How chef John Cox developed
his signature Big Sur cuisine
Photography by Kodiak Greenwood
Ironically one of the most inquisitive and literary chefs in the Monterey Bay area dropped out of high school in his freshman year. Sierra Mar executive chef John Cox—a frequent contributor to Edible Monterey Bay magazine—left school to pursue his diploma via correspondence classes when he was 14.
“There were three stipulations,” he recalls. “We had to get rid of all the TVs in the house, I had to work full time and I had to cook dinner once a week for my family.”
Aha, so that was the start of his gastronomic career you might think. But his budding interest in food was his own, and he went to great lengths to explore it. He remembers gathering up his friends, for example, and using paper route money to go out to eat at some of the swankiest restaurants in Santa Fe—a half-hour bus ride from where he grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
“We were probably their worst customers,” he says with a laugh. “We couldn’t drink, we couldn’t afford entrées, so we’d get four appetizers and two glasses of water. It was always awkward, because somebody would drop their fork, but it was fun and I just loved the whole restaurant culture.”
Cox helped out at a bicycle repair shop and tried apprenticing to an aircraft mechanic, but hated it. As soon as he was old enough to work legally, he talked his way into a job washing dishes at the local bistro and began buying every cookbook he could get his hands on, working his way up to a sous chef/pastry chef position.
When it came time to go to college, he considered studying philosophy and the classics. He dreamed of going to Alaska to learn about Inuit culture, but culinary school was beckoning. “My Dad was definitely not impressed with my choices. I think cooking school seemed like the best of three pretty bad options,” he says. “At least I could probably make a living.”
The New England Culinary Institute was where he went, avoiding the snowy Vermont winters by taking his first internship at Abacus, a just opened fusion restaurant in Dallas run by chef Kent Rathbun, and his second internship with chef Craig von Foerster at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur.
“I had never been to Big Sur, but as soon as I stepped into the kitchen there, I felt at home,” he recalls. “It was kind of like going into a hobbit kitchen, because you step down into this subterranean room, then you have a beautiful view of the ocean and the living roof on top.”
Von Foerster—a legendary local chef who worked 19 years at Post Ranch—became his mentor, instilling in him a drive for perfection and a love for learning new techniques.
“He was the sweetest guy in the world and an amazing chef,” Cox says. “He would take a dish, let’s say Thai curry, and he would make and refine that Thai curry for weeks or months until he felt it was perfect, and then he would never make it again.”
“I definitely have that inquisitive nature that Craig had, but it’s less about refinement, refinement, perfecting, perfecting and more about understanding what’s going on around you,” he adds.
Cox rose quickly from intern to cook and then chef de cuisine at Sierra Mar; after three years he knew it was time to spread his wings and try running his own kitchen.
Executives at Passport Resorts, the owner of Post Ranch, gave him that chance by offering Cox the top post at the restaurant of their Hotel Hana Maui at age 23.
“I was really, really young and really ambitious,” he says, explaining that working on the remote eastern side of Maui had a huge influence on his cooking style.
“Hana is three hours to the nearest town. It makes Big Sur look like a suburb of Monterey,” he says. The hotel kitchen was the very last stop for trucks bringing in food supplies.
“We’d get whatever was left on the semi truck after they’d gone around the island, so it was just junk, and everything came from the mainland.”
But living in a tropical paradise where anything grows, Cox knew he could do better, so he gave up on the high-end purveyors and started working with local farmers, fishermen and foragers. He contracted for vegetables from a farm near the town of Hana and fruits from an upcountry orchard of apples and persimmons.
“One guy would go into the Haiku rainforest with a wooden plane and pull cinnamon bark off the tree the same morning I was going to use it,” he recalls with a hint of nostalgia. “In my greens mix we had six different types of wild spinach, and farmers would go out and harvest 23 or 24 different types of edible flowers and leaves from the rainforest each day and deliver them to us.”
Then there were the economics. Cox decided if the hotel was going to spend lots of money on ingredients, it was better to pay a local fisherman $10 a pound for fresh snapper or a forager $15 a pound for mixed greens and keep the money in the community.
