From cooking style and special ingredients to cherished cookbooks
Laguna chefs reveal their tips and tricks for creating culinary magic.
By Beth Fhaner and Alli Tong
Laguna has a well-deserved reputation as a foodie mecca with talented chefs creating flavorful nosh that’s sure to please any palate. So, what goes on in the minds of these culinary pros that are whipping up delicious goodness all over town? We asked local chefs to divulge some of their best culinary secrets, easy cooking techniques and a few of their favorite dishes.
Cooking it Up
While cooking tips and tricks can run the gamut from what to keep in stock to the can’t-live-without tools to buy, every chef has his or her own
idea of what works in the kitchen.
Farm-fresh produce can make a big difference in the taste and quality of any meal, which is why Marissa Gerlach, head chef at Raya at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel advises cooks to stay in season by buying local produce. She’s also a big advocate of organic food, which contains fewer pesticides and is grown more naturally. “Raya, a three-meal restaurant, is 90 percent organic—that says something about a place,” she says. “When cooking, remember that it’s about the product you want to shine and not what you can do to change it.”
To create Raya’s signature Pan-Latin cuisine, the chef also loves to cook with interesting spices and ingredients, such as togarashi (an Asian spice), chipotle powder and huitlacoche (a sweet fungus that grows on corn).
“White soy is my favorite ingredient at the moment,” Marissa says. “Also cilantro, since Latin food and cilantro go hand in hand; coconut milk, because after a trip to Bali, I can’t get enough of this stuff; and black garlic—a little goes a long way.”
The chefs also revealed their must-have tools in the kitchen that they absolutely couldn’t live without. Not surprisingly, all of our chefs—with the exception of one—mentioned their high-quality knives as tools that both professional chefs and at-home foodies should own.
“I have a 12-inch Sabatier antique knife,” says chef Josh Mason of the Wine Gallery Wine Bar & Kitchen. “It requires a lot of maintenance, but it’s awesome.”
Investing in a good, quality knife is probably one of the best purchases at-home chefs can make. A well-crafted knife not only gives cooks more control and precision when slicing and dicing but also prevents injury—for that reason alone, it’s not something to skimp on.
Marco Romero, culinary partner/executive chef at Starfish, also cites premium knives as the top tool to have in your arsenal of cutlery, as does Executive Chef Roberto Navarro of Rock’n Fish. Roberto favors Victorinox knives for vegetables and bread, and the Black Diamond brand for meat, chicken and fish, while Marco prefers using the Japanese brand called Dragon for his knives.
Marissa names the Togiharu brand as her favorite knife, which she also uses at home when she cooks on her days off. “I do like to change up my knives when I buy them because there are so many out there,” she says. “Over the years I have had Togiharu, Masamoto, Nenohi and Global … which are all Western-style Japanese knives. My three go-to knives include 10-inch chef’s, slicer and boner—I don’t wonder about any other types.”
The only exception is Scott McIntosh, the owner of Asada (Spanish for roasted or grilled), who says that his Bermixer (hand mixer) is his pick as the ultimate kitchen tool, especially since all of Asada’s sauces are freshly made with ingredients like roasted chiles. “I’m really proud of our salsa, which we make two or three times a day,” Scott says.
A Bermixer is one of those smart kitchen apparatuses that once you own it you can’t live without it. Considered an electronically driven, food-processing device, its main purpose is to emulsify quantities of produce too large for a standard food processor. It’s perfect for making homemade sauces, soups or pureeing vegetables—an easy gizmo that will surely deceit your dinner table guests into thinking you put much more work into your dish than you really did.
Another unsung hero in the kitchen that Josh recommends home cooks own is a good cast-iron skillet. “I have my great-great-grandmother’s—it’s ancient, but I love it,” he says. “A good cast-iron is hard to beat.”
Known for its everlasting durability and versatility, no-fuss cast-iron skillets last a lifetime and can cook anything from steaks to pies (yes, even pies). A cast-iron skillet heats up extremely quickly and has superior heat retention, making it great for putting a crust on steaks. It can also be popped into the oven after using it on the stove.
When it comes to easy cooking techniques and keeping things neat and organized in the home kitchen, our chefs generously offered their insider knowledge and some helpful advice.
Marco emphasizes the need to keep things efficient and is always thinking of how to do things smarter, such as learning new technologies.
