I’m not going to be shy: I’m very good with geography. I always have been. (I also have an unusually good sense of direction. My family calls me the walking GPS.)
But, whereas I once associated places with landmarks, or friends, or museums, or colleges, I now mentally map out the world with food and restaurants.
If you say Ann Arbor, I think of the many sandwiches I had at Zingerman’s as a law student. If someone mentions Modena, Massimo Bottura’s three Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana comes to mind. If you bring up Seasalter, I think of Stephen Harris’s wonderful, vinegary skate wing at his 17th-Century gastropub, The Sportsman. And, if Carmel were to come up in conversation, I’d think of two restaurants: Marinus at Bernardus Lodge in the valley and Aubergine at l’Auberge Carmel by the sea.
But, until I revisited Carmel a few weeks ago (I had been there once as a child, when Clint Eastwood was still the city’s mayor), there was very little that I could attach to that tiny seaside town otherwise.
Justin Cogley, chef of Aubergine, and John Shields, formerly of TownHouse, had been batting around the idea of mounting a collaboration dinner. The two had worked together at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago years ago. After two years of talking about it, they finally made it happen last month in Carmel.
Cogley and Shields invited Matthias Merges (now chef of Yusho and Billy Sunday in Chicago), under whom both had cooked at Trotter’s. Cogley also invited Scott Anderson (chef of Elements in Princeton, New Jersey), James Syhabout (chef of commis and Hawker Fare in Oakland, California), and George Mendes (chef of Aldea in New York City). And, because I knew all of these guest chefs well, Cogley (who, alone, I had not met until this trip) asked me to photograph this event.*
The approach to Monterey (MRY) airport is breathtaking. Our plane descended slowly over velvety green hills dotted with million-dollar ranches. In the distance, a dramatic and beautiful coastline awaited, lined with golf courses, mansions, and more. This is a playground to the haves.
L’Auberge Carmel, a white castle-like structure with a generous courtyard in the center, was built in 1929. Originally, the building was inhabited by a community of artists, who occupied its twenty apartments. Now, those apartments have been converted into spacious suites (outfitted with heated bathroom floors and wireless internet) that comprise this small, intimate Relais & Châteaux property.
The restaurant, Aubergine, is on the hotel’s ground floor. It’s a surprisingly small dining room, seating just over twenty covers. Cogley came to this restaurant in January of 2011 from RIA at the Elysian Hotel in Chicago, where he had helped open that restaurant as the executive sous chef.**
Under the banner of “Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine” – the name Cogley gave to this inaugural event at l’Auberge Carmel – Cogley organized an incredible, three-day itinerary that not only showed us the abundant, natural resources of the Monterey Bay Peninsula, but also begged us to reconsider and discover them anew.
David Fink, one of the owners of the l’Auberge Carmel, took us on a hike through the stunning Point Lobos State Reserve. Of it, landscape artist Francis McComas had once said, it is “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” And, it has been considered by many to be the “crown jewel” of the California State park system.
Five hundred fifty-four acres of the park are above sea level. Another seven hundred fifty acres of submerged land were added in 1960, making it the first underwater reserve in the country.
Parts of it looked prehistoric – a rocky shoreline that, in some areas, receded to a faraway treeline, counting the strata of time as it went. But most of it was a mountainous terrain of green and bark, with a thick pad of pine needles underfoot, glittering with confetti of broken abalone shells that point to its past inhabitants (mostly Chinese) of whalers and fishermen. Here and there, the thick of green ended abruptly at hundred-foot cliffs that dropped into a frothy surf that sprayed and crashed along the jagged baseline below. Seals and sea otters and large birds of prey converged at this continental horizon, where century-old cypresses, with their terraced, bonsai look, gripped the edge of earth with their roots. The air was crisp and fresh, the land was lush and tender, and the sea was wild and clear. If you want to know what the world was like before man came into it, go to Point Lobos. It is stunning.
Trevor Fay, one of the partners who owns the Monterey Abalone Co., told us that, at one time, the waters around Monterey Bay were teaming with abalone. Overfishing reduced the population to an unsustainable amount. They’ve been scrambling to recover ever since. It’s a story we’ve heard the world over, from the buffalo of the prairie plains, to the tuna of the oceans deep.
At his company’s hatchery in Moss Landing, Fay showed us tubs of temperature-specific sea water, piped directly from the deep waters miles offshore, filtering through plastic trays lined with a rainbow of seaweeds. Clinging to the seaweed were thousands of tiny abalone, seedlings barely a year old. Here, they would stay until they were mature enough to be moved to cages kept in live seawater.
The breed of abalone that the Monterey Abalone Co. farms grows at the rate of about an inch per year. So, it takes the abalone roughly four years to reach market size – about 3.5 inches in length. Coupled with this slow growth, a high attrition rate accounts for the high prices that these mollusks fetch (around $20 per pound).
From the hatchery, we caravanned to Wharf No. 2, which juts out from Monterey into the bay. We dropped down a ladder to a network of planks – suspended just above the water – beneath the wharf. He raised one of the dozens of cages from the cold, aquamarine waters to show us the abalone inside, each the size of an adult hand. These were marketable specimens, fat and meaty.
