As a former marine and food service specialist to high ranking military officials, Richard Garcia can face any challenge in the kitchen. Although, Garcia graduated from the US Marine Food Service School and the U.S. Army Quartermaster School for the Culinary Arts with honors, he considers himself self-taught when it comes to civilian life.
He dabbled in kitchens before enlisting in the military, but then decided to pursue his culinary talents once his service was over. He worked his way through various Boston area kitchens, and then was appointed corporate executive chef for Stoneforge Restaurants, where—at just 25-years-old—he was responsible for the culinary development of four restaurants that ranged from casual family to fine dining, and the operation of a commissary kitchen. Following that, Garcia sought warmth and sun in the US Virgin Islands and worked for two of the island’s top restaurants, Havana Blue and Lotus Asian Grill.
Currently, he is the executive chef of Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro, where he showcases his globally-influenced haute cuisine with special attention to sustainability. Garcia goes out of his way to use top-quality local and sustainable ingredients, including sourcing imported fair trade products from around the globe.
Garcia has cooked at the James Beard House, made local TV appearances, and participates in the Foxwoods Food and Wine Festival. He is an avid supporter of child hunger prevention, and donates his time and talents to raising money for Share Our Strength and The Rodman Ride for Kids.
Interview with Chef Richard Garcia of Tastings Wine Bar and Bistro – Foxboro, MAKatherine Martinelli:
What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Honestly I've just been doing it. The first job I ever did was in a restaurant and I never went back. Even when I went into the military, I went in asking if I could cook. Something about the lifestyle and being able to cook something and watch people be happy as they eat is something you don’t get at a lot of other jobs.
KM: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
RG: I didn't go to culinary school. I went to the Marine Corps cooking school—that’s the only formal education I have. I have a book collection of 4-500 books, so that’s my school. I've been fortunate enough to work in places where I can experiment a lot, so that helps. I've got a good mix here. A good 75% of my staff are culinary school trained, but I really just look for someone who wants to be in the kitchen. If they want to be in this industry, even if they don't have school, they can work here.
KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
RG: Right now I think the biggest thing is paying attention to the basics. Don't try to do things beyond your means. I think a lot of young cooks come out of school and think they can use funky techniques or ingredients they've never learned. Take it step by step, one day at a time.
KM: Who is the coolest chef you have worked with?
RG: I've worked with a lot of cool chefs. He's not a celebrity chef by any means, but there was a chef named Tony Lorenzo and he was the first chef to put me in a corporate chef position. He was the first chef to ever let me buy and use and play with whatever I wanted. It was one of the most fun times in my career because he let me do that.
KM: What goes into creating a dish?
RG: For me it’s really about trying to blend together the local ingredients we've got here in Massachusetts and New England. I look at what’s available. From there it comes into my training and what I like to cook. Every dish has some kind of Spanish influence—it’s in the family. How can I take these regional ingredients and make what I like to cook? Seasonality is very big for me—I want to make sure every ingredient is fresh. Almost all of our produce here is out of the ground and here in a few hours. It has to be visually enticing. Texture is something that I really make sure that I have—three to four textures that make you happy. If your brain is working when you’re eating, you'll remember the food more.
KM: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
RG: I love a lot of Central American flavor combinations. One of my all time favorites is ripe plantains mashed together with black beans and cinnamon sugar. It’s a sweet, savory, intense flavor combination common in Central America. I love green mango, salt, and lime. That’s another big favorite of mine. I like a lot of things going on at once.
KM: At StarChefs we publish a technique features for chefs to learn new things. Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual or different way?
RG: This is a technique I've been showing lately, how to poach an egg inside of a bag. It’s ideal if you want the perfect poached egg in a perfect circle in the middle of a busy Saturday night service. We crack an egg into Saran wrap into a coffee cup, and you're able to poach an egg while you're doing 200 covers. It’s so simple. We flavor it with oils. We might line the plastic wrap with chili or chive oil to impart flavor.
KM: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
RG: For me its there's so many. I think a lot of people don’t appreciate spices. Not a center of the plate item, but spices like paprika, cumin, things that have strong abundant flavors. People are afraid to use them or over-season the dishes. The Middle East and Egypt have it right because those flavors have become a staple. I think spices are underutilized in the U.S.
