Drawing on his classic French training, Chef Cal Stamenov
likes to take the finest and most exotic local ingredients
and elevate them to the status of haute cuisine.
Cal Stamenov’s glorious
obsession with ingredients
BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
“You’ve gotta see this,” Chef Cal Stamenov told me, his eyes dancing with excitement. He was carrying a small square box just delivered by courier, and he sliced it open to let me lift the lid on a styrofoam container inside. An unmistakable aroma filled the room and I saw three lumpy paper bags that I could tell were filled with truffles. Some were black; the more aromatic were white; all were shipped fresh from northern Italy.
My mind started spinning when I saw the enclosed invoice—more than $6,000!— but as we removed the paper towels from around each golf–ball-size truffle, Chef Cal’s mind was racing with ideas for preparing these culinary jewels.
“There aren’t a lot of restaurants around today where you can go and have caviar, or foie gras or abalone or black and white truffles,” Chef Cal says. “Those are the ingredients I like to cook with; that’s just the way I was trained.”
Cal Stamenov, chef and culinary director of Carmel Valley’s Bernardus Lodge, calls his cuisine “California natural,” but it’s more sophisticated than it sounds. Luxurious, yet full of vivid, fresh flavors. Simultaneously local and world class. Seasonal, yet exotic. Extravagant ingredients from the finest European purveyors sharing the plate with foraged delicacies from the fields of the Central Coast and the waters of the Monterey Bay. “Natural” might sound like the right word if you are visiting royalty or if—like Chef Cal—you have spent much of your life cooking with the world’s most celebrated French chefs. For us mere mortals, his cuisine is simply extraordinary. Happily, morsels of those truffles I helped unpack made it into my dinner that night at Marinus, the lodge’s gourmet restaurant. In fact, since it was winter, truffles featured in three dishes on the tasting menu.
They first appeared in the seafood course: Maine lobster and Monterey Bay red abalone, served with porcini agnolotti, Swiss chard and black truffle sauce. The steamed lobster and seared abalone were a real treat, but the tiny porcini-stuffed pasta pillows in their fragrant, earthy sauce stole the show, providing a perfect foil for the frost-sweetened chard.
Next came my favorite dish of the night: Sonoma duck over white truffle risotto, porcini mushrooms and foie gras in duck jus.The duck breast was cold-smoked over alder wood before being seared to crisp perfection in Chef Cal’s kitchen; the risotto was a creamy, sensual delight; and the foie gras added a decadent note to this heavenly plate. Truffles even appeared in an ice cream on the dessert plates.
At age 52, Chef Cal sounds somewhat nostalgic and remarkably humble when he talks about an upward career trajectory that took him through some of the world’s ritziest restaurants before he settled in the Monterey Bay area 16 years ago.
He grew up in Castro Valley, an East Bay suburb of San Francisco, the son of a Bulgarian physicist who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. At home his father cooked Central European dishes and “lots of lamb,” while his mother prepared the desserts.
Cal planned to become an engineer, but when he found out he hated his college classes and his part time job at an engineering firm he packed a suitcase, headed straight for the California Culinary Academy and didn’t look back.
Once finished at CCA, he crisscrossed two continents to accept assignments where he could refine his cooking.
“I never worked for the money,” he says. “For me it was all about the experience, the ability to work with first-quality ingredients and see others work with them.”
His first post was in the pastry kitchen of the famed Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan, and from there, he was accepted into the training program at the Swiss Hotel School in Bern.
“They made me measure everything precisely and taught me how to keep clean, which can be difficult when you are working with chocolate,” he laughs.
Returning to the Bay Area, Chef Cal got his first job as a pastry chef at Masa’s in San Francisco. “It was a traditional French restaurant and one of the hottest restaurants on the West Coast at that time, kind of the French Laundry of its day,” he says.
Next, he traveled east to work at Jean- Louis Palladin’s restaurant Jean-Louis at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. It was considered a mecca of French cuisine and famous for being one of the most expensive restaurants in the country.
