July 8, 2014 – For 20 years, Chef Todd Fisher drove past Tarpy’s Roadhouse restaurant to and from the kitchens of other restaurants, marveling at the beauty of the property, and imagining, given the opportunity, the marvelous things he would do with the place. Earlier this year, the opportunity arose, and he went for it.
Fisher was actually quite comfortable where he was, working in an enviable position with the Pebble Beach Company. But he’s always had a hard time turning down a challenge.
Just 10 weeks later, Fisher has laid significant inroads toward realizing his vision to return the restaurant to its roots as an authentic—yet contemporary and upscale—American roadhouse. Starting with his newly redesigned menu, Fisher is shifting from Tex-Mex to American-influenced roadhouse fare. This means serving up sea scallops in a gin-and-passion fruit vinaigrette, with chili oil, candied walnuts and endive. Or preparing shrimp and grits but using hominy, plumped with milk and heavy cream, to give it a tender, succulent consistency more like polenta, resulting in a more sophisticated version of grits.
Fisher is most excited about his 20 oz. T-bone steak, simply seasoned with sea salt and black pepper, and then elevated to breathtaking with smoked bone marrow butter, gruyère scalloped potatoes and roasted cauliflower. Also breathtaking is the wild boar shoulder braised in Guinness broth, with whole grain mustard whipped potatoes, baby turnips, heirloom carrots and spring peas in a vegetable sugo, one of various offerings that have returned game animals to the menu.
“I think the place started out as a roadhouse restaurant,” says Fisher, “but it became ‘the place for everyone.’ That’s hard to do. There is a fine line between being that place and trying to be that place. A prime example on our menu is the introduction of ‘Cowboy Crudos.’ The concept is not to over-manipulate anything, which requires a delicate hand with raw ingredients. A roadhouse vibe also means big steaks, chops and game.”
Certainly we can expect the “Big Bacon Guy,” featured in the Discovery Channel’s “United States of Bacon,” to put a little pork on the menu. Imagine cast-iron seared sea scallops, with coffee-cocoa rubbed Baker’s bacon, sweet cream grits, roasted cauliflower and bourbon syrup. Or smoky BBQ baby back ribs, with fries and spiked watermelon.
One of Fisher’s favorite aspects of Tarpy’s is the quarter-acre organic garden out back, where this “city slicker in the red shoes” can wander out into the dirt to pick squash blossoms to stuff for dinner or cut kale for the salad – a chef’s dream, he says, right outside his door
“In coming to Tarpy’s,” says Fisher, “I thought about what I could do in the short term and the long term to reinvigorate the restaurant, to turn the Titanic now, so in the future, we’d be heading in the direction I want with my food style and my career. Owner Tony Tollner isn’t resting, and he doesn’t want his staff to rest. I have never been one to ‘rest on my food.’ I don’t do what I was doing 10 years ago, unless it’s with a retro vibe. The industry has changed so much, and we have to continue to challenge ourselves.”
Fisher was 12 years old when he knew he’d become a chef. His grandfather had been a chef, and his father was in the wholesale produce business. Despite his investment in fresh produce, his dad was always a TV dinner kind of guy, who loved nothing better than a serving of Frito Pie right out of the bag: American buffalo chili, Fritos, jalapeños and plenty of cheddar. It’s now on the menu at Tarpy’s.
Fisher’s first job, when he was 15, was washing dishes in the kitchen of The Dragon Pearl restaurant in a strip mall near Sacramento. Certain he didn’t want to do that for long, he kept his hands in the dishwater and his eye on the chef, who moved with lightning speed as he ultimately taught Fisher his knife skills and moved him to work the hot line.
Fisher went on to work the grill at the back of the Country Store, which sold groceries and sat on the cutting edge of take-out meals.
His big break came when he moved to Santa Cruz to work at The Broken Egg, not so much because he refined his cooking skills, but because he met his future wife, Ada. “The first time I asked her out,” says Fisher, “she said, ‘I don’t date coworkers.’ So I went in, quit my job and said, ‘Now what?’ Ada is incredible. Twenty years and five kids later, she is my number-one inspiration in all I do. She’s super ecstatic about my moving to Tarpy’s and is also my toughest critic, always challenging me to consider what’s next.”
While working at The Broken Egg, Fisher also took at job cooking for Chris Maritezen at the now-closed La Scuola in Castroville – his first real taste of dining. “Cooking for La Scuola involved finesse, timing and proper execution,” says Fisher. “It was the first time I was working with a real chef, and I truly understood where I was headed.”
Once Fisher let go of The Broken Egg, he went to work for Mark Couch, cooking eggs at Moss Landing Café. “Chris Maritezen called breakfast guys ‘hash slingers,’ but man they’re fast,” says Fisher, “and I wanted to get fast. Eggs can overcook in seconds, and there is a lot of multitasking. It was all about gathering skills and experience. I realized early I wasn’t going to cooking school, so I figured out how to get a paycheck and my education in the same kitchen.”
After Fisher left Moss Landing Café, Couch called Brian Whitmer, an early chef at Montrio – one of the three restaurants besides Tarpy’s and Rio Grill that make up Downtown Dining – and told him to “give this kid a shot in the kitchen.”
Although I walked into Montrio with a resume that said I’d been a ‘sioux chef,’ Montrio is where I realized what kind of chef I wanted to be,” says Fisher. “It’s not just about serving a great plate but creating a great dining experience. I want people to feel like they are being catered to in my own home.”
Fisher was there, in 1997, at the beginning of Stillwater Bar & Grill in Pebble Beach before moving on in 2000 to open Hullaballoo, his own restaurant, closer to home, in Oldtown Salinas.
“At Hullaballoo,” says Fisher, “every day was about doing it well but also trying to survive. I don’t have to worry about that at Tarpy’s because Tony Tollner has already survived 20 years. For years, I’ve been considered one of the better chefs on the Peninsula, maybe more so because of the special places I’ve worked rather than by having shown what I can do. But now, at Tarpy’s Roadhouse, I can finally showcase my work – who I am and what I’m all about.”
Tarpy’s Roadhouse • 2999 Salinas Highway, Monterey • 831.647.1444 • www.tarpys.com
A fifth-generation Northern Californian, Lisa Crawford Watson has enjoyed a diverse career in business, education and writing. She lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where her grandmother once lived and wrote. An adjunct writing instructor for CSU Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College, Lisa is also a free-lance writer, who specializes in the genres of art & architecture, health & lifestyle, food & wine. She has published various books and thousands of feature articles and columns in local and national newspapers and magazines.