In case you’ve forgotten how lucky you are to eat here
—or need a reason to come
By Lisa Crawford Watson
Photo courtesy of the MCCVB
Sometimes chef Tim Wood comes home from a night of cooking at his acclaimed farm-totable restaurant at Carmel Valley Ranch and pulls out packaged American cheese to grill himself a sandwich. Because he can. But most of the time, he instead uses some of the überfresh local ingredients that fill his fridge—diverse produce, pristine sustainable seafood and flavorful grassfed beef—arguably some of the finest-quality ingredients in the world. Also because he can.
Whether you cook at home or dine out, if you live in our region, it’s easy to take the incredible culinary experience our area provides for granted. But great chefs have an intensely intimate relationship with their ingredients— and with good reason, our local chefs have something of a love affair with theirs.
So a couple of years ago, when the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau started its “Grab life by the moments” campaign, culinary tourism was front and center. Rob O’Keefe, the organization’s chief marketing officer, uses words like “transcendent” and “life enriching” to describe the experience of spending time in Monterey County, and he knew our local chefs were the team to take it out on the road.
The first of what he calls the “Monterey Moments Culinary Series”—carefully planned pop-up events put on by a rotating roster of Monterey Bay chefs and sommeliers with regional wines and ingredients—was held at two-Michelin-star Marea restaurant in New York for 15 editors from national magazines and newspapers. Wood, Ted Walter of Passionfish and John Cox of Sierra Mar at Post Ranch were the chefs.
“New York already has so many restaurants and chefs and resources—we wanted to bring something that would evoke curiosity, challenge their thinking,” Cox says. With a special aim to help the guests experience our marine environment, he packed his bag with Monterey Bay red abalone, spot prawns, live moon jellyfish, keyhole limpets, sea urchins and algae.
“Most writers and editors,” says O’Keefe, “approach these things with a ‘been there, done that’ attitude. They look at their watches and leave as soon as they have enough for a story. But this time, nobody left early. We watched, over the course of the experience, as their guards not only came down, but they completely disappeared. They were into it and amazed by what these chefs introduced.”
The experience was also revelatory for the chefs.
“It’s fun to see so much enthusiasm,” says Passionfish’s Walter. “Coming from Monterey County, we think everyone on the West Coast comes to Monterey at some point, but we were in New York, finding that more than half our audience had never been here.
Yet the interest they showed in what we had to say was fascinating. It was March, when they were still in the middle of winter, and we were bringing in all this fresh produce, like purple asparagus. We could see these people were intrigued.”
Such is the thrill of sharing their passions (and such is the attraction of promoting their own restaurants) that Cox, Walter and Wood have all volunteered and gone on subsequent pop-ups around the country. They’ve also been joined on the road by a growing group of local chefs, including Justin Cogley of Aubergine, Todd Fisher of Tarpy’s Roadhouse and Jeffrey Weiss of Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar. The sommeliers have included Nathaniel Munoz of Aubergine and Thamin Saleh of Jeninni.
The pop-up audiences also have expanded beyond the press to meeting planners who decide what destinations will host their valuable conferences and other events, because, of course, the whole point is to bring more visitors to Monterey County.
So far, the campaign has prompted a significant boost in hotel stays, O’Keefe says. And that could have a multiplier effect because there’s nothing like actually getting to experience our area first-hand.
“It would be fun to follow up with five writers, invite them to town, have one-on-one conversations and allow them to see what we do in our own backyard,” Wood says. “Then, they could, even better, see what we’re talking about. Because, truly, it’s all here.”
These chef pop-ups are private, invitation- only affairs, and they are not, of course, held locally. But the attention they’ve attracted is a good reminder of how lucky we are to be locals: we’re just a short drive away from their restaurants—and we can cook up stellar local ingredients any time.