dineLA Interview: FIG Chef Ray Garcia

Photo courtesy of Parasol Marketing Group

Ray Garcia’s plan all along was to go to law school. Even while in culinary school, the Los Angeles native anticipated law school next. Then he landed a job at Belvedere in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills and officially got hooked on cooking. After becoming the chef at FIG in the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, he was honored by StarChefs.com as a rising star and given special props for his commitment to sustainability.

You worked in restaurants as a teenager?
I started at 16 as a busboy, near home in Glendale, at a little Mexican restaurant called Chuy’s. We frequented it and I knew I needed a job.

But you weren’t thinking about this as a possible career?
It didn’t occur to me. I was looking to go to law school. I thought I had it planned out. The other thing that really shifted my focus was my roommate at UCLA was a sushi chef. That really intrigued me. His father was from Japan. He owned a sushi bar in Seal Beach. My roommate would do sushi on the weekends. With my family and where we grew up, we weren’t having sushi. To this day, I can’t get my mom to eat a piece that isn’t cooked all the way. And my grandmother, forget it.

At what point did you start considering a career in restaurants?
When I finished culinary school, I was given the opportunity to work at Belvedere. I originally thought of it as short term. But it turned into more. Once I started cooking professionally, there was some sort of pull I couldn’t get enough of.

You worked briefly with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. What was that like?
Incredible. Although I grew up in California, working there and also at Cyrus in Healdsburg was a reintroduction to California: seeing all the incredible produce coming in locally. That was a big culinary inspiration that led up to what I wanted to do here at Fig.

As a hotel restaurant, you have a built in clientele. But it seems like hotel restaurants don’t always get a lot of respect or attention.
In LA, there is a lot bigger expansion of chefs and restaurants. It used to be ten years ago, you couldn’t get a decent meal outside of West Hollywood. Now we have an expansion of culinary talent going out to Glendale. It’s similar with hotels. Maybe before there might have been a stigma with hotel dining and hotel chefs. We have done a lot to shift the dining paradigm.

Are you saying the stigma no longer exists?
Some people, given their past experiences, still might have that aversion to hotel food. It’s certainly getting better. I’ve had people who have come in who said, “Wow. This isn’t much like a hotel: it doesn’t feel like a hotel and it doesn’t taste like hotel food.”

What would you suggest for dinner?
I love the tongue. It does have a little more of a Latin or Mexican flavor to it. It is braised slowly for about seven hours in a tomatillo type sauce. For me it’s what I would consider comfort food. For some it’s mac and cheese. For me it is tongue or lengua. How I would start my meal is with what started off as a joke and gained popularity: bacon wrapped bacon.

Do tell.
I love bacon. One of my chefs joked with me, “Do you realize how much bacon or pork is going into these dishes?” I was thinking: how can we get more bacon?

So what is it?
Slab bacon. We braise it in apple juice and stock and other aromatics and cook it really slow for like eight hours. It reabsorbs a lot of moisture. It’s almost like having pork belly. Then we wrap it in very thin layers of apple wood smoked bacon and sear it on all sides. Then we had to figure out what to serve it with. You can’t just eat a slab of bacon. So we decided, let’s serve a salad with it so we can tell our wives we had a salad for lunch.

Speaking of bacon, it seems like the bacon/pork love affair continues.
Other than it just being delicious, not only chefs, but our dining community here in LA, have really shown an interest in it. For the previous years, bacon or pork had been almost taboo among diners in LA. You didn’t really use it that much.

Talk about the Bacon Waffle a la Mode that's on the brunch menu.
I’m busted with all my bacon. It’s a waffle with an inlay of four strips of bacon, a la mode with bacon ice cream.

What seasonal ingredients excite you?
Spring is my favorite time. I love peas and mushrooms and morels. I love rhubarb and transitioning later to ramps, cherries. Ramps are around for such a small time. Always during ramp season I’m praying there isn't a heat wave. They’re probably one of my favorite ingredients.
 
What do you do with them?
They’re probably one of those ingredients that might scare you right off the bat. But it’s just a wild leek. It has some onion and garlic flavor to it. I like it simply. I take the leaves and wilt them down like spinach, then sauté off the stems.

Why do you work with a forager?
I have a tremendous farmers market. I’m there every Wednesday. But she has the opportunity to go all the way from San Diego to the Ferry Building [in San Francisco]. She might call me from Jim Churchill’s farm and say, “They have awesome orangequats.  Do you want them?”

Can you give some examples of how you try to operate sustainably?
There are a number of things that aren’t related directly to cooking that tie into that philosophy of giving back to the land. We are doing recycling, composting, recycling of fry oil. We have a company making soap out of that for us for the bathrooms.

Are you evangelical about sustainable practices or you’re just doing your own thing?
I do my thing. We’re in search of the best ingredients and best practices. Ideally more people will be joining us.

When you’re the top guy, there are a lot of management responsibilities. Do you still get to cook on the line a fair amount?
Definitely. It’s something I really don’t want to stray too far away from: not only with the sourcing of ingredients and dealing with purveyors, but getting in there and teaching the cooks.

Do you enjoy the other stuff, the business of being a chef?
I do. I am always looking to strike some sort of balance. On certain days, if you’re on the line for 15 hours, maybe a couple phone calls and an email doesn’t sound so bad. At the same time, if you’ve been in the office all day, you’re really looking to make an omelet or to cook a piece of fish.

What do you like to do on your days off?
Read. It really does recharge my battery.

Food books?
Yes.

Is your wife into food?
She is. She loves a great meal.

Does she cook?
No.

Do you cook at home?
I do a little bit of cooking at home.

So do you go out a lot or just eat a lot of cereal?
I’m a big cereal person.

Seriously?
Yes. I make a bowl of cereal at the end of the day, an omelet or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She appreciates that too because I make less of a mess that way.

Any Los Angeles restaurants you return to again and again?
I like to eat the way I like to cook. One of my favorites is Lucques. Suzanne Goin has a great appreciation for being simple and local ingredients and knows when to leave it alone.

What do you think of the LA restaurant scene in general?
I’m really proud and honored to be a part of it. Over the last few years it has really just exploded; the influx of chefs from out of town, local chefs opening new restaurants in unexpected areas. We’ve gone out on a limb to do things like that and diners have reciprocated.

Have you felt the effects of the economy a lot?
Every restaurant has felt it in their own way. The way we’ve gone, it really allows people to not be committed to a full prix fixe meal. There are snacks under $10.  “Kegs and Eggs” is our casual, approachable answer to a stuffy Champagne brunch. We do three dollar tacos.

What is “Kegs and Eggs”?
Bottomless draft beer. Then you get your meal: steak and eggs or omelets.

Ever regret not taking the law school route?
No. Not really. I thought I was going to miss it. At first when I was doing some of my staging, I was kind of thinking: Did I make the right choice? It doesn’t look like it’s going to get easier any time soon.

It’s not an easy breezy life.
It’s not. I like to make people aware. Anyone who is going to dedicate their life to this craft should know it’s not like being a doctor where the hours get shorter as you move up the chain. There are not a lot of chefs on the golf course.

FIG
101 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, 310.319.3111
www.figsantamonica.com

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Leslee Komaiko