Some of Laguna’s top culinary masterminds combine their passions for cooking and giving.
By Ryan Ritchie
Anyone who has ever enjoyed a tomato fresh off the vine, a juicy burger or a delectable chocolate souffle knows how much fun eating can be. However, the average person doesn’t often equate food with acts of charity. Luckily, a few local chefs aren’t the average person.
By donating their time, skills and money to area organizations devoted to helping those in need, four Laguna Beach chefs have given back to the local community in ways that extend far beyond dinner service. And wouldn’t you know? When top-notch meals are involved, being charitable is more fun than a birthday at an amusement park.
If your child attends a school where chef Azmin Ghahreman serves meals, there’s a good chance that he or she eats better than you do. That’s because the award-winning chef’s program, Sapphire at School, prepares healthy lunches for nine schools in Orange County that rival meals found at most fine dining establishments. For example, during one week in March at Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, students noshed on gourmet treats like tofu chow mein with stir-fry vegetables and sesame noodles, curried chicken eggplant with squash and brown rice and chicken alfredo with penne, peas, carrots and Parmesan cream—a far cry from frozen hot dogs and milkshakes made from powder, which, Azmin says, is exactly the point.
“I cook for my children, I cook for your children and I would not give your children anything I wouldn’t give to my own,” Azmin says. “At home, we use better chicken than the average person does. That’s what you see in my school program—the same thing.”
Currently, Sapphire at School is only found at private institutions, but Azmin’s goal is to eventually offer his service at a district level. Providing meals for private schools has its benefits for now, as it allows the chef a fair amount of leeway in menu selections. This flexibility also gives him the freedom to personalize the program based on students’ ages; Azmin says the food prepared for younger children at elementary schools like St. Anne School in Laguna Niguel, for instance, differs from the chilled espresso drinks served at institutions where the students are older. Still, regardless of the age group for which he is cooking, Azmin won’t budge on one important issue.
“We have what we believe is our best foot forward,” Azmin says. “So, if a school says, ‘Give me 10 cents cheaper and put corn syrup in it,’ I say, ‘I’m sorry. I cannot work.’ I’ll walk away from the business because that’s against my belief.”
Studio at Montage Laguna Beach
This June marks the fourth year that Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, will have participated in the Taste of the Nation event, an annual gathering whose proceeds are used to temper childhood hunger and teach families how to cook healthier meals. But that’s not where the chef’s charitable work ends, as he has also been an active participant in the California Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios since 2000. In addition, for two of those years, Craig was the honorary chairman at the fun-filled soiree.
California Winemasters is a massive party of approximately 1,500 people, featuring 50 international chefs, 75 California-based wineries and auctions whose proceeds benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. To date, the event has raised nearly $26 million for the group, which leads the way in search of a cure for the inherited chronic disease.
For many, donating time and talent would be enough; for Craig, however, this simply isn’t the case. In fact, he took it upon himself to increase awareness of cystic fibrosis after asking a few chefs what they knew about the disease. The answer, the Arch Beach Heights resident explains, was “nothing really,” so the chefs embarked upon a visit to the adult care wing at the University of Southern California’s Center for Cystic Fibrosis. The result, Craig says, strengthened his belief in the importance of charitable work.
“We spent an afternoon with the doctors and patients, and they walked us through the progress that has come from the money raised,” Craig says. “It is incredible. You can’t believe how far medicine has come to improving people’s lives. Now, every year when I go back to participate, I think of that time. We’ve done it a couple of times and invited more chefs. It deepens the value of what we’re doing.”
Lindsay Smith-Rosales was raised in Laguna, so for her, giving back to the city is more than a public relations move—it’s just what she does. The owner and executive chef at Nirvana Grille describes Laguna as a small town, and she’s quick to emphasize her commitment to the local area. “Community is a big part of my life,” she says, which may explain her decision to base her restaurant in the heart of downtown Laguna.
When Nirvana Grille opened on Broadway Street approximately six years ago, the restaurant hosted a benefit for Friendship Shelter, an organization that helps homeless adults become more self-sufficient and productive members of society. The 35-year-old chef says she knew of Friendship Shelter through her godparents, who both had been active proponents of the organization’s work. The end result of the kickoff celebration, she says, was an evening that raised approximately $5,000 for Friendship Shelter’s efforts.
“When we opened in Laguna, it was important for me not to be just the who’s who,” she says. “It was not as important to me as making an impact, because this is a community I grew up with and I had an opportunity to come back and have my business in. For me, it was more about the full circle in my life and that I got to do something that could positively impact other people’s lives.”
And Lindsay’s charitable work doesn’t end with Friendship Shelter. This past April, she collaborated with Soroptimist International of Laguna Beach at the second installment of the organization’s Healthy Girl Festival. The event gave the chef the opportunity to present a one-hour cooking demonstration that taught girls and women of all ages about healthy eating habits, and though she admits that the food may have been the main draw, Lindsay says the gathering was about much more than just cooking.
“The event is about inspiring women to be the change and the strength, and to eat healthy and make things happen,” she explains. “It’s wonderful that they’re bringing light to that and spotlighting people who are being that change. It allows me to be an inspiration to stand in that magnificent power of being a woman.”
Armando Ortega doesn’t like to complicate his work. Rather than focusing on opulent plates with of-the-moment ingredients whose names no one can pronounce, the Lumberyard chef prefers to craft subtle, streamlined dishes that pack just as flavorful of a punch. In doing so, Armando hopes his creations surpass diners’ expectations and show customers that all a good meal needs is a few high-quality components.
Much like their approach to simple cooking, Armando and Lumberyard owner Cary Redfearn support a local nonprofit organization called SchoolPower because they believe students’ success is dependent upon a single basic ingredient: education. Founded in 1981, SchoolPower provides funding to Laguna Beach’s four public schools—El Morro Elementary School, Top of the World Elementary School, Thurston Middle School and Laguna Beach High School (LBHS)—which goes toward acquiring educational resources and developing new programs.
Lumberyard became involved with the nonprofit through Cary, whose children have all been students of local public schools, and for the past five years, the restaurant has hosted its annual Chef Challenge, a “Top Chef”-style competition that sees the four schools’ principals face off in a multicourse culinary duel. Since its inception, the event has raised more than $50,000 for SchoolPower, and Armando says it’s also a great way for the public to eat a world-class meal while giving back to the community.
“We create two menus with input from all of the school principals, and they choose which items they would like to represent during the event,” Armando says. “We serve two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts alongside each other and at the end of the four-course dinner, guests vote on which items they enjoyed the most. The winning team gets bragging rights for the year.” In addition, the restaurant regularly participates in other philanthropic efforts for groups at LBHS and nonprofit organizations like Laguna Beach Community Clinic.
“We are always being asked to be a host restaurant,” Armando adds. “We give back a percentage of sales to the various booster clubs. The owners are Laguna Beach residents, and it’s their way of giving back to the local community.”