‘Chef Oz’ Blackaller creates multiethnic culinary delights at San Diego-area ‘fusion’ tapas bar

Osvaldo and Joanna Blackaller stand in their San Diego-area tapas restaurant, Cueva Bar, which recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. Blackaller, who has been a featured chef on the Food Network's "Cutthroat Kitchen," says one of his favorite aspects of the restaurant business is creating community around the experience of food among regulars and first-time customers. (Photo by Jasmine Fitzwilliam)

In the summer of 2000, Osvaldo Blackaller `07, a native of Monclova, Mexico, found himself in Harrisonburg married to the love of his life, Joanna. Oz – as everyone calls him – began working full time at Cargill, but felt a nagging urge to finish his degree.

Getting into schools proved more difficult than expected with lots of hoops to jump through as an international student and class schedules that made continuing to work almost impossible. Prompted by his supervisor, Oz enrolled in the Adult Degree Completion Program at Eastern Mennonite University.

“EMU was the best school experience I ever had. The professors, classes, classmates…all of it,” he says. “Their philosophy on education is amazing.”

During a visit to relatives in San Diego after graduation, Oz and his wife fell in love with the city. They moved across the country in December 2009 and he landed a human resources job with a good company. Affected by the recession, the company cut his job soon after it began.

Instead of hunkering down and looking for job security, Oz said he felt this was exactly the right time to take a risk. So what was his next step in this bad economy? Opening a restaurant. A business venture with a high failure rate, not to mention Oz had never actually worked in a restaurant.

“You have to work hard but if you truly believe in your dream, I believe you can do and achieve anything you set your mind and heart to,” he says. “My professors at EMU inspired me to dream and sparked that entrepreneurial spirit in me.”

EMU President Loren Swartzendruber and his wife, Pat, celebrated their anniversary and the new year by dining at Cueva Bar. Both Loren and Pat say the food was "amazing."

EMU President Loren Swartzendruber and his wife, Pat, celebrated their anniversary and the new year by dining at Oz and Joanna Blackaller’s Cueva Bar.

Oz and Joanna jumped in feet first, opening Cueva Bar, a cozy, 36-seat tapas restaurant in the quaint University Heights neighborhood where they live. Oz became Chef Oz. They did the build-out from scratch and the investment of time and money was not a small one. With Joanna’s background in banking, his business studies, and the support of friends and family who believed in them, they’ve been successful.

“I believe that passion and love are so important. You have to put that into your food for it to be good,” he says.

His menu pulls from various ethnic threads and whatever he concocts in his mind, improvising as he goes. “I love international flavors,” he says. “Harrisonburg gave me my first experience with Ethiopian and my first really good Thai food.” He has also found inspiration in the backyard barbecues and traditional southern dishes he shared friends while living in Harrisonburg.

The menu includes fusion dishes such as French churros (brick dough wrapped around Brussels sprouts and cheese), olive tapenade quesadillas with chimichurri, a Mexican-inspired caprese salad that includes avocado and queso freso, chicken empanadas with blue cheese and curry, and even southern banana bread pudding.

“I keep all of those memories close to me and use it as inspiration,” he says. “I just love creating food and experiences. It’s by far the best thing in life.”

For Oz, who has been a contestant on the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,”  his restaurant is more than food and business: it’s also about creating community. “It’s so rewarding to see guests experiencing your food and hospitality, to see people interacting. People talk between the tables, the regulars welcome new guests and make recommendations. I love seeing people’s eyes light up.”

Cueva Bar will pass the five-year mark in October, a major milestone for success in the restaurant business.

Published March 2015