We left off yesterday's chat with Ray Garcia, Executive Chef at Fig in Santa Monica, with dog food. “It was probably seared ground sirloin, some of the best beef in the country, and the dog didn't like the temperature or something like that,” says Garcia of a certain canine whose name he is happy to have forgotten. “I don't even want to know the real reason the dog didn't like it.”
Those were his former days as Executive Sous Chef at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. At Fig, a restaurant concept that Garcia helped develop to get away from that anything-the-customer-wants hotel mantra, the chef says he is given free rein to develop his own cooking style. As long as he keeps a BLT and Nicoise salad on the lunch menu (though he can add all the avocado spread to that sandwich and quail eggs to the salad that he can sneak in). The rest of the menu is laced with — screw those string bikinis at the pool on the patio — chicken liver “parfait” (with fig marmalade) and “FIG dog” with comte cheese fondue, bacon-habanero pepper marmalade and Fritos. Bleach blonde, salty-sweet justice.
As we write this, Garcia and his wife are flying to Paris for a week, followed by two weeks in Italy on their first wedding anniversary – his first vacation in six years, first trip to Europe, their first honeymoon (work got a bit in the way last year). Yes, he's excited. And so while he is eating ridiculously good chocolate, we will tell you about Garcia's humble yet amazing generosity when it comes to kids who might want to be chefs one day. Or FBI agents. Whatever makes them happy. Turn the page for more.
Squid Ink: Luxury hotels must come with their own challenges — picky customers who might not care about food. Different from, say, when you cooked at the French Laundry where everyone was there precisely for the food.
Ray Garcia: That's true. I had to find that balance. I don't want to polarize food. That doesn't serve any purpose. I think of it as baby steps with people who may not want what I cook. If a vegetarian is [staying at the hotel], I don't want to serve them the same old grilled vegetable plate they've always had here. They'll go home and not remember anything because it wasn't interesting. So I have quinoa salad, beet risotto, things like that. I can express my tastes in food flavors subtly on them.. and there's the bacon-wrapped-bacon. That's unapologetic in a different way.
SI: Well, ya, bacon is unapologetic.
RG: That got started as a joke in the kitchen. Matthew [Fig's sous chef] was joking, what if we took bacon and wrapped it in bacon? The whole idea being the ingredient overkill that's been happening lately — people wanting more, too much. Like truffle oil on truffles… that's sort of ridiculous. And so why not bacon on bacon for the Baco-philes? And then we added a salad on the side so we could tell our wives that we had salad for lunch. The avocado, tomatoes and lettuce actually really were flavors that worked.
SI: A joke gone good. So how do you go from bacon-wrapped bacon to being involved in the healthy eating initiative for kids?
RG: You know, that was really five years ago. I went to a Share our Strength event for Taste of the Nation in Washington D.C. It was networking, to be honest, to see other chefs. To catch up. And then it hit me when they said 17 million — 17 million — children go hungry. That's one in four schoolchildren. I'm sure among my cooks there are more than four kids. That makes you think.
SI: And so you started working with high school kids?
RG: Ya, high school kids are hard. I started helping out a Santa Monica high school that had a lot of funding. I was shocked, seeing their school…. It was so much nicer than mine [in North-East L.A.]. And then an opportunity came along to work with Olympic High School [also in Santa Monica], and it was at-risk kids. It just felt like a better fit for me.
SI: What are you doing there?
RG: Well, I started out growing, planting a garden. I came in all ready to change everything, Gung-ho. That's not how it works. Childhood hunger, which is poverty, and obesity are really one and the same, when you think about it. If you don't have access to healthy, nutritious food, you come home and eat Doritos and drink a Red Bull. It's very real to me. My parents and grandparents have Type 2 diabetes. I wanted to help these kids.
SI: You sound like the right person.
[RG: Yeah, and these kids right now, you show up in a chef coat, and they love you. Not so much if you show up in a suit.
SI: A positive effect of the celebrity chef, Food Network sort of thing, you could say.
RG: Yes. But then reality sinks in. At first, these kids didn't care what I said or did. I planted a dozen heirloom tomato varieties with the teachers. Then you get one who comes over, and doesn't care about the tomato, says she hates tomatoes. But the next minute she wants to go work in the tool shed. So that's good…. These are the kind of kids who have never eaten a real tomato. They are eating potato chips and asking you if it's OK to eat an heirloom tomato? It looks gross, it's not a perfect round red globe, surely there is something wrong with it and it will hurt them? They really think this. And then they eat it… or taste that first curd of [homemade] mozzarella that no one else would taste. Then they all want to taste it. We've made huge progress in six months.
SI: That's great.
RG: Eventually, I want to turn it over to [the students], get them to grow what they want so we can cook together. Encourage them to plan menus, to sell their produce at the flea market that they already have on weekends to make money to buy seeds.
SI: Sounds like that takes money, and the students have to be interested.
RG: You know, they are. Of course, at first when I asked them what they wanted to grow, they said marijuana. And I told them we couldn't do that, but how about spinach? It's not that different in how it grows, what the plant is. They're interested now. That's huge. I want to start cooking recipes with them next.
To get involved in Ray Garcia's high school earth-to-plate project, email him at email@example.com. And check back tomorrow for his quinoa salad recipe.