Last month, Chef Pascal Olhats – probably the most well-known and beloved French chef in Orange County – sent an email to his longtime foodie fans announcing that he had closed his Pascal restaurant in San Juan Capistrano and was focusing his culinary talents on his Café Jardin restaurant at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar.
“I am very excited to announce that I will be spending as much time possible in the Café Jardin kitchen, doing one of the things I love the most in life: Cooking! However, this time I have decided to share this passion with an amazing, young, up-and-coming top chef, Chef Jessica Roy,” wrote Chef Pascal. “Our culinary paths have crossed at several charity events over the years. While I was looking for a kitchen partner, Chef Jessica expressed her desire not only to work with me, but also finds it very appealed to work in such a special and natural environment. We have everything that a chef dreams about at Sherman’s Gardens: an endless variety of fresh herbs, eatable flowers, lettuces and root vegetables.”
Wait—did he say Jessica Roy? I first encountered Chef Roy last year when she was the Executive Chef at Renaissance Hotel (formerly the Fairmont) in Newport Beach. I raved about her creative cuisine then, and also earlier this year when she cooked tableside for me at the Table for Ten charity event.
I was excited to learn more, especially after watching an episode of Guy’s Grocery Games two weeks ago on the Food Network. The show pitted four chefs against one another from four regions of the country. The chefs from the north, south and east were introduced. I wondered who would represent the western U.S. Out comes…you guessed it, Chef Roy.
Chef Roy won the first round, then the second, then the final round, making her the overall winner. She also picked up $20,000 in cash—not a bad day’s work for a chef.
That sealed the deal. I had to go to Café Jardin and talk to Chef Pascal and Chef Roy, and sample some of their new menu items.
Last Friday Café Jardin was still packed at 1 p.m. when I sat down to dine at one of the outdoor tables facing the gardens.
Chef Pascal came and sat with me prior to lunch and told me that Chef Roy’s modern training and cooking techniques pair perfectly with his classically-trained approach and knowledge of French cooking. He has dubbed this new culinary venture “Tradition meets innovation.”
But how did he convince Chef Roy to trade a hotel kitchen for a garden setting? Turns out it was easy. Chef Pascal mentioned to Chef Roy he was looking for another chef to work with him. She expressed interest, they met for lunch, and Chef Pascal asked Chef Roy to come to his home and cook for him and his wife.
“What we tasted was amazing,” recalled Chef Pascal. “I told her she had the job. She is the new generation. If we put our talents together, we can do something special. She has so much passion.”
Chef Pascal said he was planning on introducing new menus later this month, but I got a taste of both his classic style and Chef Roy’s style during lunch, which began with homemade country pate, a generous portion of sliced baguette, and lovely soft butter.
Then Chef Roy went to work. She brought out a new creation which combined two standard menu items into one dish: seared Scottish salmon and octopus with a blend of Yukon gold potatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, egg yolk, romesco sauce, roasted red peppers, almonds, sherry, shallots, olives, lemon, bell peppers, tomato, and white wine.
The flavors and textures were blended perfectly. The salmon firm yet flaky, the octopus tender. A superb dish that showed what Chef Roy could create on a whim.
Next came another spin on a standard menu item: Squash stuffed with braised lamb, risotto cooked with butternut squash, and braised carrots. The squash was the perfect receptacle for the lamb and risotto combination, and again the flavors jumped out on my palate.
For dessert she created a peach melba with almond cookies that served as the perfect ending to a perfect lunch.
Before I could chat with Chef Pascal about his plan to elevate the lunch experience and also add weekly Sunday dinners to his already solid weekday lunch and Sunday brunch offerings, Chef Roy took a break from the kitchen so I could ask her about her experience on Guy’s Grocery Games.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Chef Roy. “It’s a 12-hour day, you go in at 6 a.m., but because I won, I had to stay until 10 p.m. and talk through the entire show on camera and explain what I was cooking. But it is a 30-minute competition and you cook on the fly. It was my first experience doing something like that, so I made dishes I knew I could execute well.”
Chef Roy noted that she has been cooking professionally for eight years and has found her gastronomic voice: coastal California cuisine. “We live in one of the most magical climates in the world. You cannot beat it. I was raised in Huntington Beach. I am a California gal. This is my lifestyle, it’s who I am as a chef. We have the bounty of what California has to offer.”
And Café Jardin has the bounty of two world-class chefs on top of their culinary game.
For more information, visit slgardens.org/cafe-jardin or call (949) 673-0033.