Palladin was instrumental in creating what he called nouvelle cuisine américaine, featuring the top ingredients to be found around the Chesapeake Bay. But Cal stayed only a year before persuading his boss to place him in one of Europe’s finest kitchens, working for legendary chef Alain Ducasse at the three-Michelin-star restaurant Louis XV in Monte Carlo.
“Alain Ducasse was a quiet chef and worked seasonally. We changed the menu four times a year and the food was just beautiful, so natural and uncontrived,” he recalls.
“We did a lot of wild game and roasted birds. There were good steel pans, and herbs strewn over everything, good olive oil, good seasonings, and when it came out of the oven it smelled so wonderful. Then being able to use the pan juices for your sauce, that’s a big deal—just true, natural flavors.”
The experience had a fundamental influence on the way Chef Cal cooks today.
“That’s the style I like to cook: no foaming, no chemicals, just real honest food,” he says. “Every time I see that foam I think it looks like somebody spit on the food. It just looks disgusting.”
Returning to the Bay Area, Cal headed for Napa because he felt the wine country was the capital of food culture in California. There he worked at Domaine Chandon in Yountville under chef Philippe Jeanty and gained an appreciation for heirloom produce from the vegetable gardens that were sprouting everywhere.
As he hit his 30s, Cal decided it was time to head his own kitchen and began looking around. The Highlands Inn in Carmel invited him to audition for the top chef’s job by preparing 24 different dishes for an eight-person tasting panel in just three hours. He won the panelists over, moved to our area and began learning about the array of fine ingredients produced and procured right here in this region.
When Bernardus Lodge opened in 1999 Chef Cal took the helm of its restaurants. Over the years he has helped define the inn’s elegant style and build its reputation, overseeing the kitchen of Marinus and the more casual Wickets bistro, as well as the Will’s Fargo steakhouse in Carmel Valley Village and catering operations at Laguna Seca racetrack.
“It’s a real pleasure to work at a winery restaurant. We cook with the juice, grill with the vines and serve the wine to our diners,” says Cal, who has even been known to slip sprigs of sourgrass from the vineyards onto his salad plates. (For more on Bernardus Winery, see below.)
Unlike frenetic cooking shows on TV, the atmosphere in Chef Cal’s kitchen is calm and quiet. Cooks at the meat station and at the fish table grill, sauté and finish dishes with smooth, expert movements. There’s no yelling or screaming—Chef Cal says that went out in the ‘80s. Staffers say he often communicates when dissatisfied with just a sidelong glance.
More often there’s a lot of joking around, like the time a sous-chef decided to coat his shoes with gold pastry dust before serving Olympic track star Michael Johnson— famed for racing in golden Nikes.
Johnson quipped that he hoped the food was up to Olympian standards.
Loads of celebrities have dined at Cal’s kitchen table and signed the walls above the banquette. One of the first was Julia Child, who enjoyed spot prawns while Chef Cal fretted that the roast chicken and vegetables she ordered were perfect. They were.
Leonardo DiCaprio has come in often, each time with a new girlfriend. And US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has a favorite corner table near the TV in Wickets bistro, where he dines whenever he’s in town. Chef Cal is also in demand to cook for private events. Last year there were two highlights: a last-minute call from Oprah to cook dinner at her home in Montecito, and a buffet prepared for Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. executives, who had gathered in Carmel Valley to hear about the future of technology from none other than Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “It was such a pleasure to stand and listen to them speak while we tried to keep the food from getting cold,” he recalls.
ALL ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS
Chef Cal’s desk overlooks the loading dock and co-workers say the only time he gets really excited is when a purveyor pulls up—especially when they come bearing exotic local ingredients like tart Lady apples or briny sea urchins. For years Cal’s been working hard to develop solid relationships with the best local providers of fruits and vegetables, seafood and foraged foods, particularly wild mushrooms.