Scott is also a proponent of taking his time in his kitchen and not rushing things. “Good cooking can never be rushed,” he says. “Everything at Asada is cooked (authentic roasting or braising) for a long time before we plate.”
Marco also stresses the importance of using exact measurements. “Every time we prepare a dish or recipe, we have to use exact measurements to be consistent,” he says. As a pro who has gone through many trials and errors in his kitchen, the Starfish chef knows what he’s talking about. In cooking, some ingredients are too strong to just eyeball, especially in baking, when too much of one ingredient can’t be corrected.
Additionally, Josh says that something easy for home cooks to do is brining, the simple process of soaking meat in a solution of water and salt (other spices or sugar can also be added, but salt helps to break down the proteins in the meat so it holds more water). Brining is something that most people don’t often do because of time; however, this important step can make a huge difference.
The Wine Gallery chef suggests that folks brine cuts of meat such as chicken and pork, which often fall fate to the unwanted dry and tough taste when cooked, but when brining is introduced before cooking it helps to retain the meat’s moisture for that desired melt-in-your-mouth feel.
A few of Josh’s favorite cookbooks that are helpful to home chefs include Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” and “Keys to Good Cooking.”
He adds, “I always have a copy of ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ on hand. And Cook’s Illustrated Magazine is awesome; they always have tidbits that are perfect for the home cook.”
Josh’s overall cooking advice for home chefs is to keep it simple. “[Many] of my recipes contain no more than four or five ingredients,” he says. “I let the ingredients speak for themselves. And go to the farmers markets. I can’t say enough about the farmers markets in SoCal.” There’s one held right in Laguna Beach every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon in the Lumberyard’s parking lot.
There was one question that was burning in our minds—what kind of cuisine do these culinary pros like to make when they’re at home? We weren’t surprised to hear that their answers mostly reflect the kinds of dishes they create at work.
Josh admits he prefers to make comfort food such as meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, and also notes that he has goat shanks waiting in his fridge.
Scott favors Mexican food, especially enchiladas. “My wife thinks it’s nutty that I cook to relax at home,” he says. “I make Mexican food or something on the grill for my daughters.”
Although Mexican cuisine seems to be Scott’s penchant, the Asada chef doesn’t seem to lack creativity when it comes to his food, whether it’s at home or at the restaurant. “[At Asada] we’ll also do things like when cooking short ribs, we’ll throw in a bag of coffee beans for braising—different things you wouldn’t find in a typical Mexican restaurant.”
Roberto says his wife loves grilled shrimp, so he cooks it with the shell on and makes his own Southwest-style salsa with chili pepper, tomatoes, garlic, onion and fresh oregano. He chops cucumber and blends it altogether to make a sauce and prepares angel hair pasta. “Using garlic and extra virgin olive oil, I saute broccolini, add chili flakes, finish with some butter and a lot of love,” he says.
The Rock’n Fish chef also has a few other tricks up his sleeve. He makes his own herb butter by mixing dried parsley, thyme and rosemary into sweet butter. “It is my secret ingredient—that and a lot of love!” Roberto says. “Whatever you cook, do it with a lot of love.”
In addition to concocting Asian sauces at home, Marco enjoys making seafood soups—usually with a spicy seafood base, with crab, octopus, snapper, sea bass and shrimp. “That’s one of my favorite dishes,” he says. “I just love food. Ever since I was a little boy in Mexico, I just loved it.”
Marissa has a fondness for Indian food, especially curry, and also enjoys making pizza on her stone and picking tons of toppings, including herbs and chiles from her garden, as well as triple creme cheeses. “I like making my favorite dough and having friends or family over to build-your-own pizza,” she adds.
The Raya chef isn’t afraid to admit that she loves to put on her favorite music and get groovy. “Cooking should be fun, not a job,” she says.
And lastly, Roberto advises cooks that, despite whatever they’re making, they must have passion. “Before we open, I ask my people, ‘Are you ready?’ and I tell them to really put themselves into their jobs,” he says. “I tell them that it is not about how much you are making per hour or what is inside your head. It is about the people who come in for a reason because every day is a special occasion, so let’s give them what they expect. Be positive, happy and have love for what you do.”
That’s advice any chef or home cook can use. Whether you’re making homemade cheese pizza or restaurant-style prime rib roast, being excited about what you cook is a not-so-secret tip that just makes sense. And it seems like these top chefs in Laguna are doing just that. LBM