A century later, the Highlands is still a pioneer
Then and now: above, clockwise from lower right, the Highlands in its early day;
sous chef Francisco “Pancho” Castellon; Castellon with executive sous chef Alvaro Dalmau
and executive chef Chad Minton; a dish from Castellon’s plant-based tasting menu.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA AND CAMILLA M. MANN
One hundred years ago, the Highlands Inn erupted from developer Frank Devendorf’s fierce admiration for the rugged setting. Situated on a pine-dotted cliff with panoramic views of Carmel to the north and Big Sur to the south, Devendorf’s creation showcased the craggy beauty of the area known as Carmel Highlands. A century later, renovations and a new, cutting-edge plant-forward menu reflect the Highlands’ continued appreciation of its history and location as well as a look ahead to where our food scene is moving.
Although just a 10-minute drive from Carmel today, skeptics in Devendorf ’s time doubted the appeal of a resort that would be a full day’s ride into the wilderness—by horse and buggy—from the Monterey peninsula. Still, the developer persisted, carefully mapping out with his foreman roads and buildings that would exist in harmony with nature. Locally quarried granite featured prominently throughout the lodge when it opened in 1917, and the stone is still on view in the huge fireplaces that flank its newly remodeled lobby of what is now known as the Hyatt Carmel Highlands.
MAKING A NAME
From the Highlands’ earliest days, its food—including the bounty of fresh produce it could obtain from the immediate region—was an important part of what it offered.
“The dining room is noted for its wonderful ocean views from large windows and its splendid meals, featuring fresh vegetables and fruits,” touts a 1919 brochure.
Over the years, the dining room has indeed hosted countless splendid meals, most notably during the period it held the Masters of Food & Wine, an annual three-day extravaganza that the Highlands staged for 21 years, ending in 2007. (The series is now owned by the Hyatt Corp. and continues, but in locations around the world.) “It was intimate with a limited number of people,” says former Highlands general manager David Fink, who founded the Masters of Food & Wine series and is now CEO of the Mirabel Hotel & Restaurant Group, referring to what distinguished the event—and to what Mirabel is aiming to do with its own four-year-old GourmetFest. Fink added that at Masters of Food & Wine, the chefs showed an unprecedented camaraderie. “Chefs wanted to work with other chefs—behind the scenes and in the kitchen.”
Local artist and chef Wendy Brodie, who now operates Art of Food Catering and hosts the Art of Food television program, worked both the front and the back of the house at the Masters and recalls the series as summoning “the best of the best,” she says. “The event attracted top winemakers from around the world. And the equally wonderful food was always inventive.”
Culinary heavyweights Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller and Jean-Louis Palladin all cooked there, and Chad Minton, the Highlands’ current executive chef—who visited the Highlands to cook at the event long before he began working there in 2014—still has their handwritten recipes in his office.
Jerry Regester, now executive chef at the Santa Lucia Preserve, was sous chef under executive chef Cal Stamenov at the Highlands Inn during the time it hosted the Masters of Food & Wine and remembers it being a special time and a magical place.
“The Masters was a huge draw. I remember being in the kitchen at two or three in the morning, prepping for our course, when Jean- Louis Palladin walked around the corner. He put his cutting board down next to mine and got to work. Then he kept trying to steal my porcini mushrooms. ere I was, this 22-year-old, telling a food icon to keep his hands off my stuff. It was so cool.”
But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour, Regester says. “We just cooked. Whether it was for the Masters, for our regular customers or for the Caltrans crew that was stuck because the roads were washed out, we just cooked.”
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Over the last year, the Highlands’ current owner, Florida-based Interval Leisure Group, has been completing what it calls a “rustic-coastal” remodel under the direction of current general manager Mel Bettcher. The aim is to capitalize on its legendary views while—in keeping with the times—make the experience somewhat more casual and accessible. “Our goal is to have locals think of us as a place to relax and enjoy an evening or a meal—and not just for special occasions,” says food and beverage manager Bastiaan de Winter.
A new heated, 1,200-square-foot glass-walled deck allows diners to eat outside, enjoying unobstructed views of the Pacific while remaining protected from cool coastal weather. Exposed timber and metal straps that were used to reinforce the coastal cliffs are incorporated into the design elements.
