Interview: chef Craig Strong (Studio at Montage Laguna Beach)

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At Taste of the Nation Laguna Beach on June 3 at the Montage, we met Craig Strong, executive chef of the on-site Studio restaurant, which draws from resident gardens and celebrates the seasons. During our discussion, he hinted at how he’s found culinary success.

What does a dish have to be for you to serve it at Studio?

It has to be the best ingredients. So what fine dining is about is getting the best ingredients, putting it together in a fresh way that’s seasonal and is in the style of what Studio would be, which means it’s going to have a nice presentation, is visually going to look beautiful, and it’s going to be something my guests will appreciate.

What’s the most recent dish that you put on the menu, and what was your inspiration and approach?

The most recent dish is similar to what I’m doing tonight, which is lamb, but I’m using some potatoes that are grown right here in the garden, some carrots that are roasted with a little bit of cumin, and African basil.

And the inspiration?

I love lamb in the springtime, which is perfect, and using things that are right outside my front door, in my garden, and combining the two with a fun presentation is exactly what I’m trying to do.

Was the garden already here when you took over the kitchen?

It wasn’t. I’ve been here for exactly three years, and the garden is just over a year old.

How has that evolved, and what has that allowed you to accomplish in the kitchen?

Well what’s great is having fresh things at your fingertips. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh. Any chef will tell you, start with good ingredients, is really the secret of making great food. To have this, not only is it visually enticing, but the taste of fresh, you just can’t put your finger on it. It’s the je ne sais quoi.

Are you the gardener, or do you have someone who helps you on it?

We have someone who consults, her name is Kathryn Agresto, and she and I work together on what would grow well here in the climate, and what is coming into season, and we take it from there.

What’s your top selling dish at Studio, and why do you think that’s the case?

I would say the crab salad is the top seller, which is lettuces that are grown right here, and the crab of course is something that you think of in the proximity to the water, so it’s a perfect combination. It’s also a light dish, and I think people are wanting things that are fresh and light to start off.

Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?

There has been nothing else in my life, other than being a chef. I grew up in Southern California, in San Diego, and my family had a great garden in the backyard. I was too little to mow the lawn, but I could pull weeds. I would watch where the zucchinis and tomatoes were growing and then going into my mom’s kitchen, and I’d follow my mom in there. So my first job was of course in a restaurant when I was 15 and I just fell in love with the restaurant life, and I’ve done it ever since.

What was your very first night like a professional restaurant, and what was the restaurant?

It was a restaurant in Utah – my family moved there when I was a teenager – and I worked with a chef named Hans Zulliger, who is a Swiss-German, a very strict kitchen, lots of discipline, classic old dishes, and a great start for a young chef.

What was the restaurant?

It was called The Putting Green.

Is there anything that you don’t enjoy eating?

Canned vegetables. I’m not so crazy about canned vegetables.

What do you look for when you’re hiring someone to work in your kitchen?

Somebody who’s passionate, somebody who I can see in their heart, they want to live the life of the restaurant. Everything else can be taught, so if they’re passionate, I can’t teach you that, but if you come in with a good attitude, then you’re probably going to be a good fit on the team.

Is there anybody you’ve never cooked with before that you’d really like to cook with?

That’s a good question. You know, my grandfather was a chef, and he passed away before I really had a chance to really work with him professionally, and it would be an honor to do that one day.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?

It takes thoughtful preparation, but I do. You need to think about your free time and make the best use of it. If you do, then your life’s balanced. You spend time in the kitchen, but it’s a labor of love, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

What would you like to be known for as a chef?

Wow, that’s a great question. Somebody who understands the spirit of hospitality. And really, what am I trying to do? Throw a party every night, an the people who have made a reservation, you’re invited.

Address: 30801 S Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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