The cages are raised once a week and picked through for predators (crabs, etc.) and dead abalone. The abalone are also fed during these weekly cleanings. All around us was the rustling of kelp, as workers hacked at the long, papery strips with their machetes, and stuffed them into the cages, food for the abalone.
Because the bay’s water is cycled out in surges every twelve hours, taking with it biofoul and other detritus, this is an ideal place for farming abalone. The water is fresh and clean at all times. There wasn’t a whiff or hint of fishiness under that wharf, only the breezy scent of the sea. It’s no wonder I’ve seen these farmed abalone on the menus at The French Laundry and Manresa.
On Fan Shell Beach, just yards from the Pebble Beach Golf Course, the chefs waded among the tidal pools, mesmerized by the clear waters and abundant wildlife therein. They discovered bullwhip. It looked like an overgrown beet root with a tail twenty feet long. Fay told us that it is a type of kelp. The small end of the tail anchors to rocks on the seabed, and the large bulb at the other the end bobs near the surface of the water. The ones we saw washed ashore were small, he said. They grow as long as fifty feet. Fay said that, when diving in rough waters, the bobbing bulbs will lift small rocks on the ocean floor, causing them to click and clack in percussive rhythm.
We found a half-eaten seal, beached, a victim of the shark-infested waters.
And we found carpets of edible flora, which the chefs enthusiastically pointed out to me.
All around us was nature; wild, untouched, pristine.
Scott Anderson and his sous chef, Mike Ryan, were so fond of Fan Shell Beach, that they returned the next day, taking me along with them. While they hunted among the craggy shoreline, I relished leaning against the seaside gale that beat at us. I enjoyed its sharp slap across my face. The air was so fresh, so crisp, so clean. I couldn’t breathe enough of it.
Carmel-By-The-Sea is a small, walkable village that rolls down a gentle slope to the ocean.
L’Auberge Carmel is a quick, five-minute walk from the water. I took advantage of its proximity daily, enjoying long, morning strolls along the wide-mouthed lagoon that looks north to the lacey, emerald shores of Pebble Beach.
In the mornings, I found campers zipped up in their cocoons next to the sea wall. I watched couples fade, hand-in-hand into the hazy distance, a mist of sea and sand driven ashore from beyond. And I watched dogs romp in the sand with their owners.
In the afternoon, little kids flirted with the water’s edge and tugged at kites high in the air.
And all day long, surfers bobbed on the horizon.
When we weren’t touring the peninsula, and when the chefs weren’t cooking, we were eating.
At Cantinetta Luca, an Italian restaurant owned under the same umbrella that includes l’Auberge Carmel, we had an impressive spread of housemade charcuterie. And from the adjacent Salumeria Luca, I had a delicious, cold porchetta sandwich with Provolone and thinly shaved red onions (it’s called the “Toscano”).
Cogley took us to Restaurant 1833 in Monterey for dinner one night. The restaurant is a rambling collection of rooms, most of which have been added on to the landmark adobe structure at the restaurant’s heart (built in 1833, the storied Stokes adobe is said to be haunted). The menu offers a mishmash of Americana (cheddar-bacon biscuits, New York strip steak, macaroni and cheese, pork chop with grits) and Italiana (pizzas, gnocchi, charred octopus). The restaurant was packed, the cooking was solid.
And, back at the hotel, Cogley hosted a dinner for all of the guest chefs and me at Aubergine, where he introduced us to his coastal cooking. It’s simple, thoughtful, and delicate. I was impressed.
We had a meaty knot of scallop served on its shell, dressed simply with some citrus and ringed by a fluffy boa of seaweed. Cogley served us tender nuggets of abalone from Fay’s Monterey farm with a light, warm broth and umeboshi. There were thin slices of duck breasts that had been aged for thirty days, accompanied by vanilla-infused dates. And at the end, pastry chef Ron Mendoza sent out a series of sweets, which included a dessert of candy cap mushrooms, Bourbon, and pine.
My friends Chuck (0f Chuckeats), Lesley Kao, and Tomo (of Tomostyle), and I hadn’t seen each other in far too long. So, sharing a table with them at the Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine dinner at Aubergine was a particularly sweet reunion.
By this, the third, day of our trip, the chefs had amassed a small treasure of coastal flora from the Monterey Bay peninsula to use in their dishes.
Anderson and his sous chef, Mike Ryan, who had collected a particularly large quantity of vegetation, recreated the rocky coastline of Monterey in a plate of tuna and herbs.
And Merges garnished a buttery block of Miyazaki strip loin – I haven’t figured out how a cow composed of more fat than meat can stand up – with hijiki and mussels (and an assortment of his now-famous fried skins).
My two favorite dishes came from George Mendes. His olive oil-poached bacalhau (salt cod), which I’ve had before, was a knock-out – indescribably silky, and full of flavor. Bridging the gap between the Monterey Bay Peninsula and Southern Europe – two of the world’s seven true Mediterranean climates – he sauced the fish with black olive yeast broth, and garnished the plate with foraged samphire, and dried tomatoes.
