Yeah, we know that, from the outside, Lazy Dog Café might look like a backwoods Yardhouse — one of 11 cavernous frontier-inspired locations attached to malls and shopping centers across Southern California. But have you ever actually gone inside?
Unlike other casual dining chains that change their menu to fit the day's food and drink trends, since day one, executive chef Gabe Caliendo has continued to churn out food and drinks surprisingly ahead of its time. Each month, he goes into his Brea test kitchen and crafts innovative rotating menus that draw from his Ritz Carlton roots to bring fine dining styles to the masses.
For longtime homebrewer Caliendo (or Chef Gabe, as he's affectionately known), beer has always been a crucial part of the Lazy Dog concept. After meeting over one of his homebrews, Caliendo and founder Chris Simms — who also partnered with his brother Mike to open beachside beer haven Simmzy's — inked a deal with Firestone Walker Brewing Company to contract brew the chain's house beers.
So as Lazy Dog's 10th anniversary approached, Caliendo reached out to his longtime beer cohorts and asked if they would make a beer that would only be served at Lazy Dog restaurants. One beefed up homebrew recipe and a full brew day in Paso Robles later, Matt and Gabe's Lazy Dog 10-Year Collaboration Belgian Blonde Ale is ready for its company-wide debut (along with a special anniversary menu) next week.
We sat down with Chef Gabe at the Lazy Dog in Cerritos (there is also one in Torrance, West Covina and Valencia) and talked to him about food experimentation, the brewing day at Firestone and why he will never be complacent with his menus.
Squid Ink: So you and Chris met over a homebrew?
Gabe Caliendo: The whole story starts way back when Chris was thinking he wanted to open Lazy Dog and the day we get introduced, he comes over to my house and I offer him a beer. He says, “Yeah, sure,” so we walk into my garage and I pull off some homebrew from the tap handle of my kegerator and he looks at me and says, “You made this?” and he was so excited because he was all into beer.
Now remember, this was 13 years ago, so at that point it was all about Sierra Nevada. Even Chimay was way crazy. It wasn't anything like it is today. I had been brewing for five years at that point, so I've been brewing for 18 years now. So we met, had a beer and I was showing him all my photos of ice carvings and crazy stuff because I was at the Ritz Carlton at the time. Chris was totally into beer, he loved really good beer and we met for that first time over a homebrew and that's kind of why we dovetailed it into our 10-year promo.
SI: And you've had a long relationship with Firestone, right?
GC: They make all of our house beer and we go through that in very high volumes. We go through kegs of it a week. And we buy the Firestone DBA and a rotating series at each location as well. We had Wookey Jack and then Pivo Pils. That's the handle where we'll pour our collaboration 10-year for two-and-a-half months.
SI: What kind of beer is it?
GC: It's a Belgian-style blonde, which was cool because they don't usually make Belgians there. I took one of the recipes that I've had over the years and sent it to Matt Bryndleson, the brewmaster there, and he took it from a 10-gallon small homebrew batch and bulked it up. I was using 20 lbs of a certain grain at home and then it became 3000 pounds-it was crazy. I'd been in a bunch of breweries before, but I'd never seen a recipe of mine blown up to that much. We used 60 pounds of honey!
SI: So your homebrew recipe became the collaboration beer?
GC: There were certain things where it was easier for him to get ingredients from his distributor, but Belgian candy is Belgian candy. We just made it make sense for him operationally and then we went there that day and brewed all day. At the end of the day, I was sipping on the wort. It looked like a beautiful Belgian ale and it was really nice.
SI: Matt has also been with Firestone since day one, so he's been brewing Lazy Dog's beer this whole time as well. Had you ever met?
GC: No, I never had the opportunity. You just normally don't deal with the brewer and I'd mostly been dealing with David Walker. But we're all cut from the same cloth when you're making things. We both fed off of each other and had the same kind of energy that day.
SI: Was the original idea for the collaboration to brew from one of your homebrew recipes?
GC: We asked them if they would be willing to do a collaboration beer with us because we wanted to have that as part of our promo. But we also had to brew a beer that made sense. There are so many IPAs; and stouts wouldn't sell as well so we needed a beer that people would actually buy and Chris and I love Belgian beers. So we figured it would be fun because we don't have a lot of Belgian-style beers on tap and it wouldn't compete with what we already have. Plus, I had a recipe for it.
SI: When did you develop the homebrew recipe?
GC: I made that one probably about 6 years ago. But I made it one more time before we were about to do this, so I made it again like three months ago. I took the dust off of it, cleaned it up a little bit and got more technical on the brewing times. I usually try and brew a different beer every time, so I had to go back and find this one.
SI: What other breweries do you have relationships with besides Firestone?
GC: Each store has local stuff, which is really cool. Not everything's printed on the menu and most stores keep two or three — when we opening San Diego, it'll be five or six — taps reserved for local beers. So at our Cerritos store, we have Bootleggers and Cismontane. In the Inland Empire, we'll do Hangar 24 and Dale Bros. In Valencia, we have Wolf Creek. We support local brewers as much as we can.
SI: Do you think your past life as a chef for the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point has helped you think outside the box when it comes to creating cocktails and new food items?
GC: Being chef first, I take a lot of those classic combinations first, lemon-blueberry, roseary-thyme and then incorporate them into drinks. We have a Phuket Thai martini and it's all the ingredients of a curry. You have coconut in there, you have the spices and candy ginger-it's the liquid version of curry.
SI: Did you just pick up on cocktails since you're a chef?
GC: It all just comes from having that understanding of combinations and flavor profiles. It just kind of comes naturally after so many years. I grew up surrounded by food, too. My parents are both Italian and both moved here from Italy and they owned a deli in New York. So I grew up in the back of that deli.
SI: There are some unlikely items sprinkled on the menu, things like microgreens and togarashi. Has it always been like that?
GC: We had poke on the menu when we opened and you have to imagine 10 years ago, none of our competitors had raw fish on the menu. Cheesecake Factory did not have any poke or raw tuna. Yardhouse did not have any of that stuff, but it was one of those things I'd seen naturally at the Ritz. I definitely did not start at the bottom with casual food and work up with my dishes.
SI: Do you think your competitors have finally caught up to your innovation?
GC: It's been about five years. About halfway through, they kind of picked it up. Hummus is another one. When I did hummus at our tasting, literally no one knew what hummus was and now it's at every grocery store and Trader Joes. Now I'm still trying to work on that same kind of stuff only trying to stay ahead so now we have things like Moroccan chicken, which you don't see often. I also made these tamale cakes that are like a polenta dish, but instead I used masa. But if you Google “tamale cakes,” you'd never find anything like it. Every now and then I find an idea that isn't being done yet and so I just do it. I've started using mirin as a sweetener in some of our cocktails, too. Agave is so last year.
Lazy Dog's 10th Anniversary beer and throwback menu launches July 4 at the chain's 11 restaurants. For more information, visit lazydogrestaurants.com
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