An insatiable appetite for everything “food” is essential in the makeup of Mark Kropczynski, executive chef at San Diego’s THE US GRANT, a Luxury Collection Hotel.

In fact, if you walk down to the San Diego shoreline after the kitchen of the Marriott-brand property’s Grant Grill closes you may find Kropczynski, dive light in hand, hunting for California spiny lobsters.

He may be gathering the spiny lobsters to serve to his family or guests. It’s a hobby Kropczynski’s practiced at several of the Southern California hotels he’s worked for. His past food foraging has also seen him gathering pounds of chanterelle mushrooms when he worked at Santa Barbara’s El Encanto.

“It’s relaxing after work to jump in the water for an hour or two, and I became pretty good at it,” Kropczynski said. “Usually if I go lobster diving, I go out between 11 p.m. and stay out sometimes to three in the morning. I only free-dive. I say tanks are cheating.”

[Featured Recipe: California Spiny Lobster by Chef Mark Kropczynski]

Kropczynski is often joined by other culinary team members during California spiny lobster season, which runs from October through mid-March, and his mushroom foraging expertise even found him hunting for the fungi with Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay for his Food Nation television series.

For Kropczynski, it’s all about feeding his curious nature—one can hear a somewhat manic excitement in his voice when he’s interviewed.

“I research a lot,” he said. “I’m a curious man. I like to know how things are going to work. I like to go out and find things myself. The hunting part is relaxing and challenging, and being in an industry that’s so hectic all day long, it’s sort of like a mind-clearing event.

“It’s total focus in the water—that’s all I have to worry about,” he added. “It’s meditation.”

Kropczynski has been working in kitchens since he was 15 after his waitress mom got him a job as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant.

“I looked at the cooks and said, ‘That looks pretty cool—better than dishwashing,’” he said, adding that he soon took up the undesirable job of being the short-order cook. “One thing lead to another, and on my 16th birthday they were short on cooks for the hot line, so they threw me on the hot line. I must’ve held my own, because they soon had me training a bunch of older people and that was it.”

Kropczynski’s career path then found him graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., followed by being immersed in classic European cooking techniques via internships at the La Cote Saint-Jacques and Le Clos Longchamp in France. His tenure at various Southern California five-star hotels saw him collaborating with French chef Paul Bocuse and the legendary Julia Child.

Group Culinary Offerings at THE US GRANT

Flexibility and creativity define Kropczynski’s kitchen at the Grant Grill, which specializes in seafood and fresh California fare. Groups can buy out the entire restaurant and really stretch the limits of the culinary crew’s imagination by creating highly customized menus.

“In our banquet events we don’t do it like a standard hotel,” Kropczynski said.

“I’m very flexible on the approach and menus, and if it isn’t on the menu that doesn’t mean we won’t do it,” he added. “If you ask me, chances are we’re going to do it.”

Some of the more unique feats of culinary customization Kropczynski and his team pulled off include:

  • Miniature baked Alaska for 250—using only a photo provided by the client for reference.
  • A Prohibition-themed dessert menu soaked with boozy delights.
  • Gourmet hamburgers featuring a variety of grinds.
  •  Off-the-wall holiday buffets with luxurious offerings such as sweetbread and rabbit fricassee, sautéed foie gras, steak Diane and duck and rabbit.

“The stranger it is the better, and if you have a curious guest, that’s even better,” he said, adding that it’s not uncommon for the Grant Grill to change many of the items on its standard menu every three months to capitalize on the seasonality of ingredients.

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