The latest kitchen connoisseurs to set up shop in Laguna are bringing a fresh approach to an already impressive dining scene.
By Bria Balliet | Photos by Robert Zaleski
The city of Laguna Beach boasts many enviable characteristics. From the obvious (like the stunning coastline and perfect weather) to the hidden gems (such as the historic cottages and scenic hikes), our seaside town is known for having the best of pretty much everything. Added to that sparkling reputation are the numerous new eateries that have arrived on the scene this year. From the high quality yet casual Slapfish, which sits steps away from the Main Beach boardwalk, to fine dining in the canyon at Ivory Restaurant & Lounge, there is no shortage of options to satisfy even the most discerning palate.
Making this diverse culinary scene possible are the masters of the kitchen—the chefs whose talents have led them (or led them back, in some cases) to Laguna Beach. Through their varied backgrounds and distinct specialties, there is one consistent trait found in all of Laguna’s newest chefs: They couldn’t be happier to be here.
Chef Chris Tzorin
For Executive Chef Chris Tzorin, joining the team at Tortilla Republic’s newest location was almost like a homecoming. The Southern California native grew up in kitchens in and around Laguna Beach, following in his father’s footsteps to become a premier chef—but not without some initial persuading.
As a teenager, Chris’ propensity to cause mischief led his dad to get him a job washing dishes at the now-defunct Beach House in Laguna. It was there that Chris’s father—the restaurant’s executive chef—kept a watchful eye on his son and where Chris found his passion for all things culinary. With his father’s mentoring (which continues to this day) and plenty of hard work, Chris has made a name for himself, being featured on two Food Network shows, “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”
Now an executive chef in his own right at a restaurant only a stone’s throw from The Beach House’s former location (now Driftwood Kitchen), Chris couldn’t be happier. “I feel at home back in Laguna Beach,” he says. “It’s beautiful. I love to be here. I love my job.”
The co-founders of Tortilla Republic, brother and sister John Halter and Mina Azami, along with Morten Kaag, love having Chris on board as well. “He’s modern Mexican and that’s his passion,” John explains. “So, we have a mutual passion.”
As for the cuisine, Chris and the owners are all equally determined to maintain the quality and freshness of the food they serve. Diners at Tortilla Republic can be sure that the ingredients used in their food are, as Chris says, “the real deal.” The ingredients contain no preservatives, meats are antibiotic and hormone free, and produce is organic whenever possible.
In addition, a large number of items on the menu are gluten free, and Chris takes great care to accommodate those with food allergies or special dietary restrictions. This health-conscious approach fits in perfectly with the Laguna clients, and with Chris’ ideals. “I’m very proud to be here and to be serving a good product [that is] very healthy, too,” Chris shares.
Overall, the folks at Tortilla Republic recognize the quality of Laguna’s growing dining scene and strive to be an equally strong addition. And with Chris leading the kitchen, that won’t be a challenge.
Chef Andrew Gruel
When Andrew Gruel was living and working in his native New Jersey, he never imagined that he would end up on the coast of sunny California, let alone operating a chain of sustainable seafood restaurants with locations stretching from Laguna Beach to Dubai. But that is just where the chef and owner of Slapfish finds himself today, successfully maintaining a growing franchise that began as a simple food truck.
Oddly enough, it was his time out of the kitchen that led to Andrew’s current culinary adventure. “I took a little time off right before Slapfish, and I signed on with the Aquarium of the Pacific to direct a sustainable seafood program,” he explains. It was during this time that Andrew was able to develop his passion for responsible fishing and formulate his plans for the future. “I’ve always been into ocean conservation [and] seafood,” he says. “I was promoting sustainable seafood through the aquarium … and working with like-minded people, so that was kind of the genesis of Slapfish.”
Without the money for a stand-alone restaurant right off the bat, Andrew (with a business partner) launched the Slapfish food truck in 2011. There, he perfected his recipes and earned the following and capital to support his first brick-and-mortar store, which he opened in Huntington Beach in 2012 followed by the Laguna location in 2014.
Though Laguna wasn’t the original home of Slapfish, Andrew knew he wanted to open in this seaside town from the beginning. “It’s a very ocean-friendly city. … It was really just about connecting with a community that understands the need for responsible choices and how what we choose and what we eat affects the ocean,” he says.
