When it came to culinary school, First to Market executive chef Domingo Wolbert never got the memo. Instead, the Santa Rosa native says, he absorbed as much as he could during time spent working at Whole Foods and practiced his cooking skills at home, making meals for his family.

In his early experience working at restaurants such as Zazu in Sebastopol, Wolbert says he was fortunate to have creative freedom, which inspired him to take a more adventurous approach to food. First to Market opened this year serving Wolbert’s take on American comfort food, with dishes that draw much inspiration from the American South. Wolbert says he is working to shift the menu toward inventive small plates that use the fresh ingredients of California.

SanJose.com: How would you best describe your menu?

Domingo Wolbert: The initial approach was to stay as traditional as possible to American food. And now we are basically doing less traditional American food and more of just Californian. I enjoy being really creative with my menu and we had things like a rolled rabbit—people really don’t see that on menus. With small plates it is nice because it makes the menu more accessible. We really try to encourage people to share and explore the menu because I think what we do is different than a lot of other places around here. I like to do adventurous food but I’ll keep a couple simple things on the side, so you don’t just have a menu of “crazy.”

With SingleBarrel co-founder Joe Gradillas involved with First to Market, the bar is stocked with an arsenal of small-batch spirits. How do you play that into the menu?

DW: Yeah! Right now we have a whiskey smoked barbecue sauce that’s on our pulled pork sliders. I also do a bourbon demi-glace which is on the elk chop. We’re making an in-house vanilla extract with vodka. Normally it would be bourbon, but we’re taking a shot with the vodka. Everything that we can use, we’re just trying.

What’s it like to be one one of the many new restaurants opening across downtown San Jose?

DW: I had been saying to my staff, we’re just a block away from all these new places that had been popping up. And now it seems like it is making its way here to us. It’s always pretty cool to be a part of a new trend.

When you’re not in the kitchen where are you enjoying your days off?

DW: (laughs) Resting—but I’m always looking around for new stuff to get inspiration. I love going down Highway 1 to the coast. I recently found this place, Highway One Brewing, and the food, beer and atmosphere are just incredible.