KM: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
RG: We shoot for the clientele who gets the luxury boxes, and we get them. We don't serve the boxes, but the owners of the restaurant do have a box so they'll come in on game day. We'll do a Kobe hot dog, things that are still sports related but more on our level. The stadium won't let us do a box to take in. Every home game we're going to do a pig roast in the patio.
KM: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
RG: I'd probably redo the StarChefs tasting. I think never really being involved in StarChefs and seeing what you're looking for, there's a perception that you go out and find the coolest people out there. Although the tasting itself went well, we didn't showcase what we really love to do. Visually everything was exactly as we do, but we didn't stress the sustainability aspect. Just being in the heat of the moment it would have been nice. I really wish I would have. There's so many things you always think back on, but the biggest thing for me was that I rushed into becoming an executive chef. I was 23 years old. If I had my choice I would have slowed down, traveled a little more, worked under different chefs. When I was young it was about getting that title, not about how I got there. Being older, I'm 30 years old now, I've always been the leader of the kitchen and it would have benefited me to follow my own advice and take it step by step.
KM: What trends do you see emerging?
RG: I'm sick of everything having sauce on it. Why does everything need sauce?
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
RG: Right now I'm a member of Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food USA, and Farm Fresh Rhode Island. We deal with a lot of local organizations in this area. We get involved with as much awareness about local foods as possible; we help out farmers markets, doing cooking demos with their produce, and we're constantly doing something at the restaurant to help raise money for the local farmers market association. We're at the farm every morning buying our produce. We use a group that travels to the farms and picks up produce. When we're at the farm we're always down there trying to help them promote what they have going on. Every Sunday the chefs will rotate going down to the farms. We do a lot of things with kids, going down to the farm to pick vegetables and coming back to the restaurant and cooking. We do adult classes on how to pick local produce. We're in the process of trying to be a certified green sustainable restaurant.
KM: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
RG: The biggest challenge we face is our location. We are the only small independent high end restaurant out of 10 restaurants. We're competing with some great, well-known restaurants and that's our big problem. We're small and independent and serving high-end farm cuisine. We're at the stadium and there are a ton of sports fans around. How can we get someone to spend $14 on an all natural burger when they can go across the street and get a burger they see is the same? It's tough because people don’t understand too much about what sustainability can do. So we’re competing against the mega restaurants.
AB: What are you doing to survive in this economy? Are there any practices that are working for you?
RG: As far as the economy goes the biggest thing we try to do is e-marketing. We are huge into e-marketing. When we opened we didn’t do e-marketing at all, and the response was okay. But through e-marketing we’re doing more of a personal approach. You sign up for our newsletter, it’s addressed specifically to you, and the way we write them is in an approach that’s directed to you and not a group of people. Every day I open my email in the morning and I get 3 or 4 emails from people. We've made it possible for people to get in touch with me, my sommelier, and my chef de cuisine directly. Our emails and phone numbers are on there and people like that. If they have a question they'll call and ask directly. For us its helps stay in front. We don't offer a lot of coupons or offer a cheap prix fixe, but a lot of restaurants don't make it a personal thing between themselves and the guest. But that’s what’s helping us beat the economy. People aren’t spending their money like they used to, but if they meet the chef they go home and talk about it and then it’s made a big impact.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
RG: I think I'd be writing. I love to write. I've been writing a blog for a year and a half. Whether I'd be writing about food I have no idea. I'm in the process of writing a manuscript for a book I've been working on for a year; it’s one of the best projects I've worked on. This particular book is going to be a cookbook, but its taking a journey from when I started to cook and every chapter takes a two year block from when I worked. I worked for Justin Rodriguez when I was 14 and I contacted him to get recipes. You'll see basic stuff from when I was a teen to now, when I'm educated and focused on local cuisine. It's a memoir and I've managed to work with some people who've helped me to turn it into a cookbook.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
RG: So far it’s been cooking at the James Beard House. It was an honor to get the phone call from them and just getting the chance to be there. Not by far do I classify myself among them, but to be in the same kitchen as some of the best chefs in the world was an experience I've never had. While we were there, a guest stood up and said “We're from Paris and we've been to every Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris” and they compared our cooking to the Michelin restaurants in Paris, which was pretty cool.