Andrew also understands the need to bring something new to this community. “Laguna has some really great options for full-service, sit-down seafood,” Andrew says. “The last thing we want to do is be a part of saturating the market.” To avoid this, Slapfish tweaked its model specifically for Laguna, opting for a more casual, “grab ’n’ go,” beach-shack feel without sacrificing quality.
“… Because we have a unique purchase model where we buy very close to the source, … we can provide the quality of fine dining with the type of seafood but at the cost and convenience of faster food.” This elevated but casual concept perfectly reflects the Laguna lifestyle, and lives up to the Slapfish motto: “Ridiculously fresh. Refreshingly responsible.”
Chef Abel Gonzales
Prior to becoming the executive chef of Ivory Restaurant & Lounge, chef Abel Gonzales was eager to share his plethora of knowledge and signature style with the sophisticated palates of Laguna locals. So much so, in fact, that he sought out the restaurant owners the second he heard they were hiring, before they had even placed an ad. “I called [them] up and said, ‘I understand that you’re looking for a chef,’ ” he laughs.
With a resume that spans kitchens from Palm Springs and Las Vegas to rural Texas and Dana Point (and includes experience with French, Italian, Mexican, Thai and other cuisines), it is no wonder that he was hired almost immediately, or that reviews of his talents in the kitchen thus far have been overwhelmingly positive. But, it is Ivory’s owner, Marsha Benson, who sings the chef’s praises the loudest.
“We’ve been over-the-top, 200-percent pleased,” she says. “He was looking to move into a restaurant that would allow him to use more of his artistic talent in preparing his sauces and foods and … use his creativity to the fullest. So, it was perfect for us, basically.”
For Abel, the freedom to flex his creative muscles allows him to craft the best dishes. “I love to cook with wines and fresh herbs,” he explains. “I love to make my own reductions [and] my own sauces. … When I serve [my food,] I feel proud.”
With so much trust from the higher-ups, Abel is capable of delivering high-quality dishes made from the freshest ingredients, and he stresses the important role that this support plays in his success at Ivory. “They back me up 100 percent,” he says. “I [was looking] for a place that would respect what I do, appreciate what I do and let me be who I am. … When you are happy, you create the most exquisite meals. When you are unhappy or grumpy, there is always something that [gets in the way] of your taste buds and your creativity.”
And for Abel, it is hard to be anything but happy in Laguna. “I like the harmony [and] the atmosphere,” he explains. “I’m not young anymore. I don’t want to be jumping around from one place to another.”
“He was looking for a home,” Marsha adds. Luckily for Laguna diners, it seems that he has found one.
Chef Rainer Schwarz
As the team behind the wildly successful new eatery, Driftwood Kitchen, Executive Chef Rainer Schwarz and Director of Operations John Nye know a thing or two about running a restaurant together. In fact, the duo also helm The Deck on Laguna Beach (downstairs from Driftwood Kitchen) and have worked together for years, first meeting when involved in a project at Disney’s California Adventure theme park.
After celebrating the one-year anniversary of The Deck, which boasts a casual, “just off the beach” atmosphere, the business partners and best friends couldn’t have been more excited to have opened their second Laguna Beach establishment. To contrast the feel of The Deck, John’s vision for Driftwood was a bit more sophisticated, but still California casual, and there wasn’t anyone that John trusted more than Rainer to craft the perfect menu to complement the new look.
“Rainer lets the food shine through,” John explains, noting that the Austrian-born chef’s skills in the kitchen include knowing when to put something on a plate—and when to leave it off. “There’s no big secret about the menu,” Rainer adds. “It’s just really good ingredients and simple execution.”
For example, at a recent employee tasting, one of Driftwood’s bartenders began raving about the delicious hamburger he’d been served and asked Rainer which seasonings he had used to make it taste so good. Rainer’s answer? Salt and pepper.
“Rainer has a special blend of meat he has worked on for 15 years,” John explains. “When it’s cooked right and seasoned right … even salt and pepper can [be] elevated.”
Rainer has found that his simple approach meshes well with the Laguna clientele, and he enjoys the knowledge that local diners bring to the (literal) table. “They know what chicken is a good chicken, they know about organic … and they’re always looking for the next, best healthy thing,” he says. “They know what to eat and they know what to drink, and they appreciate good food.”
With so many great plates on the menu (standouts include the crispy squid ink and uni-topped oysters, as well as the whole-fried Texas redfish that serves up to four), the chef finds it difficult to name just one favorite. But the duo are certain of one thing: We will be seeing more partnerships from them. “We will keep going as long as we can,” John says.