Casey Overton

The Loft @ Montage Laguna Beach
Roasted Dungeness crab salad w/ cinderella pumpkin & fermented garlic

Finally! Invited to the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. Well, The Loft. This doesn’t suck. Just look at the view.

“Hey, get out of my pool!” Don’t worry, we’re here to shoot Casey. You should’ve seen the looks…

What is your definition of chef de cuisine? I just see myself as the chef of the restaurant. I would hope that all chefs are chef de cuisine. If you’re just pushing pencils and paper and whatever else then are you really a chef or are you an administrator? Those are 2 different things to me. So, I guess I’m more boots on the ground, I’m in the food. I’m cooking every day and that’s where I want to be. I never want to be anything less than that or anything more.
I love that. “I’m in the food.” I’m in the food.
He’s not *into* food, he’s *in* the food. This is going to be a fun shoot. Yeah, it’s going to get messy.
What does it mean to be chef de cuisine at The Loft? It means basically being very versatile and using the ingredients that are local to the area and working with the personalities that are local to the area. You know, I think the big part of The Loft is the personalities that are in this restaurant. They make it very gregarious and very fun and exciting, but it’s also having a lot of amazing ingredients and resources. It’s a great challenge because you have to not mess it up, I guess would be a good way to put it [he laughs]. That’s what it means to me. Making great food in a relaxed, elegant atmosphere.
Are you a risk taker? Absolutely. Definitely. I try to never make the same dish twice and even if it’s great, I won’t put it on the next season. I won’t do it again. I don’t have a signature dish specifically to me and I like that because I think if you rest on your laurels, if you rest in flavor profiles, you get complacent. The food burns out and then 10 years later you’re wondering what happened, you know?
When did you know that food had power? When I was first out of high school I got a job in a kitchen right away, because I loved cooking at home. How that translates into an actual restaurant environment is very different, but it was an open kitchen and I remember making something really simple, I believe it was a prosciutto and melon salad. I basically helped make it. When I say ‘helped’ I mean I got the guy the plate and I handed him the ham and he plated it. But I saw it go out to the guest and I saw them eat it and smile and enjoy it and that’s when I immediately knew that it was a drug, right away. It was something that just captured me. The smell of food, the sound of it. A lot of people don’t listen to food enough and I think that’s a very important part of it.
So food has power over my life. I enjoy giving that gift back to others and watching them experience something that’s extraordinary because everybody has a choice. Every night you have a choice to stay home and watch a movie instead of coming here. Or go dancing. Or go on a boat. You have a choice to do anything and for them to choose to come here and experience food, you know it has power because we have people that return and return and return.
With all the rare wines offered here, do you ever lie about your wine knowledge? No. You can get—especially if you find someone that really knows what they’re talking about—you can get yourself in trouble quickly. It’s important to talk about flavor profiles, I think that’s what’s most important. Chefs have an interesting skill set because you’ve probably seen more flavors than other people.
Even folks that are in the wine world, they don’t necessarily know what dried blood orange peel smells like, they’ve never experienced that. You can pick up different nuances in the wine. Maybe you don’t know the specific vintage or winemaker or know what the rainfall was in 1978 in October on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in someone’s back yard underneath a totem pole or something. Who cares. What does it taste like? That’s what I care about. So no, I don’t really lie about it, I just talk about flavor.
Who would you most like to cook for and why? A chef or… person?
Anybody. Alive or dead. Let’s go there. Okay yeah let’s go. The person I would like to cook for the most would be my grandfather. I cooked for him, his last meal, 10 years ago and he wanted venison. I was a much different… I had just started off cooking, and it would be nice to see what he thought of my food from then to now. He’s someone that I miss greatly.
But as far as chefs go, the chef I’d like to cook for the most would be Jacques Pépin. I absolutely adore that guy. I think that he is old school to the bone. He’s seen it all. He’s cooked for presidents, he’s seen world wars, I mean that guy would definitely have some stories to tell and his technique is perfect and that I admire.
I used to watch him years and years ago and then found him again on whatever channel he’s on. He’s still the same. A little slower, but… Watch him dice an onion.
Oh he does, he moves. It’s pretty insane.
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What are your pet peeves both in the kitchen and every day? Overall cleanliness is a huge pet peeve of mine. Not having sharp knives is a pretty normal one, too, but working clean and looking clean are very important to me. I don’t like cooks that are covered in sauce say, “well, I’m cooking.” Great, but maybe learn how to move your body correctly and prepare the food right. If you’re clean it shows that you have technique, because nobody wants to spill sauce all over them, at least I don’t think so. Nobody wants to burn themselves. If you’re out of control that doesn’t fascinate me. People that are under control in the midst of extreme pressure fascinate me.
What role does your mother play in who you are today? My mom is a very strong woman. She’s a lawyer. She’s very organized. Growing up in that house there was never a moment where you could take your foot off the gas, you always had to be on. If you’re off for a moment, then they would eat you up with words because that’s their job. Their job is argument and that sounds negative, but it’s actually more fun. Every day was a game, basically.
