Edible Monterey Bay

EDIBLE NOTABLES: A CHEF FEEDS THE FIREFIGHTERS

As the Soberanes Fire approached Carmel’s
Santa Lucia Preserve, chef Jerry Regester
kept the kitchen open

chef-feeds-firefighters
Remembering the fire: from left, chef Jerry Regester, firefighter Joshua Terry
and chief Michael Urquides in Regester’s kitchen garden

BY PATRICE VECCHIONE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN PAYTON

If the Soberanes Fire feels far away and a long time ago, look up at any number of the bare mountainsides where, just months ago, trees grew aplenty, and memories of the long-burning fire will return to you in an instant. It took until mid-October to contain the more than 130,000- acre fire that began in late July, and its mark is still striking.

For Jerry Regester, executive chef for the Santa Lucia Preserve, the fire may be a part of his spiritual and culinary present tense for a long time to come. He’s one of those—many of them local chefs—who actually did something of value while I paced the floors, smelled the smoke and listened to the planes, feeling helpless.

South of Carmel, back in the hills, sits Rancho San Carlos, land that for more than 1,500 years was home to the Rumsen tribes and eventually became a private ranch. Known now as the Santa Lucia Preserve, it’s largely protected save for the limited number of exclusive homes that dot its 20,000 acres.

The preserve served an important function during the fire. Because it was situated between where the fire started in Garrapata State Park and Carmel Valley, fire crews were able to make defensible space there that helped prevent the fire from moving down into Carmel Valley where, if it had, many people and much property would have been in serious danger.

Not only did Regester, who lives onsite, and others at the preserve smell the smoke, but flames were visible just over the hilltops. The fire was moving rapidly toward them from Garzas Creek. Seeing those flames made everybody nervous. As the fire grew, all but essential staff left the property. Most of the homeowners departed, too.

“I’m a chef. That’s my part of the
puzzle. I wouldn’t have been able to
sleep if I hadn’t been helping.”

Because the Hacienda, the preserve’s dining room, a gorgeous adobe built in the 1920s, would be closed and he wouldn’t be preparing the typical roughly 80 dinners an evening, let alone cooking for several parties that had to be canceled, Regester took his girlfriend up on her invitation for a round of golf.

But while out on the course, Regester tells me, he was distracted. He kept thinking about his kitchen that was full of food he’d planned to prepare.

“I wasn’t enjoying myself. Having gotten away for a few hours, I realized that what I really wanted to do was something to help those who were helping us, those on the front lines fighting the fire, working in all that heat and smoke, up close to the flames.”

Without finishing his golf game, Regester got back in his truck and returned to the preserve just as the fire was getting worse. The first meal he made for the fire crews and everyone who was working to get an upper hand on the blaze—from sheriffs to the road crew to the bulldozer operators—was a bouillabaisse. “I had all this fish in the refrigerator—clams, mussels, crab.”

Word that dinner was on the way got around quickly. “I put this enormous pot in my truck and drove it up to the break room at the shop.” The firefighters helped carry the assorted pots and pans inside. Suddenly, there was a hungry crowd. By the third day, there was a line of people asking, “What are you making today, chef?”

Each day, he’d open the fridge, look in the cupboards, grab what he was inspired by and begin to cook. Much of the food that’s prepared at the Hacienda comes from its acre-plus kitchen garden where there are the expected vegetables growing including various herbs, tomatoes, kale and lettuce but also the unexpected, such as a 7-foot-tall cardoon! When head gardener Nicky Thomas hears why I’m getting a tour of the garden, she says, “You can’t leave a chef standing around doing nothing!” Apparently not.

Regester prepared ribs one day and butter bean with bacon soup another. He made various salads, garlic bread—food to soothe nerves and fill the stomachs of people working extremely hard in a treacherous environment. He tells me he likes to serve what’s fresh, that he shies away from freezing food. “ere was all this ricotta and fresh mozzarella,” he said, “so I made big pans of lasagna.”

Chef Regester wasn’t the only one at the preserve cooking for the workers. Some of the homeowners who’d stayed made batch after batch of cookies. But since he was the only one in the kitchen, not only did Regester, who’s been at the preserve for two and half years, cook but he became chief bottle-washer as well, doing dishes and mopping the floors. Regester says, “All of us at the preserve felt an obligation to do what we could to hold the fire line so it wouldn’t go any farther.”

Monterey County Regional Fire District Chief Michael Urquides tells me that all the workers enjoyed the meals: “A home-cooked meal goes a long way. ere wasn’t a thing that didn’t get eaten. It was all gobbled up.”

Noting the deeper meaning that came come from eating well together, Urquides continues, “From a morale standpoint, it was tremendous. The firefighters, being away from home for so long, get used to eating rather repetitive meals, mostly sandwiches, prepared by vendors.”

Regester’s food wasn’t only delicious; it didn’t just uplift morale and unify the community, concludes Urquides. “It was good for the workers’ health.”

Reflecting back on that time, as we sit on the Hacienda patio on a cool morning, the effects of the fire visible only a short distance away, Regester tells me he felt better being useful. “I’m a chef. That’s my part of the puzzle. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep if I hadn’t been helping.”

Monterey artist and author Patrice Vecchione’s latest book is Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life. For more, go to patricevecchione.com.

RECIPE

Seafood Bouillabaisse

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