While most Santa Cruz restaurants embraced the farm-to-table movement early and easily—thanks in part to the more than 4,000 acres dedicated to organic farming in Santa Cruz County—other culinary trends seem to arrive belatedly, or pass by our sleepy beach town altogether. It seems odd, because while Santa Cruz is home to many adventurers, the dining experience here can be … well, not very adventurous.
But there is actually a fine tradition of Santa Cruz culinary innovators. Some, like Oswald and Charlie Hong Kong founder Charlie Deal, have left town, while others like Jozseph Schultz of India Joze, and farm-to-table-dinner pioneer Jim Denevan are still here. That tradition is continuing with a new generation of chefs and others working to expand the world of Santa Cruz dining.
Danny Mendoza and Justin Williams brought a new business model to the Santa Cruz food scene with their delivery-only kitchen. With a diverse background and a preference for flavors from Asia and the American South, Dare Arowe is bringing multi-cultural fusion to the Octagon building. Deeply committed to the bounty of exceptional products available year-round and inspired by seasonal changes, chefs Brad Briske and Jessica Yarr are the driving forces behind the next wave of Santa Cruz fine dining, elevating Santa Cruz food culture. Liz Birnbaum takes diners even deeper into the farm-to-table philosophy that you can’t really know a thing about a meal without knowing where it comes from.
All six of these individuals are 35 or under and looking to make their mark on the Santa Cruz dining experience. Here are their stories.
Dare Arowe, 27
There’s been a lot of speculation about what’s going to go into the historic Octagon building now that Lulu Carpenter’s has vacated, especially since whoever opens its doors will be adjacent to a newly renovated Abbott Square—one of the largest downtown undertakings since the earthquake. Wonder no more: the site will be home to the Kitchen at the Octagon, the newest project from local chef Santos Majano, and will be headed by Majano’s sous chef, Dare Arowe.
As Arowe sits across from me in the back room at Lúpulo, she’s tempered any excitement about this transition with an air of cool pragmatism. But the pale burn scars that freckle her forearms among clean lines of ink reveal how hard she’s worked to get here. Arowe came to work for Majano in July of 2015 after stints at Cremer House, Chaminade, private catering and pop-ups. It’s clear from the way Arowe describes Majano that she holds him in high regard. She praises his intensity and acute attention to detail, which has made her a resilient, high-performing cook—as has working in a less-than-100-square-foot kitchen. The 500-square-foot Octagon will be a significant upgrade.
“He’d rather have you dump something and start over than try and pass it. Your croutons are a little toasty? Don’t even bother,” says Arowe of Majano. “Do it right or do it twice. If you want to improve quickly, that’s how you do it.”
Although Majano and Arowe are similarly committed to using only the best local products available seasonally, Arowe’s tastes run more toward Asia and the American South, and she enjoys pickling and making kimchi, a spicy, fermented vegetable condiment from Korea.
“A lot of black South and Asian communities have a lot in common—they’re really poor, and have to make use of things like fermentation, pickling, different kinds of fats and braising cheaper cuts of meat.” This cross-cultural flavor play results in dishes like braised short rib and kimchi tacos, fried catfish po’ boys with kimchi aioli, mixing techniques like Southern dredging and frying with Asian spices, and bao dumplings with distinctly non-Asian flavors.
“I love fusion. I have a lot of respect for the traditional way of doing things and the techniques, but young people are multiculturally infused, and our food should be, too,” asserts Arowe. “I don’t understand food that’s not fusion anymore. My mom is a black woman who was adopted and raised by Jews from New York. My niece is Chinese. That’s American food now. It’s not a chili dog. It’s a kimchi taco.”
Arowe is excited to incorporate more of these flavors in the menu she and Majano are creating together, which she hopes will also include opportunities to give back to the community. “I asked him about doing Nasty Fries”—a reference to Donald Trump referring to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” during the election—“and giving half the proceeds to Planned Parenthood,” she says.
Liz Birnbaum, 30
Last summer, as each guest slipped into a backyard garden in San Francisco, they were handed a gin and tonic with black assam tea simple syrup. The theme for this Curated Feast was “Botanical Imperialism,” and as they sipped the floral libations, Santa Cruz-based Curated Feast founder Liz Birnbaum explained that each ingredient illustrated the movements of edible plants around the world as a result of colonization. The presence of sugar was made possible by the brutal sugar trade; British explorer Robert Fortune smuggled the first tea plants out of China in the mid-1800s; tonic was included in the rations of British troops in India because it contains quinine, an antimalarial; the label of Bombay Sapphire boasts the image of Queen Victoria, whose reign marked great expansion by the British Empire. And there were four courses yet to come that evening.
