Ray Garcia, Executive Chef at Fig in Santa Monica, is perhaps the only 32-year-old chef who can say he has worked for Thomas Keller, Douglas Keane, and a picky canine in the same year (more on that later, but yes, a customer at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, where Garcia was formerly Executive Sous Chef, once sent back beef that wasn't cooked to her dog's liking). And then there were the law school/FBI dreams that were ditched shortly after he tasted foie gras for the first time. Bet that phone call went over well with the parents.
These days Garcia is turning out bacon-wrapped bacon alongside quinoa salad (check back for the recipe) and volunteering at Olympic High School (he grows heirloom tomatoes and make fresh mozzarella while the teenagers text and drink Red Bull, but he gets a gold star for trying -- baby steps). The project that he started last year on his own has recently segued into Michelle Obama's Chefs Move To Schools program. More on that in our second interview. First, turn the page to learn how Garcia went from a kid in East L.A. who had never cooked an enchilada to a chef. A darn good one.
Squid Ink: So you grew up in L.A.?
Ray Garcia: Cypress Park, North East L.A. It wasn't until college that I traveled west of the 110. Maybe I visited a few beaches as a kid, but I don't remember specifics. So until the first time I stepped on [UCLA] campus as a freshman, I honestly had no idea where exactly [UCLA] was. That's true, by the way.
SI: Sort of funny, as you work at a swanky hotel in Santa Monica now.
RG: Yeah, and I live in Playa del Rey. Now I can't imagine living anywhere but the Westside. Every time I go east, like to Pasadena, it's so hot and the air is just so different in the San Gabriel Valley. I'm completely a Westside guy now. My mom just rolls her eyes.
SI: You have a lot of Mexican-inspired dishes on your menus now. Did you cook growing up?
RG: Not really. I mean, my mom and both grandmothers were great cooks, mostly Mexican home cooking. But to me, that was the same as tuna casserole and meatloaf to everyone else. It was just the same old stuff you ate. My eyes really opened to food when I got to college. I had a roommate whose father had owned a sushi bar in Seal Beach that's been around for thirty years or so now. I hadn't really had Japanese food until I met him. I'd had bastardized Chinese food here and there, but other than that, just my mom's home cooking.
SI: So your college buddy got you into other foods.
RG: Right. [Brandon Go] had been working at his family's restaurant, Koi Sushi, since he was a kid. He was really passionate about it. He was into reading cookbooks. I'd never done that. And he was the one who first took me out to a fancy meal at a restaurant. I thought he was crazy. People spend this much on food? That's crazy.
SI: It can get crazy.
RG: Yes. But it's also great. It works both ways. My college friends would go crazy when I took them to my mom's house, and we'd pile up her enchiladas... bring them back [to campus] and they'd go crazy. They'd never had enchiladas like that. Homemade. That was when I first realized there is this cross-pollination of food in L.A., but you have to find it.
SI: So you started cooking.
RG: I started reading Cooking for Dummies and Better Homes and Gardens.
SI: We all started there.
RG: Yeah, and since I was in college and had no money, only ingredients like canned beans and tuna, I started thinking, what else can I do with these? There's got to be a better way to eat. I got tired of eating shitty food. And then I had foie gras for the first time.
SI: A bit different from canned tuna.
RG: It blew my mind. By then, I'd had really great steak at a steakhouse, but I still had a reference point for steak. Of course I'd had beef before, so what I was eating was simply better quality beef at a fancy steakhouse. But foie gras, I'd never tasted anything like it. It was the one that's everywhere now, with pineapple. Salty, meaty, crispy, sweet. I couldn't wrap my brain around the flavors.
SI: But your brain was already focused on going to law school.
RG: Yes, but then I went to Washington D.C. on a legal internship working for the Department of Justice. I wanted to be an FBI agent. I even had Lasik surgery on my eyes to have the proper vision to be in the FBI.
SI: But you didn't join the FBI.
RG: Ya, I spent the whole time in D.C. cooking at night. Entertaining, nothing fancy, just calling my mom for her lasagna recipe, that kind of thing. But back then [late 1990s], you still couldn't find basic ingredients, like good tortillas in D.C. Food wasn't so global yet. And then I saw all of these young lawyers who were miserable, so unhappy with their lives and telling me to get out while I still could... I wound up in culinary school.
SI: At the CSCA. There's been a lot of discussion lately about the value of a culinary degree, specifically from that school.
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RG: Well, I think if you're a hard worker, you will succeed. It doesn't matter what path you take. It comes down to whether you're the kind of person who can focus. But there is the issue in culinary school that you get eight hours to break down a salmon in class, then you show up at your first restaurant and you have eight minutes. It's not reality.
SI: You seem very focused.
RG: [Laughs] My Dad calls me tenacious. If I want something, I go out and grab it. Like The French Laundry and Cyrus. I picked up the phone, wrote letters, that's how I wound up there. I was actually already Executive Sous Chef at the Peninsula [Beverly Hills] at the time, but I wanted to stodge in their kitchens. That was important to me. I mean, being in Beverly Hills was crazy. I cooked for people's dogs.
Check back later for more on canine cooking and Garcia's very personal motivation to get involved in high school nutrition programs.