Southern California has it all: the best produce, great wine, vinegars, oils and cheeses. That sums up the way many top chefs feel about the culinary paradise we call home — among them Cale Falk, the new executive chef of the Purple Palm Restaurant at Colony Palms Hotel in Palms Springs. The native Californian has worked in Arizona and Florida, but, in his opinion, “Southern California has it made.”
Falk is just one of several newly installed chefs who are turning SoCal's most road-trippable cities into culinary destinations. Chef Vincent Lesage, who was born and raised in Paris, and Diego Felix, who still maintains a home in Buenos Aires, are happy to have put down roots in Santa Barbara and Ojai, respectively. Lesage recently was named executive chef at Santa Barbara's Bacara Resort & Spa, where he calls the kitchen shots for a handful of eating experiences, and Felix and his wife orchestrate “Culinary Troubador” performances in New York, San Francisco, Ojai and Los Angeles.
The edible creations these three chefs are whipping up are worth their weight in gas. So fuel up the tank, leave your stomach on empty and make a meal the destination.
“Cale Falk” sounds like the name of a movie star who might have frequented the Colony Palms in the ‘50s, chatting poolside with Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe or Frank Sinatra.
Falk was the top chef at the Indian Wells Golf Resort for five years, and in his new role at the Purple Palm he immediately took on the task of creating new menus and working with California producers and foragers to select seasonal ingredients: garbanzo beans, baby artichokes, citrus, strawberries and Tuscan kale.
These days, he makes a pesto with the Tuscan kale as a bed for a chicken breast, garnishes Morro Bay black cod with pickled strawberries, dollops lemon yogurt atop Little Gem lettuce and dresses Skuna Bay salmon with fennel yuzu and a sea urchin emulsion.
Chef Vincent Lesage is only 30, highly accomplished and French. He’s the HCIC (head chef in charge) for four restaurants and lounges at Bacara Resort & Spa, which is often singled out (recently by the Los Angeles Times) as the go-to hotel in Santa Barbara. Technically located in nearby Goleta, the grounds are impressive — spa, swimming pool, tennis courts, bluff and beaches.
As if the surroundings weren’t awesome enough, Bacara hosts events such as “Operatic Evening in Verona” on Sept. 29, where Lesage serves up a three-course dinner paired with a performance by two members of Opera Santa Barbara, and an Oct. 24 dinner at the Santa Barbara Public Market at which Lesage will serve a four-course dinner of modern takes on Julia Child’s classic French recipes.
Lesage’s style is light, pure and fresh. And he likes to prepare foods in unexpected ways, such as serving melon, one of his favorite fruits, hot. Or pickled.
Diego Felix has always liked to do things out of the box. In Buenos Aires, he sold orange juice on the street. After he met his wife, they began inviting about 20 friends at a time into their home for dinners three nights a week, for what Felix now calls “culinary performances.” Casa Felix was — and still is — an intimate experience, where everybody eats together at small and large tables, among friends and food lovers. The year after they opened, they started to take their culinary show on the road.
Two months ago, Felix, his wife and their two kids settled in Ojai, and Colectivo Felix has already hosted a few “Culinary Troubador” pop-ups, in Ojai at Tipple & Ramble (the last one was Sept. 7) and in Los Angeles at Food + Shelter (the next one is Oct. 17).
Felix is just starting to get acquainted with local ingredients, embarking on what he calls culinary investigations. For instance, he’s just discovered hummingbird sage and immediately embraced it in his newly adopted style of cooking: California cuisine with a South American perspective.
He also plays with traditional recipes from South America using local ingredients. At one pop-up, he plated up llajwa, a pre-Columbian gazpacho.
“Well, actually, gazpacho is post-Columbian llajwa,” he corrects himself. “The Spaniards got tomatoes from here and created gazpacho.”
Expect plenty of friendly chatter and a free-spirited atmosphere at Colectivo Felix, whether it pops up in Brooklyn or Highland Park.