Since 2015, Birnbaum has held five feasts in Santa Cruz and one in San Francisco, each focusing on a different culinary theme and featuring a collaboration with a different chef. The elaborate meals are realizations of an idea that had been simmering for the better part of a decade, inspired by her career in organic and ecological agriculture and a class she co-taught on Botanical Imperialism at Lake Forest College in Chicago. She says she couldn’t unsee the stories she uncovered through her research. “Once I saw them, I realized that there was an infinite thread to be pulled upon. And they made my experience eating and drinking, both alone and socially, way more interesting,” says Birnbaum.
Every dish in these intimate, multi-course feasts is steeped in the historical context of the ingredients, inviting the feaster to think critically about our food systems and glimpse what the future might hold. Similarly to how Jim Denevan, who works closely with Birnbaum as a member of her advisory team, changed the dining scene when he connected guests to the origins of their food through his Outstanding in the Field dinners, so does Birnbaum, but she goes beyond modern farming and reaches through time. “There’s a beautiful movement going around farm-to-table, but we’re also not digging in in the way that I feel is the most interesting way to dig in,” she explains.
While the breadth of fact and legend each guest is exposed to could easily stray into classroom territory, it doesn’t. Birnbaum and a team of collaborators deftly present the educational side of each feast by wrapping it in romance. The venues, whether a private home or boutique locale, are stunning; thematic attire is encouraged; live music gently strums in a corner; floral decorations and candlelight abound, creating a magical tableau.
Growing up in Chicago and raised on food stamps, Birnbaum says the canned and processed food she ate was disassociated from a true origin. Her research for the Curated Feast has given her a new relationship and deeper understanding of food, which is what she ultimately hopes her guests will walk away with.
“Understanding the history of food in terms of food origins, mythology and symbolism is important because whether you’re interested in this thread or that thread, or this ingredient or that ingredient, you could make your kitchen or your plate a classroom,” says Birnbaum. “And it’s so fun.”
Jessica Yarr, 32
As I take a seat at one of the wide, dark tables at Assembly to meet with newly appointed executive chef Jessica Yarr, she reaches across to show me a picture on her phone. On the screen are two deep-fried chicken feet presented cross-legged on top of a pile of fiery wings.
“The chicken feet came today!” she says excitedly.
She’s been waiting for the ingredient, a popular snack in other cultures that has yet to catch on in the U.S., to arrive for a few days. Yarr plans to test them out on the menu by using them as a garnish on her popular chicken wings. Despite her enthusiasm, she’s not without her reservations.
“I’m not sure what people will think,” she says.
The chicken feet are one of the quirkier additions Yarr plans to make to the menu at Assembly. Since she took over the kitchen in November, she’s streamlined the New American menu, keeping most of the original dishes that customers already love in place while tailoring them to her own tastes, which can run toward the more adventurous. She hopes to continue to build on the strong relationships with farmers established by owners Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis, while bringing in some edgier ingredients, including house-fermented vegetables and pickles, “more exciting” vegetarian dishes and house pâtés and rillettes.
“Maybe a little offal,” Yarr muses. “Nothing crazy.”
Cooking with local ingredients comes naturally to Yarr, whose childhood in the Santa Cruz Mountains included digging up potatoes and picking lettuces for dinner. Although she says she hated these chores at the time, the lifestyle gave her an appreciation and high standard of flavor. “I already started off with that standard of food flavor that came directly from the ground, and I feel like that’s a huge part of why I like to cook the way I do,” says Yarr.
After graduating from culinary school, Yarr returned to Santa Cruz to intern at Theo’s (now Home), attracted to the large on-site kitchen garden where fresh herbs and greens were grown to garnish their farm-to-table offerings. “It’s so easy to grow beautiful things here because of the climate. It’s easy to make good food, because it’s all around us already,” says Yarr. “We don’t have to do too much to it.”
Yarr believes restaurants committed to this practice are what is bringing the Santa Cruz culinary scene to the next level. Not only does it allow chefs to play with incredible flavors, it also invigorates communities. Now Yarr wants to take it one step further and increase collaboration within the industry.
“That’s what the younger generation of chefs is about. They’ll work at several different restaurants, and the farmers market, and they’ll have their own farm. There are a lot of younger people with their hands in a bunch of different food operations, and that lends itself to collaboration,” says Yarr. “We’ve been doing name-dropping on our menus for years. People are starting to be like, now what? Well, how about Brad Briske’s back there cooking with Jessica right now?”
Brad Briske, 35
It’s the middle of winter when I meet with Brad Briske, chef and owner of Home in Soquel, but he’s excited for warm weather, so he can make use of the garden at the back of his new restaurant, which opened last fall.