Two dramatic makeovers include a reconfiguration of the bar so that all patrons look out over the ocean instead of sitting with their backs to it, and the combining of the upscale Pacific’s Edge restaurant with the casual California Market bistro.
In a departure from Pacific’s Edge’s formerly staid table settings, the new restaurant, California Market at Pacific’s Edge, is replacing its white tablecloths and formal glassware and tableware. New chargers resemble folded leaves; the plates are rustic ceramic versus austere china; and wine goblets have been swapped with hefty tumblers of recycled wine bottles in shades of blue and green.
Expanding on an approach established by previous chefs, when Minton arrived two years ago from Andaz 5th Avenue in New York City, the Hyatt’s uber-chic flagship boutique hotel, he brought a goal of serving exquisite food made from locally grown or raised—and, when possible, organic—ingredients.
“We have a responsibility to food trends and sensibilities,” Minton says.
Embracing this philosophy of conscious cuisine, he and his accomplished team, which includes executive sous chef Alvaro Dalmau and sous chef Francisco “Pancho” Castellon, are committed to utilizing meats and poultry that are certified organic and naturally raised; cultivating partnerships with local foragers and supporting organic farmers within a 100-mile radius of the property; and purchasing sustainable seafood in compliance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.
Minton is an ardent fan of Steinbeck’s books, and de Winter hints there might be some Steinbeck-themed menus coming in the future. Meantime, pushing the envelope on what sustainable cuisine means, Minton earlier this year offered Castellon, who has been a vegetarian for a decade, the chance to create an innovative new tasting menu in which vegetables could play a starring role.
“There is such a lack of vegetarian options for diners,” says Castellon. “Often vegetarians only have the choice of a salad or side dishes. I don’t like ordering a salad when I go out to eat. I wanted to offer vegetarians a chance for a full menu.”
The menu is also particularly timely, as more and more trendsetting and sustainability-minded chefs and eaters around the country— particularly those in the millennial generation—come to the conclusion that truly sustainable eating requires eating less or even no meat or fish, due to the immense burden that meat production puts on water, land and other resources, and to the fact that 90% of global fish stocks have been exploited or depleted entirely.
Of course, imaginative and delectable meat and fish dishes still dominate the restaurant’s main menu, but Castellon’s plant-based tasting menu offers four courses that are just as exciting as those offered to the omnivores, and change with the seasons. And the cost is $40, very reasonable for a tasting menu.
The plant-based menu includes terms such as “ceviche,” “cheese” and “steak”—but those are more conceptual than actual ingredients. The dishes are completely devoid of animal products. Not only is the menu plant based, it also is vegan and gluten free.
Castellon’s first course when I tried it in October was a ceviche made with heirloom cauliflower and shaved radish curls swimming in a pool of spicy tomatillo leche de tigre, the Peruvian term for a citrusbased marinade, dotted with cilantro oil. With the exception of the toasted cancha (Andean chulpe corn) scattered over the ceviche, the dish was completely raw.
The second course I tasted was comprised of heirloom beets, avocado, quinoa, grapes, and smoked cashew cheese. It was dusted with wild fennel pollen Castellon foraged himself. Pointing at the canyon, he says, “I gather the fennel and nasturtium flowers on my bike rides over there.”
The third course was a maitake mushroom steak that was foraged, but not by Castellon. “I want to know where he gets the mushrooms, but foragers are so secretive.”
Castellon treats the mushroom like a piece of meat, searing it, and will baste it with coconut oil if the diner is a vegan, or butter if the diner is a vegetarian. He served the mushroom steak with confit potatoes, smoked cashew cream and asparagus, carefully garnished with hand-foraged nasturtium petals and leaves.
His dessert course featured a vegan chocolate almond cheesecake with coconut whipped cream, manjari chocolate (a blend of Criollo and Trinitario cacao beans from Madagascar), and a lightly sweetened wild huckleberry sorbet with huckleberries that the mushroom guy brought in.
Castellon finished it with crunchy Maldon sea salt and a dusting of Espelette pepper that is popular in the Basque region.
“You can get high quality abalone and seafood at nearly every restaurant here. But not many are showcasing our area’s bounty that’s just over there,” Castellon says, gesturing toward the striking landscape in which the Highlands is so deeply rooted.
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.