Off the Menu: A Culinary Conversation with Chef Craig Strong

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Chef Craig Strong

Michelin has come to Orange County.

No, not the tires, although they do play an historic role. The Michelin Restaurant Guide was launched in the early 1900s by the Michelin Tire Company to help hungry European travelers locate quality places to dine. The Michelin restaurant guide has since turned into the industry bible, and chefs covet the stars bestowed by the Michelin guide.

One star means worth the stop, very good in quality, cuisine prepared to a high standard. Two stars is a restaurant worth a detour, excellent in quality, skillfully crafter cuisine. Three stars means a restaurant worth a special journey, exceptional in quality, precisely executed cuisine.

European chefs swear by the Michelin star rating (and some swear at it). In the U.S., a Michelin star can catapult a chef to instant prominence.

Now, for the first tine, a California Michelin guide covering all areas of the state has been introduced and includes 20 Orange County restaurants.

Two of those, Taco Maria in the OC Mix and Hana Re at The Lab Anti Mall, both in Costa Mesa, each received one star.

The rest were either given a Bib Gourmand designation which highlights “restaurants that serve high-quality meals which include two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less,” or “The Plate” designation, meaning “Fresh ingredients, carefully prepared, a good meal.”

Among the latter are two Newport Beach restaurants: Marche Moderne and Bluefin.

So what does a Michelin star mean to a restaurant, and a chef.

That’s what I asked Chef Craig Strong, who spent nine years as Executive Chef of Studio at the Montage in Laguna Beach before starting his own restaurant, Ocean at Main, in Laguna Beach, last fall. Prior to that, he served as chef de cuisine at what is now The Langham at Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, which earned Michelin star recognition for two consecutive years (2008 and 2009) under his helmsmanship.

Short Rib cigar with horseradish creme fresh and black pepper ash

 “When I worked in Europe, that is all people talked about,” said Chef Strong. “The Michelin Guide is the gold standard for European people. When it eventually came to the U.S., it was huge. The rating system is so intense, it is very difficult to get stars. To even be mentioned at all is a tremendous honor, but to earn a star is a life-long dream of most chefs.”

Chef Strong said the Michelin ratings keeps people in the restaurant business on their toes, but restaurant staff and chefs should do great work for every guest no matter the occasion.

“That’s what the spirit of hospitality is about,” he said. “You embrace giving your best to everything. That’s the mark of a chef. If you are passionate about what you do, you do it for everybody every time, all the time.”

Chef Strong noted that the Michelin guide has evolved and changed over time.

“When I graduated culinary school in 1991, the idea of Michelin rated restaurants was white tablecloth, formal dining, jacket required establishments,” recalled Chef Strong. “The first time Michelin came to the U.S. in 2005, it was still very formal. My restaurant in Pasadena was very formal, but we abandoned that dress code policy because Southern California customers wanted things elegantly presented, but the customer wanted to be more casual yet still have elements of refinement around them. They still want Riedel stemware, Sambonet silverware, Bernadotte china, but the customer is wearing jeans and a nice collared shirt and no jacket.”

Chef Strong said that concept has evolved to another level in Orange County, especially along the coast.

“People have traveled and eaten at fine restaurants and have discerning palates,” he noted. “They like the comfort of being more relaxed and the vibe of restaurants that are not so formal. If the presentation is elegant, the quality of the product or execution is of a high level, it fits the lifestyle of what people want. That’s what Ocean at Main is about: taking the experience of a Michelin chef and making it in a more relaxed contemporary vibe that’s more fun. I think Michelin is seeing this trend and awarding stars to establishments that have not been on the radar before.”

Turkey Bolognese pizza

And since Chef Strong has a pizza oven at Ocean at Main and is creating artisanal pies for his customers, even pizza can be considered as noteworthy as good sushi.

“It’s about putting your heart into whatever you touch,” he emphasized. “It’s the oath you swear to yourself, that you’ll do the best for every guest.”

Having dined at Ocean at Main several times, I told Chef Strong that I was consistently impressed with his friendly staff, which he told me is an important part of the experience. He wants his staff to be the best version of themselves and embrace the spirit of hospitality.

Or, in simpler terms, “When we hire someone to be part of our team, they have to be nice,” he said, adding that it doesn’t matter about where the fork is placed or which side you serve from. “People want their food served fast and hot, and for the server to be nice. We boil it down to that.”

But back to the pizza, which Chef Strong offers every afternoon between the lunch and dinner service (they are also available on the lunch and dinner menus). How passionate is Chef Strong about his pizza?

“When I took possession of this building on July 1 of last year, I started a mother, which is a fruit-based mixture that has a natural fermentation, that is the base yeast for the pizza dough. Many bakeries in Europe have this same technique but their mothers are centuries old. They never die.”

Also important to Chef Strong is the flour and water used to make the pizza. He experimented with recipes and made hundreds of pizzas to get them where he felt he had a consistent product.

He recommended I sample the turkey Bolognese pizza, which uses the pasta sauce recipe he grew up eating.

“My mother made Bolognese sauce with smoked paprika and she’s cook it all day,” he said. “I also loved broccoli, so I thought why not put all that on a pizza? It’s now our number one seller, it beats the margherita pizza.”

After devouring the turkey Bolognese pizza I understood its popularity, but then Chef Strong brought me what looked like a cigar in a large ashtray.

“There’s no smoking in Laguna Beach, but there is inside Ocean at Main,” he joked. “This is a short rib cigar with horseradish creme fresh and black pepper ash.”

Brilliant plating, and brilliant taste. This is a creative and flavorful appetizer that I would order every time.

For more information on Ocean at Main, visit OceanAtMain.com.

 

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