Sustainability Chef Ray Garcia
Fig | Los Angeles, CA
For Ray Garcia, growing up nearby family in Los Angeles meant a lot of Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house. It was during those long Sunday evenings, full of laughter and family, that Garcia first really began to feel the profound conviviality of food. But with his eyes trained on a law degree, Garcia temporarily parted ways with the culinary world, devoting four years of study to the very un-foodie disciplines of political science and business economics at the University of California Los Angeles. Possibly because he maintained some ties to the food world, working as a server at various restaurants over the course of his studies, Garcia finally realized his true calling wasn’t in a courtroom, but a kitchen.
“I didn’t choose food,” he explains. “It chose me.” Putting away his Stenopads and legal binders, Garcia enrolled at the California School of Culinary Arts. Over the course of his studies, Garcia was able to work under some local—and global—culinary giants, including Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Douglas Keane of Cyrus. With the guidance of such heavy-hitters, Garcia learned the value of restrained technique, as well as a deep respect for the integrity of his ingredients.
Now at the helm of Fig, Garcia expresses his own, fully matured style, highlighting seasonality with an updated bistro menu that is bright, bold, and fundamentally ingredient-driven. And with a restaurant thoroughly committed to sustainability, with in-house water filtration and a plan to recycle frying oil for hand soap, Garcia has proven a leader in ecologically responsible, high quality fine dining. And putting out plates of pure, flavorful food night after night, Garcia doesn’t regret putting courtroom fantasies aside. No doubt, grandma would be proud.
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Ray Garcia: Honestly, I first started to cook in college because I was tired of eating crappy food. My roommate would always cook himself gourmet meals. I wanted to eat like that so I decided to teach myself to cook. My first cookbooks were Cooking for Dummies and the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Cooking professionally never crossed my mind until I tried a seared piece of foie gras. I didn’t know what it was. It was salty, fatty, crunchy, and meaty all at the same time. That bite changed my life forever. Up until then I never realized how good food could be. After that there was no turning back.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school for aspiring chefs?
RG: No. While helpful, I don’t think culinary school is necessary. The most important component to success in the kitchen is your attitude. You can learn more by showing up to work with a positive and eager attitude than you can in a book. Many of the most successful cooks in my kitchen have never been to culinary school, they just work hard.
AB: If you had to re-do one thing from your past, what would it be?
RG: I think I would spend more time learning pastries. It’s fascinating and I have great respect for what pastry chefs do. I don’t know if I have the patience for it though.
AB: Who are some of your mentors?
RG: My mentor in life is my father. Since I was a boy he has instilled in me the principles of hard work, discipline, dedication and keeping a positive attitude regardless of what comes my way. With out this foundation I would not have been able to succeed as a chef.
As far as chefs go, the first chefs that I worked for, Bill Bracken and Sean Hardy, were essential in my culinary growth. They showed me what it meant to be a chef. I learned not only how to run a kitchen and a business, but how to push and demand more of myself. They taught me to only accept the best from myself and others around me. I also staged with Douglas Keene and although the experience was brief, the lessons I learned were invaluable. My eyes were opened to the use of exceptional local ingredients and I was taught new techniques on how to make simple flavors shine.
AB: What advice would you give to chefs just starting out?
RG: You have two eyes, two ears, and only one mouth for a reason. Spend every moment you can watching and listening to everything going on around you in the kitchen rather than talking about what you already think you know. You can learn a lot from everyone in the kitchen, from the dishwashers to the chef, as long as you open yourself up to it.
AB: What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
RG: I would be an FBI agent. It is a profession that always intrigued me. I think part of the attraction was the adrenaline rush. That was the path I was headed down before I discovered food and cooking. Now my rush comes from Saturday night service.
AB: What are some of your favorite food related charities?
RG: Although there are a lot of great causes that we support, my favorites are the Southern California Special Olympics and Share our Strength. I have been fortunate to meet many of the individuals and families that have been positively impacted by the charity's work. It is a great feeling to know that your work and contributions are helping to improve the lives of others.
AB: What does sustainability mean to you?
RG: To me sustainability is a commitment to honoring and respecting the vital resources of our land. Although it is an issue debated in global forums, it is a fight that needs to be fought at local levels in our communities. This means we all need to examine what and how we eat, travel, consume and give back.
AB: How do you incorporate sustainability into Fig?
RG: Fig is an active part of the Santa Monica community. As such we continue to challenge ourselves to get this message of sustainability out to our guests. We do this in both our food as well as other environmentally responsible practices. The produce that we source is almost exclusively locally grown. We acquire all meat, cheese, poultry and fish from farms, creameries, ranches, and fisheries embracing responsible practices. There is an ever-expanding list of biodynamic wine on our wine list. A constant effort is being made to turn guests on to a new way of eating and thinking about the food they eat. You will see a lot of lesser-used cuts of meat on the menu in an effort to waste less of the animal. While all of the seafood served at Fig is endorsed by organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we try to go further. We serve a lot mollusks and smaller fish species which are more easily replenished rather than larger, over-fished and predatory varieties.
On the non-food related end we have a number of initiatives either in place or in the works. Beyond recycling glass, paper, aluminum and plastic, all kitchen waste gets composted. Fig filters its own flat and sparkling water and bottles it before going to the table. Being able to reuse the bottles cuts down on our reliance on glass and plastic bottles. We valet park bicycles to encourage locals to leave their cars at home. I have also partnered with a company to turn our used fryer oil in to hand soap for the restrooms.
AB: How important are local and organic ingredients to your restaurant?
RG: Local and organic ingredients are the cornerstone of our menu at Fig. I am blessed to have the Santa Monica's Farmers Market only two blocks away. It allows us to go twice a week and have established relationships with the farmers. There is also a forager that works for us. She goes from San Diego up to San Francisco in search of local and seasonal gems for the restaurant. All of the beef used in the restaurant comes from California, as does the poultry. A major part of eating locally is keeping constantly aware of the seasons and what produce is available. To keep guests focused on eating locally and seasonally I have 3 sections running along the bottom of the menu. They read "Just Arrived," "In Peak Season," and "Coming Soon." It not only shows people that they are eating what is in season now, but gets them excited about the bounty of upcoming months.
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