Ray Garcia never thought he’d wind up a chef. The Los Angeles native was originally set to go to law school, but the kitchen came knocking. As he explains it, “”Food chose me, I didn’t choose it. The tastes, sounds and smells—all kept drawing me back in.” After studying at the California School of Culinary Arts, Ray worked with a variety of renowned chefs at distinguished Los Angeles institutions before launching acclaimed Santa Monica bistro FIG. This year, hew moved on to open two new restaurants, Broken Spanish and BS Taqueria, where he draws on his experience as an Angeleno and the kind of comfort food hew grew up eating with his grandmother.
We asked him to share his thoughts creating a new Los Angeles cuisine, opening a new restaurant, and the one food he wished more home cooks made from scratch.
How would you describe the food you’re serving at Broken Spanish, and how does it differ from the kind of food you were making at FIG?
The food is made using techniques I’ve grown to develop over the past 20 years in restaurants, with a different reference point: it’s more a reflection of Los Angeles. I cook the food that I grew up with, with the skills that I’ve grown and learned here as a chef. For me, BS Taqueria, which was the first to open, it’s the food you grew up eating, only better quality and better executed. It’s the way you remember your grandmother or your mother making it. She doesn’t use the same plates, plating techniques, or ingredients. I know my grandmother didn’t have a circulator or combi oven, but we’re able to apply more technique to those food memories that carry so much for me and others.
What might be an example of something you make that’s uniquely Angeleno?
The use of corn is something that’s not unique to Mexico or Los Angeles, but we have a fava bean and English pea tamal with Swiss chard and Sungold tomatoes and fresh peas that have been harvested from local farms. We use the profile of a tamal, but tweak it in a way that’s bright, clean, spicy, and refreshing. There’s spicy serrano, there’s feta cheese in the salsa, there’s an organic masa from Michoacán: it’s a big expression of what makes California and specifically L.A.’s food interesting.
We also make vegan refried lentils and beet Milanesa for a beet torta. Tortas are usually heavy and packed with meat, but we do it with quick-pickled red beets and pickled red vegetables and shaved beet.
How would you describe the food you’re serving at BS Taqueria?
Broken Spanish and BS Taqueria are clearly in the family: older and younger brother, just different ways of expressing themselves. That expression lives from the moment that you arrive at a fast casual counter all the way through the cocktails and food. The flavors at Broken Spanish and the experience is a bit more mature, with a larger wine list and longer cocktail list. The experience is longer, with more layers and more steps. The taqueria — you walk in, it’s bright orange and yellow, and the music’s louder, faster. The cocktails have some good punch to it an the tacos have some great spice and acid. The thought is that it reacts a little bit differently for a different experience. But you can tell the same amount of care is put into one restaurant than the other whether it’s the ingredient or the warmth and hospitality of our staff. Technically speaking, the menu at BS Taqueria really focuses on tacos as the nucleus. There are eight or nine tacos at the center, and everything else is built to supplement or complement that taco experience. At Broken Spanish, there’s one taco, the taco of jamaica or hibiscus leaves, but it [the menu] can go anywhere from freshly made leaves to familiar tamales to a roasted lamb head to mixiote, something you see less frequently on menus. The food at the taqueria is a bit more focused on that taqueria or taco experience. Broken Spanish is a much broader showcase of Angeleno Mexican food.
What’s it like to open a new restaurant?
Opening a new restaurant, I think I put myself in a separate category of crazy, because we opened two new restaurants in a span of two and a half months. I guess it’s like having twins. You’re trying to balance one over the other; they’re both developing their own personalities and you’re just physically and mentally exhausted. It’s mentally exhausting, it’s physically exhausting, but there’s a plus side when you start something from scratch, a piece of paper, to see what it becomes, how the staff you spent hours, weeks, months, years working with now see them come into their own, to see it take on its own personality beyond what you or a designer sketched. To see which dishes really strike a chord to become the restaurant’s signature dishes. To have a one-year-old son and two brand-new restaurants, it’s like, Oh wow. It clearly has my mark, my DNA, but it’s growing in such a unique and interesting way. To watch that growth of these restaurants is amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a crazier period in my life to try to accomplish this. I look forward to the moment when I can look back. My staff, they understand the menu, they get it, and now they’re creating their own dishes. It’s really remarkable to see that growth.
What’s your food philosophy? Has it evolved at all over the years?
My food philosophy is taking food more seriously than you take yourself. I’m constantly thinking, tweaking, trying to improve my food to make it better. I don’t make it about myself. I just try to give something that is recognizable. Something that people are comfortable with, something that they crave. That’s the directive that I give all of my sous chefs. When a dish lands in front of you, it may not be something that you’ve eaten before, but you can see that’s clearly a carrot, clearly some cilantro. It’s dishes that are warm and inviting and they’re done in a way that we’re not going to hit you over the head with how we’ve sourced it or the way we’ve manipulated it, even though we’ve gone to incredible lengths for sourcing and technique. We want you to say, “I’ve had a tamale before, but this is the first time I’ve ever had something like this. We want it to be something that you crave. I like to say that food should be three things: comfortable, recognizable, and craveable. When you go to a family member’s house, nobody’s putting on airs; those people are happy to feed you.
What are some of your techniques or pointers for showcasing seasonal ingredients at their best?
Go with your instinct. Things can cook beyond the recipe. If you want to make something spicier, make it spicier, or saltier, or more acidic. Cook to it. Whenever somebody writes a recipe of chili or whatever, it’s just a snapshot of how spicy that chili was when they made it. Go beyond what’s on that piece of paper, and figure out the best way to make that dish or ingredient shine.
What’s unique about your approach to ingredients?
For me, it’s just getting inspiration from the ingredient and from everyone and everything around you. You go to the farmers market, and you have to approach it with an open mind and a creative mind. You don’t go to the market saying, “Today I’m going to make tamales.” You say, “This is an amazing huckleberry! I didn’t think huckleberries were gong to be here today, but they’re amazing and it’s blowing my mind, so let’s make something that showcases the huckleberry, like a huckleberry and duck tongue dish.
What’s one item you wish more people made from scratch?
Cheese! Simple fresh cheeses. I do this thing where i pull my own mozzarella. I was taught by a home cook, i went to somebody’s house. They were making mozzarella cheese, and she showed me what she was doing and it was like, Wow, this is also incredibly easy to do: cheese curd, salt, water, and all of a sudden you have something that’s not like anything else you can buy in the store. It’s fresh, milky, and amazing. That is something that here at Broken Spanish that we do. Requeson, which is similar to a ricotta — it’s salt, sugar a little bit of vinegar, and an hour later you have this fresh, milky, curd.
Do you have a signature dish?
At the taqueria it’s the clam and lardo taco, because it kind of brings together some of the different thoughts and techniques and execution from us. There’s the heirloom corn tortilla from Oaxaca, the lardo, which is traditionally Italian, which is artisanal and handcrafted. And the clams and the garlic chips, I think it really embodies what we’re trying to do with the expression of the food and the flavors.
At Broken Spanish, we’re still going through quite a few changes, but i think the chicharron is definitely one of our signatures. It’s a rolled cook belly cooked in the style of porchetta, and it’s 18 ounce belly that’s fired and has a garlic mojo and freshly picked herbs. It showcases classic technique, porchetta that cooks for 36 hours, but just having that garlic mojo and radish sprouts, it’s very indicative of the style of cuisine in Los Angeles and the product of California.