Meet the Chefs
Ray Garcia- FIG Restaurant
Ray Garcia, who proudly describes himself as a second generation Taste of the Nation chef, says he was introduced to Share Our Strength eight years ago while working for chef Sean Hardy. In 2008, he started participating with his own restaurant. This year, the man who has made FIG at Santa Monica's Fairmont Hotel a destination restaurant, isn't merely participating, he's the honorary chef chair.
"We are all very busy," Gracia says, "but you do whatever you can for as long as you can. It will be worth it to you and much appreciated by the kids."
Don't worry. He'll still be dishing out Berkshire pork tacos with tomatillos and stone fruit. Though he's so busy cooking professionally that he rarely cooks at home, Garcia says you'll always find butter, mustard, eggs and peanut butter in his fridge.
As for non-professionals who want to eat better but wouldn't know a sauté pan from a sous vide machine, Garcia thinks the best bet is to keep things simple. "Visit your local farmer’s market," he says. "It is not as expensive as you might think and the product is generally much better."
When asked if he had any quotes that inspired him, he offered a piece of wisdom that isn't specific to food but offers a terrific blueprint for life: "The person that says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."
David LeFevre- Manhattan Beach Post/Fishing with Dynamite
Running one popular and acclaimed restaurant apparently wasn't keeping chef David LeFevre busy enough, so he decided to open a second one. Located less than a block away from each other on Manhattan Beach's main drag, MB Post, housed in the city's former post office, is a clubby, mid-size bistro known for its bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits, gargantuan French fries, and terrific beer selection while Fishing With Dynamite, which is the size of a posh kitchenette, is all about the seafood. And LeFevre has plenty of skill in that department, having worked at Water Grill for several years before opening his own restaurant.
This year's Taste of the Nation attendees will get to sample a little of that know-how. Though the vagaries of sourcing can always cause a menu to change, LeFevre is planning to serve albacore tuna tartare with kimchi furikake at the festival. Why? "Because I can serve it cold," he says with a laugh. Beyond pragmatism, LeFevre also strives to showcase the bounty of the ocean in its lightest, freshest, most pristine form.
"We as chefs get asked to do things just about every weekend of the year," LeFevre says. But still, he comes out for Taste of the Nation because, he says of the work that Share our Strength does. "It's a great cause and they always involve good people."
Kris Yenbamroong- Night + Market
Kris Yenbamroong won't reveal what he plans to serve this year at Taste of the Nation (even he might not know) but whatever he decides, he promises, "It'll be raw, stinky and spicy."
Presiding over his West Hollywood Thai restaurant Night + Market, the young, amiable, tattooed chef is known for trafficking in aggressive flavors. Though he's serious about the food he prepares, Night + Market is casual, sometimes boisterous, a blend of technique and accessibility that comes, in part, from growing up in a restaurant family.
Located on Sunset Blvd. near Doheny, Night + Market is next door to Talesai, the restaurant his family has owned and run for years. Even so, Yenbamroong didn't take a traditional path to the kitchen.
After graduating from Beverly Hills High, he went to film school at NYU and worked as an assistant to New York photographer Richard Kern before stepping behind the stove.
This is his second year participating in Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation. "We support the cause and are always eager to give back however we can, so it was a done deal," Yenbamroong says.
As for where he likes to eat when he's not cooking for others, Yenbamroong says he had his best meal of late at exquisitely indulgent meat cave, Chi Spacca. "I'm buddies with a few guys in the Mozza camp and they always make us feel simultaneously 'at home' but not without a sense of occasion. I really believe that as a whole, those three restaurants there are the best in L.A. We had the huge steak, but I'll go out on a limb and say the butcher terrine that Chad makes is the most impressive meat thing being served in L.A. at the moment."
Ask about other inspirations, and Yenbamroong will call up a quote from no less a culinary mastermind than the late, great Colonel Sanders: "I'm too drunk to taste this chicken."
Ricardo Zarate- Mo-Chica/Picca/Paiche
Ricardo Zarate is on a roll. The award-winning Peruvian-born chef started out with one humble eatery in the Mercado La Paloma. Now, he has three acclaimed restaurants: Mo-Chica in downtown L.A., Picca on the westside, and Paiche in Marina del Rey. At all three of them you'll find traditional Peruvian and South American dishes layered with modern improvisations and global flavors (most obviously Japanese).
Zarate became involved with Share Our Strength four years ago when he participated in Taste of the Nation for the first time. "While there I got to know the people and the cause," Zarate says. "I have really believed in it since day one and I want to keep supporting it. I have two kids so it means a lot to me too."
For this year's festival, he'll be serving a crispy tacu tacu (a sort of patty made from cooke down beans or lentils) topped with spicy tuna and an aioli of rocoto chili peppers. While this sort of fare isn't likely to make it onto a school cafeteria's menu, Zarate hopes that intriguing recipes made with accessible ingredients can help home cooks prepare healthier food.
"It's all about having fun in the kitchen," he says. "We don't need to use heavy sauces, oil and butter all the time. Creating good sauces with different spices make for a great balanced meal."
As for the fight to end hunger, it's not merely a lofty goal; for Zarate it's about finding an equilibrium between individuals and the communities in which they live. "I think we are fortunate to be successful in our careers so it is important to give back as much as we can," Zarate says. "So many people need help and support. Giving back is key to a balanced life."
Vartan Abgaryan- Cliff's Edge
If you spot someone barbecuing octopus tentacles at Taste of the Nation on Sunday, there's a good chance it's Vartan Abgaryan, the enthusiastic chef at Cliff's Edge, which boasts one of the best patios on the eastside. "It's going to be hot. Why not barbecue?" he says. Barbecuing is something he knows a bit about. One of his favorite dishes at the Silver Lake restaurant is the house barbecue with lamb heart tartar, grilled calf's liver wrapped in ribeye fat, and harissa-marinated sweetbreads.
Inspired to begin cooking professionally by a college job as a waiter, he's known for his passion for food. When asked about his favorite aspect of being a chef, he says, "Feeding people! I love to feed people!!"
He also likes to laugh at himself. "I love sneakers and always wore them while cooking," Abgaryan says. "Then one day I fell. And not just any fall. I did a full-blown, feet-into-the-air high-kick and landed on my head. I threatened to fire a cook if he laughed. Hahaha. [It was] only in the moment. We all laughed 10 minutes later."
His home kitchen is always stocked with cured meats, cheeses, olives, mustards, and Middle Eastern spices, and seasonal fruits. The last of these, he says, "keeps me away from the ice cream." For home chefs he urges, "Try to shop often. You avoid waste and food spoilage. Also, focus in vegetables. They should be the focal point of your meals and when in season, they are usually really affordable."
If he had his way, he says, "I would like to have free reign with government-aided GMO projects and Monsanto, the so-called 'sustainable agriculture company.' These things are going to seriously hurt the world. Care about farmers! Support them!"
Outside of that, he sums up his philosophy with a quote from Virginia Woolf that's as much about cooking as it is about life: "One cannot think well, love well, or sleep well if one has not dined well."