Strong Directs an All-Star Symphony of Chefs

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By Eileen Keighley
By Eileen Keighley


Three legends of American cuisine are among the chefs from around the country donating their time for a $1,500 per person dining experience hosted by the Studio restaurant at the Montage Laguna Beach later this month.

About 120 people are expected to dine on the spectacular delights devised by U.S. culinary royalty to support an aspiring generation of young culinary contenders. Last year’s event raised over $100,000.

Craig Strong, head chef at Studio, hosts the Culinary Masters event organized by the luxury publication Robb Report. Headlining are three of the nation’s most celebrated chefs, Jérôme Bocuse, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, founders of the not-for profit Ment’or BKB Foundation, based in New York. Keller and Boulud between them share over nine Michelin stars for the French Laundry, Per Se and Daniel, respectively, while Bocuse operates Chefs de France at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and has been involved since 1993 with the Bocuse d’Or, known as the culinary Olympics.

Picture perfect plating at 2016 Culinary Masters. Photo courtesy of Robb Report
Picture perfect plating at 2016 Culinary Masters, which this year takes place at the Montage resort later this month. Photo courtesy of Robb Report

As well as inspiring the next generation, the foundation works to elevate U.S. cooking with the best in the world, and sponsors Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or. This year Mathew Peters, a protégé of Keller, won America’s first gold and is now working on opening his first restaurant in Austin, Texas.

It’s the first time for Keller at Studio, while Strong has guest chef’d alongside William Bradley, of Addison at the Grand del Mar, a previous Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition winner in 2014. Bradley holds the only Forbes five-star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant in Southern California.

Chef Craig Strong of Studio at the Montage Resort.Photo courtesy of Montage
Chef Craig Strong of Studio at the Montage Resort.Photo courtesy of Montage

Expectations are high and all of Strong’s team are excited by the prospect of so much talent in one kitchen.

“You never know where you can glean inspiration…and build new relationships,” said Strong. All those egos in one kitchen: surely a recipe for a clash of temperaments, not to say knife skills. Strong is not fazed. He relishes the camaraderie and collaboration it creates. “Wearing the same white coat, makes us a band of brothers,” he said.

Boulud agrees. “It’s about sharing our craft and passion for excellence with Robb Report’s food enthusiasts and having a good time all together, dining and golfing while supporting the next generation of young chefs through the ment’or organization.”

Strong regards Joel Antunes of the Ritz Carlton Buckhead, Atlanta, as one of his most influential mentors. As his sous chef, Strong remembers the opportunity to guest chef with Paul Bocuse, the master of French cuisine. A treasured photograph of the three remains on his desk and is a daily inspiration. “I will never be able to repay my mentors for the gift that they gave me in teaching me how to cook and a commitment to excellence,” he said.

Styles in the kitchen change, though, and Strong recognizes that the management style of his mentors would not work as well in today’s kitchens. His kitchen is about harmony and creativity. “I have evolved as a manager to deal with millennials.” His mantra: “I believe in being direct and being cool.” He says that some of his mentors were “definitely direct, but maybe not so cool at times.”

Strong suggests a well-run kitchen is like a symphony, all in tune, creating beautiful music. He encourages a “quiet environment, nothing out of control, with total focus that is vigorously moving …and we never shout, not even loud talking.”

How does he achieve it? He likes his management style to tuning a guitar, “You need to get it just right. Too tight and it doesn’t play. Too loose and you lose control; you let go of standards.”

Having hosted a similar event at Montage Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina last year, Robb Report organizers were keen to

bring it to California with its growing culinary reputation and aspirational lifestyle. “They were looking for the, ‘best of the best’ on the west coast and Montage Laguna Beach delivered,” said David Arnold, Robb Report managing director.

Chef Daniel Boulud, chair of ment’or BKB Foundation. Photos courtesy of ment'or Foundation.
Chef Daniel Boulud, chair of ment’or BKB Foundation. Photos courtesy of ment’or Foundation.bring it to California with its growing culinary reputation and aspirational lifestyle. “They were looking for the, ‘best of the best’ on the west coast and Montage Laguna Beach delivered,” said David Arnold, Robb Report managing director.

Strong predicts the Monday, Oct. 23, dinner will leave a residual impression long after the last plate is cleared. “It is an extraordinary event…where people can experience some of the best chefs in the world under one roof…this is a unique opportunity for the residents of Laguna Beach.”

While capped at 120 guests and outside most budgets, Strong believes social media will broaden the event’s impact with young chefs, restaurateurs and locals. “It raises the bar and opens their eyes to new foods and ideas,” he said. Traditionally chefs learned on the job or through travel. Strong himself spent two years in Spain. However, with the proliferation of chefs on social media, anyone can follow any number of chefs across the world and access innovative ideas and flavors.

As Studio plays host, each menu item, which organizers declined to share in advance, is expected to be a culinary tour de force, drawing on the chef’s personal culinary expertise and taste, and created by different teams. For example, Chef Keller and Chef Mathew Peters – who previously worked under Keller at the French Laundry – will work together. Additionally, the teams will be assisted by Studio staff, who get to work alongside culinary super heroes. Unremarkably, no one requested time off. Everyone, no matter their accolade, is expected to help each other out, including plating up for other chefs.

The energy levels will be high and the styles and personalities will be different. Even so, Strong predicts a “unique culinary evening” full of harmony in how the food is created, how it looks and most importantly how it tastes.


The article “Strong Directs an All-Star Symphony of Chefs” in the Oct. 13 edition incorrectly reported the year William Bradley won Robb Report Culinary Masters competition. It was 2014. The article also imprecisely described Robb Report; it is available in print and online. Mathew Peters’ name and the restaurant Daniel were also spelled incorrectly.


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