… coffee and donuts scream ‘merica! It’s fast, easy, delicious and can be taken down while driving to work, riding the bus or pushing a skateboard. It’s a pick-me-up and treat and you can’t beat the price. So to have these Nomad options from sweet to savory to wacky to traditional, this shop is here to stay. Even Chef Zabala’s son, Kingston, is getting in on the action. At only 5 years old, he just came up with an apple-glazed prosciutto donut that was the first flavor of the day to sell out. And amidst all the varieties, I’m personally stoked to see Kristianna sticking to her roots with a few Filipino staples like the ube tarot donut (purple yam) and coconut pandan donut (green leaf).
Above Photo: Coconut Pandan
So are the donuts good? One time, somebody drove all the way from SF to get Nomad donuts. Pretty sure that’s a yes. With an ongoing menu change and uber-creative executive pastry chef behind the wheel, it’s no wonder Nomad Donuts is staking its claim in the San Diego food scene. Get ‘em while they’re hot. Because by the time they’re cool… they’re gone.
Nomad Donuts 4504 30th Street San Diego, CA 92116 (619) 431-5000