“In France we always brought our best providers—of wild strawberries for instance— into the kitchen, sat them down at the chef’s table and gave them something to eat and that’s what I try to do here,” he says. There’s a special place in his heart for Monterey fisherman Jerry Wetle, who gets plied with hamburgers when he brings Chef Cal the pick of his catch—usually sea bass, salmon, swordfish or tuna. He also has a soft spot for Freddy Menge, who provides wild mushrooms that he has foraged and heirloom apples that he’s grown in his orchard in La Selva Beach.
And while the route his truffles take to Bernardus may leave a long carbon footprint, Chef Cal’s vegetables and herbs are grown on the premises and at one of the vineyard properties up the road or at Swank Farms in Hollister, just an hour away.
Cal’s other little secret is that he grows some of the more exotic fruits on the menu himself.
He is a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers and owns two acres just down the road from Bernardus. There he has planted more than 250 varieties of fruit-bearing trees, bushes and vines. He also raises chickens and used to have goats—until they started eating his plants. Avocado trees planted six years ago are finally starting to bear fruit and there is plenty of citrus, including the multi-pronged Buddha’s hand citron and tiny finger limes that contain granules of juice that pop like citrus caviar.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Bernardus pastry chef Ben Spungin, who at age 34 has worked under Chef Cal for six years, spins out some of the kitchen’s wildest creations. His desserts tend to be complex compositions of tastes, textures and temperatures.
One of the desserts on our tasting menu was a “foraged” plate of candy cap mushroom mousse and hazelnut cake, with black truffle ice cream. Another called Chocolate Semi-Freddo included artfully arranged twobite portions of Valrhona chocolate pudding, toasted meringue, chocolate streusel and mint ice cream.
“Some chefs don’t care a lot about dessert but Cal does,” says Spungin. “He realizes it’s not just the savory food that matters, but the overall picture.” Spungin likes being inventive with local ingredients not often found in a kitchen: He makes caramels scented with pine needles and ice creams flavored with things like honeysuckle and oak bark. The honeysuckle ice cream is very fragrant and the oak bark ice cream tastes a little like toasted marshmallows.
Spungin says he appreciates the way Chef Cal nurtures young cooks by taking them along to events like tastings and meetings of the Rare Fruit Growers.
“I thought I knew everything when I started working with Cal, but then I found out that I didn’t know anything,” says Matt Bolton, who is now executive chef at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands.
“I was so fortunate to be working oneon- one with him. He taught me a lot of French techniques and I really honed my skills,” he says of the six years he spent working at Bernardus.
In fact, Chef Cal’s kitchen has been a real incubator of local culinary talent since it opened 12 years ago, with Bernardus alumni now heading four of the area’s top restaurants: Matt Bolton at Highlands Inn; Tim Wood at Carmel Valley Ranch; Jerry Regester at the Clement Intercontinental Hotel; and Jeff Rogers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A fifth Bernardus alum, Christophe Grosjean, headed Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel before returning to France last year and Matt Millea is executive sous chef at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.
“I hope that I’m helping elevate the quality of local cuisine,” says Chef Cal. “I don’t want to sound snobby, but food in our area has always been a little touristy. When chefs leave the Bernardus kitchen they try to maintain our level of quality; they use kind of the same ingredients, the same purveyors, and stay away from frozen foods.”
His pack of protégés keeps Chef Cal innovating to stay ahead. He would love to have the opportunity to earn Michelin stars, but unfortunately the famous French guide does not yet cover our area. At the same time Stamenov, who has three daughters, enjoys participating in local food and wine events, fundraising for the MEarth sustainability project at Carmel Middle School, and working in his orchard with hopes of seeing grandchildren plucking fruit from the trees someday.
For all these activities and because of his talent for training stellar chefs and transforming local ingredients into haute cuisine, it’s clear that Chef Cal himself has become one of the culinary treasures of the Monterey Bay area.