Generosity, talent and really
good ingredients are the recipe here
Photos by Camilla M. Mann
Shadowing chef Cal Stamenov in his kitchen at Lucia Restaurant & Bar at Bernardus Lodge & Spa, I am scribbling notes, photographing and trying to stay out of his way. Watching Stamenov, winner of the 2016 Local Hero award for Best Chef/Restaurant, prepare a variety of dishes, I ponder: What defines a hero? Actions? Values? A willingness to do something different?
Settling into the dining room, I ask, “You’ve been hailed as a local hero by your peers and community. What is it about you that’s heroic?” He chuckles affably. “I’ll ask my wife and get back to you.”
But when the conversation turns to how he’s impacted the local food scene since arriving here after working in some of the world’s finest restaurants, such as New York’s Four Seasons, and with some of its most renowned chefs, including Alain Ducasse, he answers without hesitation.
“When I arrived here 20 years ago, food was commercial—with lots of frozen food. There was no such thing as ‘farm to table.’”
Management at Bernardus was lenient, however, and afforded him the latitude to make “backdoor deals.” Instead of the usual purveyors, he nurtured relationships with local farmers, fishermen and foragers.
His friendships with “the fish people and the mushroom people” now traverse the Monterey Bay area, from Big Sur to Santa Cruz. And he shares those connections with the many chefs who have worked at Bernardus and moved on to head their own kitchens. “It’s more worthwhile for someone to sell 10 boxes to five different restaurants than just two boxes to me. We all benefit.”
About farmers, he speaks of balance—“they need to be organic, certainly, but they need to be large enough to be consistent.” (Hollister’s Swank Farms is a favorite.)
Stamenov also sources from on-site herb and vegetable gardens and his own home orchard of more than 200 trees, many of which he obtained from the California Rare Fruit Growers association, to which he belongs.
“I’m a fruit tree hoarder,” he jokes. “I have eight kinds of apricots, from red to white. And it’s just about time to do some grafting.”
In the kitchen, Stamenov pours olive oil over a venison medallion, pointing to the label. “This comes from about six miles down the valley. I’ll give you his card when we’re done.”
When we are finishing, he ducks into his office for that card. It strikes me: his authentic generosity sets him apart.
Stamenov himself offers it succinctly.
“I believe in being generous—with my time, with the community, and with ingredients.”
Regarding recent changes at Bernardus—the fine-dining mecca Marinus and the more informal Wickets restaurants were merged and transformed into the new Lucia as part of a major updating and renovation of the entire Bernardus property last year—he speaks of casualizing the restaurant and cooking more rustically.
“When you cook with good, solid, organic food, you don’t need much more than salt, pepper, garlic and herbs,” he declares. He likes thyme, parsley and tarragon. “But it’s important to be extravagant with the ingredients,” he adds, scattering fresh truffle slices over salad greens.
Conceptually, his food designs are simple. His creative dishes contain elements that you can easily count—venison, olive oil, garlic, candy caps, carrots, celery root, huckleberries, foie gras and chervil, for instance. The preparation is uncomplicated.
But the flavors and textures are masterfully layered, the combinations nuanced and elegant. Stamenov’s a pure artist. Generous mentor. Hero.
Runners up: 2nd place, Brad Briske of La Balena and Il Grillo in Carmel and 3rd place, Jesse Santillan of The Tap Room in Pebble Beach Camilla M. Mann is a food writer, photographer, adventurer and passionate cook. She blogs at culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.com/ and lives in Seaside.
Lucia Restaurant & Bar
415 W. Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley
READ: To read more about Cal Stamenov, go to wwww.ediblemontereybay.com to look up Deborah Luhrman’s extended profile of him,