Ray Garcia, executive chef of the restaurant Fig in L.A.’s tony Santa Monica, launched his unabashedly local-ingredient-focused bistro when he was 30 years old. Four years later, his airy hotspot—set poolside, within the Fairmont Miramar Hotel—is drawing raves from demanding entertainment-industry clientele and food journalists alike.
The trip from East Los Angeles, where Garcia grew up in a close-knit Mexican-American family, to the ocean-side setting of Fig is less than a 20-mile drive, yet his journey represents an economic and cultural leap that’s far greater.
As a newly minted UCLA graduate, Garcia had intended to study law and then apply to the FBI, but took a year off to explore his options further.
“There was so much that made me want to be a chef instead of a lawyer,” says Garcia. “I went to culinary school, and I’d worked in restaurants all through college to pay my tuition. I fell in love with cooking. It was a part of my lifestyle and my personality.”
We’re happy to say, that after tasting chef Garcia’s bursting-with-flavor (and wittily named) beet carpaccio and his house-made tortillas and queso fundido, that the FBI’s loss is most definitely the food industry’s gain.
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Here’s a Q&A with him about cooking, his inspiration and how he keeps his food so fresh.
Q: What’s your greatest passion when it comes to cooking? Is it the sourcing, the flavors, the presentation?
“It really is a little bit of everything: There’s the creative outlet that cooking affords you, the atmosphere of meeting people, cooking for them, knowing that someone enjoyed themselves. I really like hosting and pleasing people with my craft. It’s the craftsmanship, I’d say, that I love most of all; I like working with my hands.”
Q: You are very determined to use locally sourced, organic ingredients whenever possible for Fig; what’s your inspiration?
"It comes from that passion for food and ingredients and wanting the best. Luckily for me, I am in the heart of California, the heart of the best of what the country has to offer. I am very blessed. Wanting to have the best for my guests has really fueled that passion for local ingredients. I have met many of my farmers and purveyors, and we have relationships now. I understand their hard work and passion and creativity, and I try to put it onto the plate."
Q: How do you find your ingredients?
“I have a forager whom I work with, and she travels from San Diego to San Francisco regularly, stopping at numerous farmers markets and small, off-the-beaten path farms—and purveyors of things like small-batch goat milk or goat butter—along the way. It’s very labor-intensive, but the product is spectacular. It’s like having another set of eyes. I’m in the kitchen, I have someone out in the field and I can rely on her to get the level of quality and the caliber of ingredient that I’m looking for. Also, the Santa Monica farmer’s market—CNN just named it the best in the country—is a great source for a lot of my ingredients.”
Q: Tell me about learning to cook from your abuelas.
“Though I didn’t decide to become a chef until I was in my mid-20s, in retrospect, food was very crucial in my upbringing. A lot of my family memories come from things like making tamales together every Christmastime. Everyone had their own role. It was always my grandfather who cut the meat, my grandmother who made the filling; my grandfather, who had strong worker hands, would really work the masa; and the daughters would be the ones laying out the shells and preparing and spreading it. When I was a kid, I remember my role was stacking the completed tamales. At the time I didn’t think: Oh great, I want to be a chef, but food was definitely a big part of my childhood.”
Q: How did the food of your childhood influence what you make here at Fig?
“I incorporate a lot of Latin flavors into my cooking. My preference and palate, which is influenced by what I was fed as a child, is for very spicy food. I incorporate that in the way I eat and also what is served on the menu. It releases endorphins, it’s a good hurt! At Fig, we do a lengua, which is a braised beef tongue, very much of a Mexican dish, the kind of flavors you’d find from a taco truck—tomatillo, radish, cilantro, jalapeño, so it’s a really great little lingua and salsa verde. We also do a taco bar here on Sundays that’s very popular, there are nine different types of tacos, we make our own tortillas.”
Q:What’s your next dream?
“I like trying new things, so my next thing is going to be making our own sausages, fermenting and preparing different sausage merguez, chorizo, really exploring and going down that road. Charcuterie and things like that is kind of a lost art form, and I am glad that it has been coming back, and I want to keep that going here and into the future.”
Q: Do you see a connection between European and Mexican culture?
“I do. They both have an appreciation for food, even though the cuisine is totally different; there’s appreciation for family, there’s appreciation for a lot of values that we don’t usually see, for the most part, in the states. It’s something that I grew up with, with family and having people close by, having aunts and uncles that you saw all the time, and having them be a part of your life and sitting down at a dinner table and talking and the TV wasn’t on, so much of that that you see in other countries, whether it’s in France or in Mexico.”
(Within the Fairmont Miramar Hotel)
101 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Laura Vogel is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor whose work has appeared on such sites as AOL, MTV Next Movie.com, and Real Simple.com; she has also contributed to The Washington Post, The New York Post, In Style and Martha Stewart Weddings.
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