Mendes’s other dish was a revised asordo, a traditional Portuguese bread soup. Thick and chunky, and layered with flavor, the soup arrived with local spot prawns and sea grapes. I especially loved the little croutons sprinkled throughout, giving each bite a playful crunch.
The dinner flowed surprisingly well, especially given that the chefs didn’t really coordinate their dishes with each other. The terroir of the Monterey Bay Peninsula coast towed a convincing line through the dinner, from the canapés that were passed in the courtyard, to the desserts at the end.
Cogley and his crew didn’t sleep that night. After closing down the restaurant, they began prepping for our send-off breakfast.
By the time I arrived at the beach the next morning, Cogley and his team had set up camp. There was an amazing spread of breakfast pastries, chiles rellenos, fresh fruits, juices, and coffee awaiting us.
The sharp morning sunlight filtered softly through the hazy smoke of the campfire as Cogley and his cooks knelt in the sand frying sausages, potatoes, and eggs in skillets over the open fire. All of this was served up, hot, on cedar planks, with a generous shaving of black truffles.
Mendoza, the pastry chef, uncovered a Dutch oven of bread pudding. The top was golden-brown and crispy, just how I like it, and the filling underneath was thick and custard-like, pocketed with nuggets of pleasantly tart, caramelized apples. Mendoza had used some of Shields’s juniper-infused cream in this batch. It was terrific. I went back from seconds and thirds.
I couldn’t imagine a more thoughtful or picturesque ending to an already beautiful week in Carmel. With the sun on our faces, the smell of breakfast in the air, and the surf at our back, we didn’t want to leave.
As the chefs headed back to the hotel to catch their shuttles for the airport, I urged Cogley to remount this event next year. This – the discovery, rediscovery, and exploration of land and sea – has become the mission of modern-day cooking. Events like this one – small, intimate, and focused – give chefs the opportunity to spend time at the origin of their ingredients, taste a new terroir, and to cross-pollinate. This is important. And I thank Cogley for recognizing its importance and doing something about it.
After breakfast, Tomo, Cogley, and I took a joy ride south along California’s famous Highway 1 towards Big Sur. We stopped at the Big Sur Bakery for coffee and then turned back, stopping every few miles along the way to snap some shots. The vistas were stunning.
As I packed up my things at the hotel, Cogley ran up the street to fetch me one, last porchetta sandwich for the road. I hope that wasn’t my last one.
A few weeks ago, Justin Cogley was named among the latest class of Food + Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs. He is, to me, a truly worthy and deserving candidate of that recognition. And I congratulate him for it. I look forward to hearing great things from Carmel-By-The-Sea, and hope to return soon.
If you haven’t been, go.
Here are the restaurants I visited on this trip. Each is hyperlinked to the corresponding photo set on my Flickr account:
Aubergine – Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine Dinner (Carmel-By-The Sea)
Aubergine – Beach Breakfast (Carmel-By-The-Sea)
Cantinetta Luca (Carmel-By-The-Sea)
Salumeria Luca (Carmel-By-The-Sea)
A big thanks to Justin Cogley and the entire staff at l’Auberge Carmel and Aubergine for sharing their corner of the world with me so generously, and with as much style and class. The hospitality I received was truly undeserved – Cogley even sleuthed out my favorite type of music and cut an album for me. It was waiting for me in my room when I arrived at the hotel.
* Shields, Anderson, Mendes, and Merges have come, at my invitation, to Kansas City to cook at dinners hosted by Debbie Gold at The American Restaurant (Shields, Anderson, and Mendes all cooked at the same dinner in 2011; Merges came a year later). I also spent a good deal of time with Anderson, Merges, Shields, and Syhabout in the kitchen at the Restaurant at Meadowood, where they were guests of chef Christopher Kostow at last year’s Twelve Days of Christmas dinner series (Mendes cooked at the Twelve Days of Christmas series the year before). And, as recently as a couple of weeks before this trip to Carmel, I attended a collaboration dinner hosted by Mendes at his restaurant in New York City, where he cooked alongside Shields and Anderson.
** RIA surprised many when it was awarded two Michelin stars in the guide’s Chicago debut edition in 2011. RIA closed in the second half of 2012.
Photos: The rocky coast of the Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel, California; l’Auberge Carmel at night, Carmel-By-The-Sea, California; John Shields, Scott Anderson, and Mike Ryan at the l’Auberge Carmel, Carmel-By-The-Sea, Carmel; the chefs looking out over Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel, California; a worker cuts kelp with a machete to stuff into abalone cages under Wharf No. 2 in Monterey, California; John Shields and James Syhabout at Fan Shell Beach, Pebble Beach, California; the sun comes out at the beach in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California; abalone at Aubergine in Carmel, California; John Shields and Justin Cogley plating at Aubergine in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California; sausages in the skillet on the beach at Carmel-By-The-Sea, California; Justin Cogley looking out over Big Sur, California.