I love my mother a lot and I love her for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons that I love her is because she’s not a very good cook and that’s putting it very delicately and very nicely. She had 3 or 4 dishes she liked to prepare and none of them were extremely memorable, but they were hers and she was a working mom and I love her because she allowed me to get involved in cuisine. She affected my life and influenced my passion for cooking by taking me to restaurants. She let me experience different styles of service and that’s what really brought on my excitement and passion for cuisine. I think if I had a mom or a dad that was really into food I probably wouldn’t have been a chef, because I never would have grown that desire on my own.
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Can you describe your creative process and how you get started creating a dish? Of course. Well for me the creative process always starts with the ingredient. Always. We’ll come up with 10 ingredients. 10 proteins or 5 proteins or well, whatever we want and we’ll go from there. And then we’ll think seasonality, then we’ll think temperature, we’ll think smells, we’ll think how it’s going to look on the plate. But it really starts with the ingredient and the inspiration. For instance, the dish we’re going to do today the inspiration was the fresh Dungeness crabs. It’s come into season now and they’re a beautiful, beautiful product. So from that sweetness you consider balancing all of the different flavors, and with any dish I always think of sweet, salty, spicy, acidic, warm, cold, salty, savory. I think of every single different element because that’s truly what makes a great dish.
For instance, Fettuccine Alfredo, right? Great dish, but hard for people to finish and I’ll tell you why. Because it’s not balanced. Fettuccine Alfredo is very, very rich. It’s cream, cheese, butter. Maybe they give you some white wine, some lemon juice but not enough to actually finish the dish because there’s not enough acidity to balance it. So what happens is you hear someone push away the plate and say that’s really rich, right? You heard that saying?
Oh sure. Maybe it’s chocolate cake. Same thing and that’s because the dish isn’t balanced properly. Put a few raspberries next to the chocolate cake and all of a sudden you’ve finished it and you didn’t realize it. Add some more lemon to the pasta or some pickled mushrooms and all of a sudden you can finish it. So flavor profiles are very, very important as well as cooking technique.
What if you plan a dish like today and it’s hot outside, what happens if the temperature changes to freezing? Does that change what you’re going to make? Well we offer different experiences so everyone’s different. I might be hot in 60 degree weather and you might be cold. I always have lighter dishes and heavier dishes mixed evenly throughout the seasons so we can kind of offer what you’re looking for. But really, c’mon, it’s Southern California. For the most part we know what it’s going to do. Christmas is going to be 85 and the coolest it’s ever going to get is 50, 45 maybe. So that’s a little tricky, especially when you’re trying to push heavier dishes, warmer dishes things that really warm you up and satisfy your soul. But there’s some people that like soup in the middle of summer just because it makes them feel good.
Is there a soundtrack running in the kitchen? What would the playlist be? The soundtrack is myself and my cooks’ voices. That’s our soundtrack. The preparation of the cuisine. We don’t have a boom box or a stereo, we entertain ourselves. I think the station would probably go from movie line to movie line, to kitschy 80’s songs to Disney favorite, it kind of goes all over the place and there’s no boundaries. And it’s a lot of fun because you have someone singing Mickey Mouse Clubhouse one second and then it’s Bon Jovi and back over to Guns and Roses. It’s a lot of fun. It can also be dangerous because we get one song stuck in our head over and over again and then you want to go to blows with someone for singing the same song over and over again. So that’s our soundtrack, each other.
What chef tool could you not live without? Oh man there’s so many. I mean, excluding knives, I would have a hard time living without a microplane because it can impart so much flavor in such little time, with such little effort. You can grate cheese, you can take zest off a piece of citrus, you can grate ginger, garlic, you can mince anything in 3 seconds and that’s a powerful tool in the kitchen when everything is reliant on speed and accuracy.
Explain how you can utilize only 3 to 4 ingredients in a dish and prepare them perfectly. Well the ‘prepare them perfectly’ thing is the tricky part, right? Utilizing 3 or 4 flavor combinations that go well together is my job and that’s what I have fun doing. Finding what works well together, looking to classic combinations but also experiencing new and exciting combinations. But it has to make sense, it has to be well thought out. With just 3 or 4 ingredients it has to be very thoughtful in organization, in preparation and then of course, in the final product. Preparing them well is what separates chefs and anybody else. There isn’t such thing as perfect, so you try for the best and refine it every day.
What recipe are you most proud of creating or reinventing? Well, as I said before I don’t carry a lot of recipes. I don’t define myself with a certain dish, I define myself with a philosophy, with a culture. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of, the culture I’ve been able to create here at The Loft, one that really inspires and inspires others to create and do extraordinary things. That is what I want to be my legacy. I never wanted a dish to be my legacy, I want people.
If you could share a secret from the kitchen what would it be? Who am I sharing the secret to?
Us. [Laughing] Good question. Well I mean that’s pretty broad. Am I sharing a secret to a child? Am I sharing a secret to someone that wants to be a chef? Am I sharing a secret to a guest? I’m trying to narrow it down because my response would be different, but if I wanted to share a secret I would say that I wish that I could open every single guest’s mind for just 2 seconds so they can feel the emotion of every one of my cooks. That’s something that I would like to do. That’s the secret that I would like them to see because it’s a really tough profession. People say that all the time but they don’t really get it. Scraping by, making nothing, holding on to nothing but your passion like a starving artist. Same thing. But I would like them to feel what it’s like to really live. These guys have an amazing time and they really know how to cook. They’re living on the razor’s edge every single day and it’s a lot of fun for them. We’re tighter and tighter every single day because of that and because of the passion that we have. That excitement is the real paycheck. I would like you to see that.