AB: What does success mean for you? What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
RG: It’s changed a lot. Seven years ago success was being in charge of a kitchen. Today it means getting in the kitchen every day with my guys and seeing all my cooks happy in my kitchen. I get a lot of comments about that. It’s knowing that I have a crew where almost every one of them has been with me since the Virgin Islands. My success is really based on my employees being happy and my being happy to teach them. And knowing that they're not getting bored and looking to go anywhere else. Obviously my ultimate goal is to have a couple of those locations I can call my own. I look at what's going on today and tomorrow and hopefully that's enough to get me where I want to go.
AB: In your own words, what is American Cuisine to you?
RG: American cuisine to me is America, and the US is such a melting pot of cultures and flavors these days that there's not one kind. There’s steak and potatoes to Chinese food down the street. It's a melting pot of cultures and flavors, so that at the end of the day if you utilize what's local to your area and sustainable, American cuisine can be anything. The US is leading the way right now in getting people to get food from a local source and cook any kind of cuisine.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
RG: Honestly, it’s changed in the last few years, but right now its about utilizing what you have locally and the bounty you have around you. Become aware of the different foods that are grown in your area, whether that’s Massachusetts, California, or Alaska. Use that to create some amazing dishes. I think it’s a shame that people have to buy food from California when somebody’s drawing the same strawberries down the street that are 10 times better.
AB: What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?
RG: For me it's ultimately making sure that we're not over-buying or over-using products, not just food, but water and electricity. It’s really about making sure that we're using resources that we know we're not taking away from. We don't use tablecloths because we're hoping that the company we're buying linens from isn't washing more linens, etc. We want to do our part to not take away from what America has given us. 5 years ago I could care less. What changed? My wife and I were the same—not that we didn't care, but it wasn’t a priority. When we had our first child we were living in the Virgin Islands and we started realizing things were really expensive, so we got involved with farmers there, also going fishing ourselves. We're not outdoors people. A lot of it had to do with being there at that point in our lives, where you have to pay $8 gallon for milk; a lot of it had to do with money. We started learning more about it. I lived in Massachusetts most of my life and just 4 or 5 years ago I realized we have farms here. It's been quite a turnaround. Learning about something with someone helps; learning about it with my wife it was easier to want to learn. We really got into it, then in the restaurant world it became something that people cared about and we really tried to implement it.
AB: How do you incorporate sustainable ethos into your establishment?
RG: We do a lot of things. I'm not going to talk about the food first because it’s not just about purchasing produce. We don't use linens. The water we use is all recycled water, which costs a pretty penny. When it comes down to electricity all the equipment and lights are Energy Star Certified. We made sure we did as much of that as we could. All of our to-go containers are biodegradable or can be reused. A lot of restaurants will rent uniforms; instead we give our servers a stipend to go out and buy uniforms. Little things like that affect the companies we use directly so they're not washing as much linen. On the wine program we're really trying to develop a strong organic and biodynamic wine list. We've gone from 2 to 2 dozen biodynamic and organic wines. We try to focus our cocktail list on fresh, local, and sustainable produce. In the kitchen one of the rules I have when we purchase food is that if we don't know where it came from, we don't buy it, from our proteins to our dry goods. Our purveyor has to provide us with a tracking record. There are a small number of things we can't trace, some of the sugar or flour. The non-perishables we at least buy certified organic. Ninety-five percent of everything in our kitchen is either local, sustainable, or grown organic. Anything we import we do at once so we're not importing Iberico from Spain one week and octopus another; we just fly it over here once to make less of an impact.
AB: How important are ‘local’ and ‘organic’?
RG: It just tastes better. For me to be able to go out to my guests and say I picked these carrots for you this morning, it makes so much more of an impact. At the end of the day it tastes better, it looks better, and as far as doing our part to supporting the local economy we've done some research and if we buy a carrot from California, only 5 cents goes to the local community, whereas if we buy local 75 cents goes to the local community. We're supporting our local farmers to support the local economy and hopefully come here and spend some money here. It's a circle. I'm not a “crunchy” person, but at the end of the day the food tastes better, looks better, and is supporting the money where I live.
AB: How do you pass the message on to your diners?
RG: We educate the servers a lot. We spend 15-20 minutes a day to talk to our servers about everything that's coming in our door. We change our menu a lot so we have to stay on top of the servers to let them know what going on. Myself and the other two chefs spend as much time in the dining room as we can. Eighty-five percent of dining done with our chef’s tasting menu now, and one of my rules is that a chef comes out each time. A chef will pay attention to you in a chef’s jacket, whereas even if a server tries to educate you, a chef has the diner’s attention a lot longer than a server would.