Ray Garcia, Chef/Founder of FIG Restaurant in Santa Monica, is famous for the care he takes in sourcing his ingredients. Whether he’s growing herbs in his community garden, scouring farmers’ markets for produce or choosing the perfect meat supplier, Garcia knows high-quality, homegrown ingredients need little finesse to become delicious finished dishes. Who better to partner with as we introduce Williams-Sonoma Agrarian?
Garcia is one of Williams-Sonoma’s featured chefs this month, so I took the opportunity to talk to him about choosing ingredients for the kitchen, his unique approach to cooking and his ideal summer dinner. Keep reading for his inspiring responses.
Q: What’s your food philosophy?
A: It’s all about letting ingredients shine with as minimal manipulation as possible as opposed to a celebration of my culinary technique. The little things are important: knowing your ingredients and your farmer and what time of year to make something. That can turn something that’s ordinary on paper into something really exceptional.
Q: What are your techniques for showcasing seasonal ingredients at their best?
A: Taste your ingredient and know when to leave it alone. There are some times when just a touch of salt is good enough. Don’t be afraid to mess up.
Q: Who inspired you to start cooking?
A: It started with a love of eating. My grandparents were big influences, and a lot of my tastes come from simple recipes for afternoon snacks or Sunday evening dinners. I reflect back on those times often in my cooking now. When I went to college I had a lot more exposure to different people and cultures; I started eating sushi and foie gras for the first time and getting exposed to different textures and flavors. I was hooked.
Q: Describe your ideal summer dinner.
A: Tomatoes. I love them, and I have a newfound respect for growing and harvesting tomatoes after trying to do it on my own. With torn basil, freshly pulled mozzarella, olive oil, salt and crusty bread – that’s about all I need.
Q: What is unique about your approach to ingredients?
A: The menu at FIG is constantly changing. There’s a ticker at the bottom of the menu showing you what is in season and what’s arriving at the market. In the spring, it helps you get excited about fava beans and ramps and rhubarb. For the most part, I source everything locally — the Santa Monica farmers’ market down the road is incredible. I work with a forager who goes to markets throughout the state.
Q: What is one ingredient people should grow in their gardens, and why?
A: Herbs are the easiest things to grow — they are very forgiving. I like rosemary and mint, which have a tendency to take over and grow like wildfire. Basil, parsley, chives and cilantro are easy to maintain, and the flavor is night and day when you use them to finish a dish.
Q: What is one item people should always make from scratch?
A: Simple vinaigrettes and pesto. Pesto is best when you take a little basil and muddle it down. It’s not something you want to buy shelf-stable. But really, it’s up to your comfort level, and you have to not be scared to give everything a shot.
Q: You take care to choose the best sources for your ingredients. What do you look for in a producer or grower for FIG?
A: I look for someone with a similar passion and approach to food: the way they treat and store their ingredients, and how much they know about their own craft and skill. I have a potato farmer coming to me with samples, saying, “You’ve got to try this,” asking me what I think he should be planting for next spring to go along with what I’m cooking. They should be as passionate to please my guests as I am.
Q: What are 3 items you always have on hand in the kitchen?
A: You always want to have a tasting spoon in your hand whenever you’re cooking. Also, a sharp knife, good olive oil and good salt.
Q: You work with students to grow their own food. How did that come about, and why do you think it is important?
A: It started about 3 years ago. I work with the Santa Monica farmers’ market, and I got to know a nutritionist for the school district; she’d come into the restaurant and we would have conversations about food and growing. I thought there was a great opportunity not only to get out there and connect with ingredients, but also to work with students. The high school I work with is a continuation school, so the students haven’t been successful in more traditional structures. It allowed me to bring a different approach to food where healthy eating options were not accessible. They have become more comfortable with fruits and vegetables, changing their consumption at home.
About the author: Olivia Terenzio grew up in Mississippi, where she cultivated a love of sweet potatoes, crawfish and cloth napkins at a young age. A passion for sharing food with friends and family led her into the kitchen and later to culinary school, where she learned how to roast a chicken and decorate a cake like a pro. As a Williams-Sonoma blog editor, she’s now lucky enough to be talking, writing and thinking about food all day.