“That was 14 years ago, before the whole Nordic food revolution. Micro-regional hadn’t become a thing yet, and we were way ahead of the curve,” he says. “But I’ve always carried that idea with me. I want micro-regional.”
“My Dad was definitely not
impressed with my choices. I
think cooking school seemed like
the best of three pretty bad options.”
PERCH IN THE CLOUDS
Eventually Cox made his way back to the mainland, bringing his delicious micro-regional approach to Carmel where he headed the kitchens at La Bicyclette and Casanova. Many of our area’s talented young chefs have worked in Cox’s kitchen at some point, including: Brad Briske (La Balena), Brian Kearns (La Bicyclette), David Baron (Casanova), Jacob Burrell (Big Sur Bakery), Aaron Burns (The Bench), Kyle Odell (Carmel Belle), Salvatore Panzuto (Il Tegamino) and James Anderson (formerly with Affina).
“One of the most rewarding things for me is seeing how many people who have cooked with me have moved on to managing their own kitchens—it’s amazing,” he says.
When Von Foerster left Post Ranch in 2012, Cox was ready to step into his shoes. He wasted no time in expanding the chef’s garden, installing a chicken coop, building bee hives and creating the resort’s signature dining experience, the nine-course Taste of Big Sur tasting menu. (See “Tasting Big Sur,” opposite.)
The hyper-local menu is a perfect complement to the sweeping views of the Big Sur coast from the floor-to-ceiling windows and terrace of the Sierra Mar dining room. It’s also a good match for the designs of architect Mickey Muennig, who created the restaurant and other buildings at Post Ranch Inn with natural materials and organic forms to blend seamlessly with the surroundings.
The menu changes with the seasons, and often tests the limits of the culinary frontier with ingredients like jellyfish, sea cucumber, sheep sorrel, bay laurel and even rattlesnake. Yet far from being acquired tastes, the resulting dishes are accessible, delivering balanced and delicious flavors.
“For chefs today, our biggest challenge to cooking really well is that things are too readily available,” says Cox. “I can get monkfish, sea urchin, Australian truffles, Australian abalone. There’s absolutely no limit to what I can get, and that becomes a problem because you start to get the kind of cuisine that’s all over Instagram and it’s very much a mono-culture.”
So Cox relies on the 100-acre Post Ranch property and the coastline stretching to Monterey for most of his ingredients. He also looks to the past, cooking with acorns like the Esselen people who once inhabited the Big Sur area, for instance, and even experimenting with ant vinaigrette.
“We use about 150 pounds of acorn flour a month, so much that it has kind of become a bass note that you don’t get at any other restaurant,” he says.
The kitchen creates more than 100 different dishes a week for hotel guests, who often stay at the resort for weeks at a time and are accustomed to eating in the world’s finest restaurants. Some ingredients come from outside the area and some of the dishes are more familiar. “I do use things like white truffles and foie gras, but that’s not the heart of what we do,” Cox says. “When it comes to trying to create our signature cuisine, we hammer on the local ingredients.”
Gifted with a great eye that makes his frequent contributions of photography to Edible Monterey Bay so stunning (he shot the abalone on EMB’s inaugural cover, as well as the delicate jellyfish course on the front of the magazine’s special water issue in Summer 2014), Cox also does remarkable justice visually to the Big Sur coast with his cuisine. He and pastry chef Yulanda Santos use color and composition to create dishes of unusual and striking beauty, served on tableware he has commissioned from craftspeople such as glass artist Shelby Hawthorne and ceramicist Eefje Theeuws, with inspiration from local beaches and forests to complement each dish.
