During a midday weekday walk around SoCo, Costa Mesa’s latest foodie mecca, Laguna Culinary Arts founder Nancy Milby found herself both envious and excited to tap into the vibe of the thronged shopping center. Meanwhile, the Laguna Canyon center, home for the last decade to LCA’s cooking and wine schools and cheese and wine boutique might as well be a ghost town.
“It’s hard to create a vibe when you’re the only one vibing,” said Milby, who will close the shop by March 1 and relocate to SoCo’s Costa Mesa.
Mark DePalma’s restaurant ReMarks, one of the few occupied spaces in the center, only opens in the evenings. Milby said the surf, skate, and snow apparel store Gooch that opened last April showed potential, but was “not enough” on its own.
Gooch co-founder Jesse Westgaard lamented the loss of “a great neighbor” in LCA. “We would all benefit from having more foot traffic in the area all year long,” he said.
While lack of visibility and pedestrians provided some impetus for the move, physical constraints to accommodate the growing wine school and Milby’s preference for grapes over grub sealed the deal.
“I changed people’s lives and I feel good about that, but now I’m ready to go on to the next thing,” said Milby, who originally founded LCA in 2001 as a cooking school for home chefs.
She spent the next 12 years building a sort of culinary and wine empire, partnering with experienced French chef Laurent Brazier for cooking and master sommelier Peter Neptune for wine and adding lustre to Laguna’s reputation as a food haven.
Brazier joined LCA as a guest chef in 2001 when students donned their aprons in a little upstairs space on Coast Highway. After he took over the professional chef program in 2003, LCA expanded and relocated to the current 4,000 square-foot location with space for a professional kitchen. Twenty-seven classes of professional chefs have since graduated from Brazier’s intense six-month program.
At the same time, Neptune opened the Neptune School of Wine at LCA and became one of the first in Southern California to offer certification for the London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust, one of the world’s leading providers of wine education.
Evolving beyond educating chefs and wine lovers, LCA now boasts a thriving catering business, a retail cheese shop, a seasonal cafe and a wine boutique. The famously popular Friday happy hour shindigs, where $20 got patrons five wine tastings and a substantial meal cooked by aspiring chefs, morphed into Saturday afternoon wine tastings to make room for Brazier’s critically acclaimed but short-lived pop-up restaurant, Mirepoix.
Along the way, Milby also annually organized two food and wine oriented vacations for a dozen people and helped what was Laguna Beach’s visitor’s bureau establish a well-received local food and wine event.
A former CPA and tax partner at KPMG, Milby reinvented herself in 2001 when she opened LCA. Now, she’s paring down her act. “I’m done with food,” confessed Milby, who has been certified as a sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers and holds a diploma from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. A year ago Brazier officially took over LCA’s cooking and catering programs.
Milby now teaches the Level 2 wine school class and carefully curates the selection of reasonably priced wines in her retail shop, but with almost no foot traffic, customers are scarce. And while people flock to the wine tasting events, instead of supporting her business they buy their wine at big box stores.
What’s more, the location can’t accommodate growing enrollment at the wine classes, forcing Neptune to lease a hotel banquet room with more space in order to avoid turning students away. “The reality is we can’t do business here,” Milby admitted.
So Milby and Neptune will focus on establishing a wine education center and retail wine store at SoCo, possibly called Neptune School at LCA Wine, while Brazier will continue the cooking school and catering operations at a new, yet-to-be-disclosed Costa Mesa location, rechristened La Cuisine Culinary Arts.
The only real casualty will be the cheese shop, which neither Milby nor Brazier will continue.
The closure will also displace local authors and aspiring writers, who congregate at LCA every second Sunday to read their three-minute selections of original prose. Given the challenge of finding a free venue, Nancy Grossman-Samuel, promoter of Orange County’s DimeStories, said the group may follow Milby to Costa Mesa.
Meanwhile, Milby and Neptune both enthused about joining SoCo’s dynamic array of like-minded boutiques that draws regular foot traffic from their targeted demographic. Inspired by San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, the center got a makeover in 2009 and boasts an array of chic home design and furniture boutiques, in addition to avant-garde restaurants, gourmet food shops, kitchen supply stores and more.
And no more Laguna Canyon summer traffic to frustrate tardy students.