September 10, 2019 – As a young teen raised in Long Island, Margaret LaVetty would tell her mom she was going out with friends on a weekend evening, and then hustle over to the Manhattan dock to spend all night butchering swordfish with a machete-like giant filet knife.
“I’d wait and hope a union guy wouldn’t show,” she says. “Then it was third shift, all night, raincoat and goggles, hacking on fish belly. I just wanted to learn.”
She has been some places since, including New York’s Chinatown to make hundreds of thousands of dumplings. A self-styled “gypsy chef,” the New York native would later graduate from San Francisco’s Culinary Academy, and go on to work in kitchens from Miami Beach to Los Angeles to Nashville.
But she’s never been quite so electrified by the possibilities of a place as she is by the Central Coast, where she just moved to helm the kitchen at Wild Fish on Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove.
She likes the singular character of America’s Last Hometown, loves the owner-operators Liz and Kelvin Jacobs, with whom she clicked with immediately, and their willingness to empower her creative control. But she gets giddy when it comes to the proximity and fecundity of the produce.
When asked why LaVetty’s a nice fit for Wild Fish, co-owner Liz Jacobs revisits a bunch of LaVetty experiences within her short time here that hit on that delight: the joy LaVetty felt driving through all the fields to P.G., her desire to lead cooking classes at farmers markets, her spontaneous desire to help a farmer set up his table at the market.
“Oh man, she is passionate about farm to table,” Jacobs says. “For her, going through the farm land and vineyards is like walking through a beautiful jewelry collection. She’s super inspired by the close contact you can have on the Monterey Peninsula with amazing growers. That’s how we are, and that’s why we got started with restaurant. That’s what food should be: ingredient-focused. She’s absolutely on the button with that, and us.”
LaVetty replaces Joshua Plesh, who said goodbye at the end of August and is thinking of starting his own food-related business outside the confines of a restaurant kitchen.
“I want people to enjoy my food so much that it becomes really stressful,” says Plesh. “It’s just not a sustainable lifestyle for me.”
Edible Monterey Bay tracked down LaVetty after her weekend shifts to learn more about what she brings to Wild Fish, where she inherits a menu featuring the likes of smoked halibut chowder, whole-roasted rock cod and specific fishing boat sources listed for each bit of seafood.
How do all the cities you’ve worked inform your cooking? Seasonality and cooking techniques are different everywhere. The products and the people are different everywhere. I enjoy the new places because I love people, getting to know people, cooking with people, and what I do for a living is something I can take wherever. Here is such a perfect example. Their owners’ whole concept is local, organic, serve the community.
How does the Wild Fish approach speak to your soul? The first time I talked with [the Jacobs] we really hit it off. It was kind of a cosmic connection. Something clicked on a personal and professional level. They’re so ingredient-driven. When you ask what they serve, they say exactly that: ingredient-driven food. I buy all the produce at farmers markets, and make the menu based on what I buy. I’ve been doing lots of blackboard specials every week. I have total creative freedom, and freedom to shop for what I want to cook with. I’m not a young chef, and at this season in my career I need that creative freedom.
What has you most excited about Pacific Grove? It’s a unique place and the way [locals] have embraced and welcomed me has really blown me away. Sometimes it takes a while to find a comfort zone. Not here.
What dishes are you proud of right right now? We’re doing stuffed squash blossoms with house-made ricotta and truffle honey and clover microgreens. (We serve a lot of vegetarian and vegan dishes.} We also are featuring foraged mushrooms from Humboldt County, chanterelles and lobster mushrooms I did with garlic confit and lemon thyme; and a panzanella salad with heirloom tomatoes from Boba Farms. I really just love being able to interact with farmers personally. I’ve interacted with farmers everywhere, but here it’s on a whole other level, especially with a smaller restaurant and a local product focal point that gives me more time to pick things myself and spend that time with farmers and fishermen.
When do you feel most alive in the job? When it’s the busiest—that moment when it’s all crazy on the line, that’s my moment. There’s nothing like being in a busy restaurant. That busyis where chefs are themselves. I also like the intimate relationship with the guest, understanding what excites them and doesn’t. I think [my] moving around has served me well in getting to understand different people.
On that point, you’ve moved around a lot. Do you think you’ll be here long-term? I’m definitely staying a while. I have a good feeling about this. [The Jacobs and I] may do other projects together. We’re living together now. [She has since found an apartment.] This is not going to end soon. I think it’s going to be a great relationship.
OK, speed round time: Earliest food memory? My EZ Bake Oven when I was 6. Only nobody bought me a lightbulb [that it cooks with]. So I started using the regular oven.
Greatest lesson cooking can teach us? Perseverance.
Top chef hero? Nancy Silverton.
Coolest kitchen tool? Spoons! I have a whole collection of special spoons, like my square-end spoon. I also love my offset knife and offset spatula.
Weirdest food fetish? I love White Castle.
Go-to at-home meal? Eggplant Parmesan. My mother makes the best you’ll ever have.
Top pairing involving food? Liquid Geography Rosé with ceviche.
Favorite kitchen hack? Always keep your knives sharp.
Favorite personal mantra? I always make it my business to know people working with me personally—their children’s names, their favorite soda, how they take their coffee, and how much I appreciate them sticking with me.
Favorite song to get you pumped? I like Pit Bull. Sorry. I’m a New Yorker and lived in Miami for a long time.
Wild Fish is located at 545 Lighthouse Ave. in Pacific Grove. Hours are 5-9pm daily, until 9:30pm Friday and Saturday. For more call (831) 373-8523 or visit www.wild-fish.com.
Mark C. Anderson is a freelance writer based in Seaside (and in his backpack). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @MontereyMCA.