Cox has a full agenda for the upcoming year. He is making charcuterie: prosciutto, chorizo, lomo and hunter’s loop sausage using wild boar, Carmel Valley Berkshire pigs and wild fennel. With the help of gardener Anton Tymoshenko, he has started growing fungi: delicate pink oyster mushrooms, yellow oyster mushrooms and shiitakes. He wants to build a quail coop and is starting an heirloom fruit tree orchard with grafts from ancient fruit trees discovered at old Big Sur homesteads. He’s sure to remain a frequent participating chef at gourmet food festivals and local fundraisers, and will be exploring new food topics in his travel and writing. Oh, and he is restoring a 25-foot Coronado sailboat and wants to learn to sail.
“I have so many projects and so many things I love, but to get this restaurant to the next level, I know I have to put the blinders on and dig in and push,” he says. “For me personally as a chef, my challenge is to turn off that inquisitive gene and turn on the perfectionist gene, to focus on how I can make the best nine dishes that reflect Big Sur and just perfect them.”
And he doesn’t have to go far for inspiration.
Cox says he takes a break several times a day and steps outside his kitchen door to pick herbs from the roof or just take in the breathtaking view of the gardens, beehives, birds and wild coastline: “It’s amazing that I’ve been working here on and off for 15 years now, and when I see the Santa Lucia Mountains on one side and the Pacific on the other, I still feel that same awe as when I first came.”
Sierra Mar/Post Ranch Inn
47900 Hwy. 1, Big Sur
READ: For more on the stories of John Cox and the natural and culinary history of our region that they contain, see Grist, p. 6. You can find all of John Cox’s stories for EMB by searching his name at www.ediblemontereybay.com.
TASTING BIG SUR
Chef John Cox’s Big Sur tasting menu is both earthy and ethereal: it offers ingredients from local forests and the nearby sea and delivers them from a magnificent cliff-top setting with soaring combinations of tastes, textures and colors.
A nine-course Taste of Big Sur menu is served for dinner ($175) and a five-course version is available for lunch ($95)— when views are at their best. (A prix-fixe lunch menu also features some of the same ingredients and flavors, at a more earthly charge of $55 for three courses.)
The menus change with the seasons, but will likely include acorn bread and cheeses made at Charlie Cascio’s Sweetwater Farm in Palo Colorado. The rest is up to the fertile imaginations of executive chef Cox and his team of 20 passionate cooks.
On a recent visit, cured venison with pine nuts was served on a lacquered cross section of a sugar pine cone, with pine nuts clearly visible nestled inside the cone and echoed by pine nuts in the appetizer. Tiny bits of blackberry underscored the forest theme, providing a refreshing burst of tartness that sliced through the richness of a dollop of pine nut purée.
In addition to balance and style, chef Cox’s cuisine tastes sublime
An entrée of black cod was steamed to perfection with no hint of oiliness often associated with this fish. It was presented dramatically on matte black stoneware with “textures of sunchokes.”
One of the last crops to be harvested from the Post Ranch garden before spring planting, the sunchokes were prepared four different ways: a smooth purée, sunchoke chips both crisped and soft were laid across the top of the fish in a scale pattern and accompanied by sunchoke “raisins,” dehydrated sunchokes soaked in maple syrup, which added a sweet, festive note to the dish.
A show-stopping dessert called Sticks and Stones, created by pastry chef Santos, ended the menu on a high note. She mixes impossibly intense dark chocolate and cherry flavors in her sticks and creamy bittersweet chocolate in a pair of truffle “stones” dusted with salty nori and coffee-like bitterness from cascara—a berry often used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans.
BLOWING AWAY WATER WASTE
Last year in the depths of the drought, John Cox gained nationwide attention for hooking up an air compressor to the dishwashing station in his kitchen.
Applying his creativity and concern for the environment, he discovered that by using air instead of water to “pre-rinse” dishes before they go into the dishwasher, he could save hundreds of gallons of water each day. It cuts daily water usage at the dishwashing station at Sierra Mar by about 80% from 1,000 gallons to 200 gallons a day.
And that water savings helped the bright idea catch on like wildfire across parched California. Restaurants like Soif in Santa Cruz, and others around the state, have installed their own compressors for about $200 each. Cox is now working on his idea with an engineer to design a compressor specifically for kitchen use.
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.