Local chefs are bringing their kitchens to private houses, backyards and beaches.
By Justine Amodeo
With the back-and-forth opening and closing of indoor dining at restaurants due to pandemic restrictions, chef’s kitchens have temporarily become a thing of the past. But local chefs have made it possible to bring that experience home, with mobile taco and margarita trucks, home-delivered family meals and even authentic paella made over an open fire as options for those who miss innovative dining or have cooking-at-home fatigue.
Paella on the Campfire
It’s a unique and tasty experience when Campesino Paella owner and Laguna Beach resident Celia Lerum and staff come to your home, or to the beach, and cook authentic paella over an open fire for you and your guests. The event starts with an expansive charcuterie platter and organic, fire-roasted veggies, followed by heirloom tomato gazpacho, grilled bread with Celita’s Salsa Espanola and then Lerum’s signature paella.
Each wood-fired cooking event is unique and custom designed for up to 20 people and includes two staff members and all the equipment needed to cook paella over an open fire. Watching Lerum, who comes from a family of Spanish artists and cooks, prepare the paella is almost as fun as eating the finished dish, as she piles on the saffron, white wine, bell peppers, chicken, Spanish rice, chorizo, prawns, mussels and more. Lerum says the simple yet transformative dish is cooked as it has been for generations in her family, over an open fire outside with people gathered around, eagerly awaiting the finished meal and connecting with each other—even if they are masked and socially distanced.
Lerum says during the pandemic, “there is no new normal regarding how we conduct our businesses. I went from booking events and catering to large groups and parties to a delivery-only model early on and was able to pivot quickly enough and adjust my expectations to meet the needs of my clients.”
She was also able to provide food to a larger audience with a presale family meal delivery event, which she was running every other weekend, but is no longer doing. “I was grateful for the business and I think my clients were thrilled to have a break from the tedium of their own food management routines,” she says.
Over the summer, Lerum began cooking at small outdoor events again and it has steadily begun to build back to pre-COVID booking, albeit smaller gatherings and more curated locations. “The way I approach cooking has helped me maintain a clientele that feels more comfortable hosting in an outdoor space,” she says. “Experiencing an authentic wood-fired paella is truly memorable and, by its very nature, allows for all guests to be as socially distanced as they feel they need to be.”
A Rasta Taco Party
When OC native and Rasta Taco owner Mario Melendez was vacationing in Jamaica in 2006, he was inspired by all of the roadside stops with jerk chicken stands. This combined with his love for tacos as well as the Rastafarian culture led him to develop Rasta Taco, which he launched as a catering service. The mobile margarita bar came next and, in 2016, he established his first brick-and-mortar eatery with the Rasta Taco name in Laguna Beach. Little did he know, come 2020, it would be pandemic proof.
The Laguna restaurant was already set up for takeout and outdoor dining. But now, according to Melendez, the trucks have become very popular for small gatherings. Rasta Taco’s margarita or taco trucks will come to your home for a private event, serving up a series of margaritas, or you can hire one of the company’s chefs to cook on-site, offering guests custom tacos, rice and beans.
“It’s been a good year for us because of the way it was set up,” Melendez says. “It’s kind of like a Tiffany ring: Good things come in small packages. At first, I was nervous and thought, ‘I’m crazy, I can’t compete with the big guys.’ But then I see these restaurants struggling during COVID and, going forward, people want to continue with outdoor dining.”
The made-to-order taco catering and margarita trucks—Portable Rita, The Lady and Queen Rita—have made it possible for Rasta Taco to be somewhat immune to the pandemic, Melendez says. “I learned early on I can do small parties with just a cart,” he says. “There is no doubt the business increased. People went from having a wedding at a hotel to [having weddings] at home and, hello, there we are with the food and beverages. It put us in a favorable position. We feed small groups all day long—small backyard parties, birthdays, baptisms, life celebrations, weddings and corporate events. That’s been our soup and nuts all 2020.”
Besides Rasta Taco, the taco truck and margarita trucks, Melendez just added the Rasta Rita Cantina and Venue outside of Joshua Tree in Twentynine Palms in an old adobe that is currently being renovated. The property has been zoned as a wedding venue with a liquor license and should be open by April. “We are doing so many … weddings and events and backyard parties in Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms and the high desert,” Melendez says. “People are getting married in crazy places because hotels are canceling on them. And because of our proximity to the military base, we wanted to offer an affordable venue with all-you-can-eat tacos and margaritas.”
Meal Delivery by Summer’s Table
During the pandemic, meal kit services gained popularity, too, which only helped boost business for Laguna Beach chef Summer Tarango. She launched Summer’s Table in 2019 after a battle with breast cancer, when easy-to-prepare meal kits were her go-to dining choice.
The meal kits made it easier to cook for herself and loved ones during a trying time, but she was not thrilled with the unsustainable packaging, as well as ingredients that were not fresh, organic or locally sourced. So, she decided to start her own healthy, planet-friendly, prepared meal delivery service.
Tarango was already connected to local produce vendors from her previous job at zpizza and, once she was done with chemotherapy, decided to offer prepared meals—locally-sourced and sustainably-packaged—for friends and family and posted them on Instagram. The interest was immediate.
COVID hit one year later, almost doubling her business with clients staying at home and restaurants closed. “We were already making meal kits and as soon as we heard everyone had to stay at home, we added a provision section to our menu and offered proteins, veggies, grains, dairy products and CSA boxes from the farmers market, and people realized they could make restaurant quality meals at home. Now, a year later, we have tripled our business.”
Summer’s Table now has eight to 10 part-time employees and one full-time sous chef working out of a commercial kitchen in Laguna Canyon, offering different menus every week. “We are bringing food from all around the world—we really try to rotate nationalities,” Tarango says, noting that orders placed before Saturday are delivered Monday.
Customers can’t seem to get enough of her charcuterie and family-sized avocado toast kits, frozen chocolate sea salt cookie dough and entrees like pan-roasted swordfish with lemon caper beurre blanc, in addition to ready-to-cook items like grass-fed New York steak, organic turkey meatballs and chimichurri shrimp along with everyday pantry items from local small businesses such as Bread Artisan Bakery, Honey Girl Grows, Jedidiah Coffee and French Buckets, which offers flowers.
If you want to host a small gathering, Summer’s Table will deliver a dinner party kit with everything you need to serve six to 12 people. Enjoy it outside and pretend that, at least for an evening, life is back to normal.
Connect with the Chefs
Campesino Paella: www.campesinopaella.com
Rasta Taco: rastataco.com
Summer’s Table: summerstable.com