February 3, 2014 – You can tell Morgan L’Esperance loves food with a glance at her arms. On her left is a tattoo of her daughter’s name, Olive, while her right is inked with a California chef’s staples: garlic, mushrooms, and even an artichoke lifted from a seventeenth century print.
As the new Executive Chef of Cascade Bar and Grill at Costanoa Lodge in Pescadero, Chef Mo has been working hard for the past eight months to upgrade the resort’s cuisine, making it more organic, more local and more inventive.
“Costanoa used to be an artichoke farm,” says L’Esperance, “and I pay homage to that with my house butter which is an artichoke butter and our grilled artichoke appetizer. It’s funny because if I’m talking to tables and we’re talking about the property and I tell them that, one guy actually said, ‘Oh you must really like your job!’ So now whenever I go out to tables, I roll my sleeves down to just cover the artichoke tattoo.”
The lodge’s new chef has been cooking for ten years and worked for San Francisco’s Mad Wills Food Group, including stints at Comstock Saloon and Waterfront. “I’ve worked under some really great chefs who helped me shape my own style and think more outside the box,” she says.
Almost the entire menu has been changed since L’Esperance joined Costanoa. Basic hotel fare has been replaced by a blend of Italian, Mexican, and Californian cuisine, with dishes like cioppino, pork sugo, or a rabbit salad sandwich. Now, close to 80% of the food is organic and much of it comes from the many local farms surrounding the resort.
“We’re trying to move in a different direction,” explains L’Esperance. “Everything from linening the dining room to getting better purveyors of food in general. We’re taking a lot more time with the food and the guys in the kitchen are amazing and respond very well to everything I’m trying to do, so it’s been very easy.”
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and keeps a full bar.
Some vegetables, including arugula and carrots are grown organically on the property’s farm by the resort’s landscapers. “I’ve been a little upset lately because the birds keep eating the kale sprouts so we’ve been out of kale for a month and I’m having to order that. But we got some nets so I think we’re under control. I’m like, ‘What do you mean the birds ate my kale!’ It’s part of the learning curve,” L’Esperance laughs.
In addition to the farm, Chef Mo enjoys a smaller garden behind the kitchen, which now supplies the majority of herbs used in the kitchen.“I just tell them what to plant,” L’Esperance continues. “It’s pretty much a chef’s dream.”
But buying local has its downsides. Though the Bay Area enjoys a bountiful summer, winters can be sparse. “I don’t buy anything outside of California,” says L’Esperance, “but it’s hard to stick with that because around here there’s only really kiwis, kale, and carrots in the winter. Some of the local farms around here, they’re really small operations and they send me their hot sheets and it all looks really amazing and I want to buy all of my stuff from them, but they can’t produce as much as I need to be able to put something on the menu specifically featuring that thing. I wish it were easier for farms to be organic and bigger scale productions.”
Despite these challenges, L’Esperance has tried to stay true to the owners’ new vision. “This is something that’s really important to us because we are an eco resort and we try to stay true to that whole way of thinking. The owners take pride in their property and they wanted to make sure guests were having the best experience they could.”
“I don’t see myself working at a place that doesn’t care about its ingredients, because you can’t really care about your food if you don’t care about your ingredients,” says L’Esperance. “And if it means cutting down on a dish so you can get better quality ingredients, then that’s what I would do.”