August 18, 2015 – It is probably safe to assume that not many twelve year olds sit around pondering farm-to-table cuisine. But for John Paul Lechtenberg, Executive Chef at Hollins House in Santa Cruz, that’s when his first lightbulb food moment happened. He was on a train trip through Canada and ended up eating at a restaurant that had a hydroponic garden. That meal drew a connection for him, linking the farm and the dinner table. That was in 1996 and he’s been connecting the dots ever since.
The chef, who goes by JP, grew up eating Filipino and German recipes. His multicultural background afforded an interesting view on the “similarities but complete differences” in his first food experiences. “I saw the same techniques that both parents were doing, but with totally different ingredients,” he says. It could be that this early perspective was foreshadowing to the innovative menus he thinks up today. A visit to the Hollins House, one of the best kept secrets in Santa Cruz, allows a taste of this fusion: Little Neck Clams with House Made Pork Chorizo, Lemongrass Jus, Charred Grape Tomatoes, Sweet Butter and Smoked Fingerling Potato or the gorgeous little “Flower Pot” with Roasted Golden & Red Beets, Curry Spices, Greek Yogurt Mousse, Nasturtium, Sprouted Quinoa, Alliums, Arugula and Pea Shoots.
Up until four years ago, the Hollins House menu was pretty old school American. The historic property, perched at the very top of the Pasatiempo Golf Course, has been frequented by the golf club set since 1929. But Chef JP came onto the scene and has steered things into a more updated direction. “I’m so glad that the new American style, in the way of David Kinch and Daniel Patterson, is using obscure ingredients to accentuate flavor and is getting away from ketchup and steak and demi glaces,” he explains.
Like many chefs, JP got his start not at the stove but at the sink, working at the Cadillac Cafe in Watsonville as a dishwasher. But his early field-to-fork aha moment as a child continued as a teenager, working for Yerena Farms out of Moss Landing selling berries at Bay Area farmers’ markets. It was there–amid the hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s Ferry Building market–that JP met up and coming chefs that were using those berries in interesting ways.
He came under the spell of the city, and moved up to attend the California Culinary Academy (CCA) “before the school took a bad turn,” he laments, indicating the bad reputation the school got when it went for profit. “It’s the college industrial complex, selling someone on a dream,” he says, saying that a degree from CCA is almost detrimental on a resume now.
Aside from the formal culinary education he had, his time in the city opened up many more opportunities to learn. He worked brutal hours at Hayes Street Grill, staged at Aqua and Spruce, and helped open Archipelago–a high end Filipino and French fusion restaurant in Burlingame with a chef de cuisine from the French Laundry. It was there that JP had first hand experience watching a restaurant fail. He said to himself, “Okay, this is exactly what not to do.” But it was there that he used every part of something in very unique ways, like charred corn husks to recreate the flavor profile of hay. “The problem was we were too different at the time,” he reflects on the reason they closed after 6 months.
With some family stuff going on, JP returned home to Santa Cruz in 2009 and worked at Au Midi in Aptos. He says that even after all of his jobs in the fast-paced cooking world of San Francisco, working for chef Muriel Loubiere “was probably the best experience I had, because she broke me down. But it was absolutely terrifying, because I wanted to do well”. The pressure of adhering to “the meticulous nature of cooking at a high level” made him see how difficult it is to teach someone how to recreate your dish. After that, a brief stint at Bittersweet Bistro, gave him a good look at a high volume kitchen, doing 300-400 covers every night. At that point, he was questioning if he even wanted to keep cooking: “I had one foot in and one foot out.”
But then he was given an opportunity he couldn’t refuse at the Hollins House. He came on as chef de cuisine but immediately saw that there was a lot that needed restructuring. He asked the general manager if he could have the head job and so, at age 24, with an already storied career under his belt, JP became executive chef. Under his watch, which has been “a labor of love, and a challenge for sure,” the restaurant underwent a kitchen remodel, has implemented a full garden, brought in new cooks, acquired modern equipment and techniques, and started making everything in house, including butter, crackers, bread, sauces and ice cream. And most importantly, whatever they outsource is from local farmers. His protocol is that “I know the people that are growing our food,” says the chef, citing farms such as Windmill, Route One, Dirty Girl, Twin Sisters and Yerena.
This Saturday the 22nd, Chef JP will be joining Brad Briske of La Balena and Il Grillo in Carmel, Sarah LaCasse of Earthbound Farm and Yulanda Santos of Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, for a collaborative dinner as part of the Homeless Garden Project’s Sustain Supper Series. While the lauded guest chef and author Deborah Madison imparts her vast wisdom, JP will be presenting a variety of appetizers. “ They asked for one, but I gave them three,” he says, describing the 22-hour lamb shoulder, reverse seared onsite w/ torches and paired with Padron Pepper Mole, Cilantro Arugula Pesto and Bushberry Vinaigrette. These will be skewered on burnt rosemary from the Homeless Garden Project farm. He’s also making a vegan play on a BLT with Buckwheat Foccacia, Dry Farm Tomatoes, Fried Dulse Seaweed, Aliums and an Almond Basil Puree and also Strawberries with Balsamic Gastrique, Bronze Fennel, Finger Lime and Watercress. Executive Director of the Homeless Garden Project, Darrie Ganzhorn, is appreciative, “It is such a beautiful thing that local chefs are coming forward to make our two dinners possible: to support local food, community building, sustainable agriculture and jobs to support people who are homeless building their own path out of homelessness.”
Tickets are still available for the Homeless Garden Project dinner. Click here to buy.
Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer based in the Santa Cruz Mountains.