Heeding the Harvest, Chefs Vary What’s on the Table

Chef Ryan Adams selecting produce at Laguna’s farmers’ market. Photo by Jodi.

The recent news that Sorrento Grille’s executive chef Ryan Adams is taking over the restaurant, to be reopened as The Common Table: Kitchen+Drink come September, is as much about a shift in local food philosophy as a shift in ownership.

Adams’ reinvented eatery, which he has planned as a paean to fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, is the latest in a series of local ventures signaling an appreciation for sustainable food that has taken root among locals.

“The whole food awareness is happening. It’s over the tipping point,” said Laguna resident Sean McCracken, a founder of Transition Laguna and leader of its food group. Transition Laguna, which began about three years ago with a commitment to supporting sustainability of local food, water and energy, has since sprouted a thriving backyard gardening network, further evidence of grassroots support for the locavore movement. They have over 600 people on their e-mail list and host several well-attended events every month, from garden installs to cooking classes.

Elementary school kids are planting gardens, sowing the seeds for understanding food production at a tender age. And the South Laguna Community Garden, which opened in 2009, has a waiting list for its coveted raised beds.

What was once the realm of the socially conscious fringe has blossomed into mainstream awareness about food, its origin and whether its production affects the environment, said McCracken. Transition Laguna’s success taps into people who had already embraced the sustainability ethic and were ready to act, he said.

Anyone opening a restaurant now would be foolish not to incorporate that trend, said McCracken.

Adams made the decision to do just that when he purchased Sorrento Grille from owners Philo and Diane Smith. He has always been an advocate for seasonal and sustainable ingredients and is excited about the opportunity to put his own ideals into action, though a bit nervous about his first solo venture.

Chef Craig Strong in Studio’s herb garden at the Montage resort.Photo by Andrea Adelson.

“I think it’s for the greater good of everything around us,” said Adams, who sees his approach as taking responsibility to act sustainably. His grandparents, who grew up in the depression and reused everything, were his role models. Today, antiques and salvaged items that he surely will find a use for fill his home.

“It’s also about freshness and flavor,” he said. Carbon footprint aside, how can the taste of a vegetable picked green so it can be shipped from a different hemisphere compare to one ripened on the vine just hours away?

Good chefs and good restaurants know the connection between good food and its source, said local foodie Roger McErlane former president of Slow Food Orange County, which promotes fresh food produced in an environmentally conscious manner. “They know that the fresher it is, the better it tastes,” he said.

Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, another advocate for sustainable food, agrees. “As a chef, my job is to find the best ingredients, and I have always believed in using local ingredients whenever possible,” he said. “Buying locally supports your local economy, typically costs less because of transport and is picked ripe so it tastes better and is fresher.”

Strong sources much of his produce from VR Green Farms in San Clemente, where he works closely with farmer Nic Romano, who even plants seeds especially for him. Last fall, when Romano sent him large Italian pumpkins for a soup dish, Strong saved the seeds and returned them to Romano to replant. “This is a relationship that has a healthy circle of life,” he said. Strong also has his own small garden at Studio where he grows the fava beans that he uses in a lobster dish currently on the menu.

Like Adams, Strong’s advocacy for sustainable ingredients goes beyond flavor to the need to preserve natural resources. “I want to be able to have my children taste wild Alaskan halibut firsthand, not have it be something of the past,” he said.

Even before these chefs tossed their toques into the sustainability ring, Scott and Janet Cortellessa, who opened La Sirena Grill on Mermaid Street in 1999, made the leap to sustainability back in 2007. All of their restaurants, which now include locations in South Laguna, Irvine and El Segundo, are committed to using products grown by organic farmers. They source their meat from humanely treated animals on vegetarian diets, and when sourcing fish, they use only sustainable seafood as recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

Perhaps they paved the way for Maro Wood Grill, 1915 S. Coast Highway, which husband and wife team Mariano (“Maro”) and Patricia Molteni opened in January with a commitment to sustainable food sources. “I grew up with a grandfather getting upset with us if we purchased produce from certain stores because he knew they used pesticides,” said Patricia Molteni, a native of Argentina. The restaurant’s executive chef, Debra Sims, grew up with similar values in Colorado. They believe the local community will appreciate their constant efforts to forage for the best local ingredients for their menus.

Molteni emphasized the importance of developing relationships with local farmers and ranchers, letting them know that  “we cherish and appreciate their livelihood.”

The Moltenis serve grass-fed beef, mostly from Paso Robles, organic chicken from Petaluma and obtain lettuces, herbs and honey from VR Greens Farms. Like La Sirena, they too source their seafood based on recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. A note at the bottom of their menu even suggests patrons do the same.

“We serve what we would eat: healthy, creative cuisine with only the best ingredients we can find,” said Molteni.


To keep abreast of The Common Table’s opening, currently scheduled for the end of September, visit www.commontablelaguna.com. Learn more about Maro Wood Grill and view their prix fixe menus at www.MaroWoodGrill.com; check out the La Sirena’s offerings and locations at www.LaSirenaGrill.com; and explore options at Studio by visiting www.studiolagunabeach.com.




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