“There are kiwis, roses and perennial herbs—20-year-old plants that have deep root stocks,” he says. “There are eight vegetable beds. And we’ll plant flowers and things like lemongrass all around, little boutique-y vegetables you can’t really get anywhere else—things people aren’t used to seeing but also things that are just beautiful.”
That Briske has chosen this space for his first restaurant, which has previously housed La Giaconda, Main Street Garden & Café, and Theo’s, feels appropriate not only because Briske was a sous chef at Main Street Garden before going on to command attention for his flavorful cuisine as the chef at Il Grillo and La Balena in Carmel, but also because of his passionate dedication to local ingredients. The deep relationships he’s formed with local farms even transformed this one-time vegan into a skilled butcher after he participated in his first pig slaughter at Everett Family Farm.
“It gave me an understanding of how food is and how it can be,” says Briske. “It doesn’t have to be mass-produced, high-commodity. It makes you much more appreciative of the animal and make sure you don’t throw anything away. You find a way to use everything.”
The delicious cuisine that Briske offers reflects that ethos, from the house-made salami curing in the wine cellar to making carrot “chips” from the ends that would normally be discarded. He even stopped serving the heads of spot prawns when too many of them returned to the kitchen. Now, he roasts them and pulverizes them into a flavorful oceanic powder, which he’s experimenting with as a flavor enhancer.
As a result, the menu at Home is one of the most adventurous available in Santa Cruz right now, a simultaneous expression of Briske’s exceptional talent and an homage to the bounty available in the Monterey Bay. An extensive list of small plates may offer Miyagi oysters from Marin with Guwurztraminer granita and chili oil, a salad of abalone and Monterey Bay seaweeds, beef tongue with anchovy aioli and mustard, or any manifestation of his creative whims—as well as handmade pastas, locally caught seafood and sustainably raised meats. “We don’t serve the food that people make at home. What would be the point of going to a restaurant if you could cook it yourself? That’s why so much of the stuff we do has so much time put into it, whether we’re butchering, brining or curing a whole animal, or serving exotic ingredients,” says Briske.
Briske reports that the restaurant has so far been well received by the community. How can he tell? “At the start, half a pig per week sustained the restaurant. I could make some salamis and have chops to serve. Now it’s January, when we should be slow, and we need to purchase a whole pig. That’s a good thing, to see that support. That’s what allows us to do more.”
Danny Mendoza, 25 and Justin Williams, 29
One of the most daunting factors for food entrepreneurs is the often prohibitively high cost of opening and sustaining a brick-and-mortar restaurant. So in order to open the doors to Kickin Chicken, business partners Danny Mendoza and Justin Williams decided that their restaurant didn’t need an actual door.
Focusing on fried chicken, waffles and home-style sides, Kickin Chicken is a delivery-only restaurant. Guests order their meal online, choosing à la carte fried chicken, sandwiches and a number of creative sides like kimchi fried rice, brussels sprouts and bacon, cornmeal waffles or macaroni and cheese dusted with hot Cheetos, and in under an hour their meals arrive at the door.
It’s a decision that has allowed the young entrepreneurs to grow sustainably, tweak their recipes and get a better understanding of their customer. Operating Monday through Friday from 6 p.m. to midnight, they’ve attracted a lot of business from UCSC students, while frequent pop-ups at local breweries and the Food Lounge, as well as catering for private events and festivals like the Santa Cruz Music Festival, allow them to reach a larger Santa Cruz audience.
“We weren’t modeling our delivery format off anything else, other than there was nothing like it in Santa Cruz,” says Mendoza. “It was the only way we could manage sustainable growth without a kitchen or brick-and-mortar,” adds Williams. “There’s a lot of risk in the food industry. It’s really hard to throw your whole nest egg out there without seeing if the market works.”
Now that Kickin Chicken is more than two years old, Williams and Mendoza finally feel their restaurant is ready for a permanent location. As Williams puts it, “We’re looking for place to roost.” But while they’ve entertained several offers to move their business over the hill to the larger Bay Area, the two Southern California transplants say the reason they started their business in the first place was to build a community here in Santa Cruz—and after the support their business has received, they’re committed to finding a storefront locally.
When these fowl folk finally do find their nest, the concept will expand, but generally be the same—a home-style meal with late-night delivery service.
“Our goal from the get-go was to try to offer as creative food as possible for less than $10,” says Williams.
“You don’t always get pot de crème or crème brûlée delivered straight to your door,” says Mendoza, referencing two desserts they periodically have on their menu. Williams adds, “The only time you even need to get out of bed is to answer the door.”
Update 2/15/17 10:17 a.m.: The name of the restaurant going into the Octagon building was corrected to The Kitchen at the Octagon.