About 22 miles out into the Pacific Ocean, a 70-minute boat trip from the mainland, Catalina Island is not where you might expect to have an excellent dinner.
Tourists aren't allowed to bring cars onto the island; there's an 18-year wait to get a full-sized car for residents. (Everyone mostly drives golf carts.) So after you drive down from L.A., garage your car and take the boat over from San Pedro or Long Beach, you likely will not be thinking about local halibut with lemon-caper beurre blanc or roasted-then-fried chicken with polenta and Bloomsdale spinach, or lamb Bolognese with fennel pollen — or one of the best bowls of cioppino you might have in years. You will instead be thinking about snorkeling or parasailing or maybe, God help us all, getting wasted and singing karaoke at one of the many beachfront bars that can make tiny Avalon seem a little bit like Cancun during spring break, albeit only for a block and a half.
But maybe you should be thinking about food. For here, in one of the few serious restaurants on an island filled primarily with waffle shacks, ice cream parlors and the inevitable family-friendly seafood restaurants, is a chef whose ambitions go far beyond serving tuna tartare to tourists.
Paul Hancock has been executive chef at the Avalon Grille, probably the most ambitious restaurant in Catalina Island's largest (and really only) town, since it opened in May 2010. It is an upscale restaurant that seems even more so, considering those waffle shacks: There are white tablecloths, and nice dinnerware and plates stamped with the restaurant's name. But even with the attentive waitstaff and the wine list, it's still in a beach town. There's enough of the feel of the sand (literally) to make the place seem happily casual, even if the menu isn't. Inexpensive it is not, but then nothing is on an island.
Hancock is a man who knows something about islands, having grown up on one himself: Harkers Island, home to 2,000 people off the coast of North Carolina. "You could probably put it on this island," says Hancock, 40. Since Catalina is only about 22 miles long, that's saying something.
Of course, being an island chef has certain limitations, depending on the island. Most are the obvious ones of geography: You have to import almost everything. And you are constrained by the populace, not necessarily of the island itself but of the boats filled with vacationers.
Catalina is the Channel Island closest to Los Angeles, and in many ways a study in anomalies. Here steamboats and 1930s movie stars used to dock; buffalo — which came as background extras for a silent film in 1924 – actually do roam; and bright orange garibaldi, the state fish of California, swim in the harbor like little neon buoys.
The Casino, the local landmark, is not a casino at all but an Art Deco circular ballroom and talkie movie house since rebuilt as a state-of-the-art movie theater. An organist still plays deep in the orchestra pit as you file in to watch The Bourne Legacy.
There's also a ballfield, where for 30 years the Chicago Cubs held spring training. (The Wrigley family, which owned the Cubs for many years, bought a majority share of the Catalina Island Company in 1919; in 1975, the Wrigleys deeded their shares to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which they'd helped to create.)
Hancock, a large man with blue eyes and a sandy goatee, who fills out his chef's coat like he doesn't take it off often, went to N.C. State for business, working through college in local kitchens. After school, "I got a job in a bank; I totally hated it. I missed the kitchen."
So he went back, working in a dining club in Raleigh, as a short-order cook and at an English pub.
An industry mentor sent him to work in the three-star Michelin kitchen of Marc Veyrat, one of France's best chefs. ("I worked in his chocolate room for six months. Wow.") Back in the States, he helped open a restaurant in Hollywood, Fla., and cooked in larger and larger venues. Hancock remembers maybe his favorite of these: a dinner for 1,800 people on the occasion of the 2000 NFL Draft. "From a 30-seat restaurant in Durham to this. It makes you think about what you're doing."
Maybe because Hancock had indeed started thinking about a life beyond the banquet kitchen, when a diner who admired his cooking suggested the chef come aboard his boat on a trip to the Bahamas, Hancock did precisely that. "That started my yacht career."
For a kid who grew up on the ocean in a family of boatbuilders, cooking on boats was a natural move. ("It's a different perspective on life when you're sitting on anchor.") Hancock worked on the water for the next three years, spending summers in the Mediterranean, winters in the Caribbean. Yeah, a rough life, Hancock admits, smiling. On trips into applicable ports, he'd buy whichever ingredients were at hand, talk to the locals, check out the cuisine.
The yachts eventually carried Hancock to Los Angeles, where he finally disembarked and spent a few years as a private chef before being hired by the Santa Catalina Island Co. to open the Avalon Grille.
Sitting in the dining room, the breeze blowing in off the harbor through the Avalon's full-length accordion windows, which open just feet from the beach, Hancock considers the lay of the land — emphasis on land.
In the past, Catalina pretty much shut down in the off-season. But these days, businesses operate year-round, catering to locals and passing cruise ships and the people who prefer the place when summer crowds subside. Avalon Grille is open seven days a week year-round.
In the summers, Hancock is pretty busy. But once the weather cools and the tourists go elsewhere, he has time to get over to the farmers markets on the mainland, heading to the Santa Monica markets twice a week.
He grows or harvests or forages whatever he can: Nasturtiums and avocados, oranges and shallots, duck eggs and fennel, Meyer lemons and fennel pollen, even local lemonade berries. He wants to raise his own quail and, if he can sort out the vicissitudes of the wind blowing in off the ocean, has plans for a rooftop garden.
The one thing Hancock doesn't have to worry about is wine. Bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay from Rusack Winery line the restaurant bar — and beneath them, wooden wine boxes are stacked like the Prohibition contraband that drifted ashore when smugglers frequented Catalina's many coves and coastal caves.
The boxes are stamped not with Rusack's Santa Ynez label but that of Santa Catalina Island Vineyards, the vineyard that Geoff Rusack and his wife, Alison Wrigley Rusack (yes, that Wrigley), built on the island itself. The first Catalina wines were bottled three years ago, and the Rusacks have in the works an ambitious tasting room.
Unsurprisingly, when you have that much quality local wine available, it trickles down into the menu as well. The remarkable cioppino is built with wine and tomatoes and spice, the heady sauce pooling into a bright red bath for the salmon and prawns and clams and black mussels, the obsidian color of the mussel shells in stark contrast to the reds and whites of the rest of the dish.
It's a dish that in some ways encapsulates the restaurant, the chef and the island itself: The contents of the sea triangulated by other fixed points, in this case California, North Carolina, France and maybe a few other harbors.
"Now I'm down to earth, I've got the best of both worlds," Hancock observes without irony.
He is not wrong.