the recipe:

Roasted Dungeness crab salad (w/ cinderella pumpkin & fermented garlic)

  • 2 whole Dungeness crab
  • 1 head frisee
  • 6 oz. fresh pumpkin, diced
  • Chicken stock
  • Shallots
  • 1 head fermented black garlic
  • 1/2 c. toasted hazelnuts
  • Olive oil
  • Meyer lemon
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Chinese five-spice powder
  1. Take two live crabs and rub them with oil and the five spice.
  2. Roast the crabs whole on seaweed either in the oven or on hot charcoal.
  3. Roast for 20 min. or until the crabs turn bright red.
  4. Pick all the meat and reserve the crab fat.
  5. In a sauce pan, sweat the shallots and the pumpkin then add chicken stock and simmer until tender puree and reserve.
  6. In a separate sauce pot add the crab fat and fermented garlic with a 1/4 c. of chicken stock season with the meyer lemon and add 2 tbls olive oil along with a pinch of five spice.
  7. To put the dish together, arrange the puree on the plate top with the crab and garnish with the hazelnuts, frisee, and pomegranate seeds. Using a hand blender froth the crab fat then spoon over the salad.

wine pairing

w/ Organic Wine Exchange + guest wine expert

The 2010 Riesling from Domaine Eugène Meyer, produced biodynamically in France’s Alsace region, is delicious with shellfish, salads, and Asian-inspired cuisine—making it a peerless partner for this recipe. The wine’s ample texture and vein of minerality beautifully balance the rich, savory crab and roasted nutmeats, while its flavors of citrus, lychee, and ginger polish the salad’s top notes of pumpkin, pomegranate, Meyer lemon, and Asian five-spice powder. It’s an integrative pairing, one that will partner gracefully while highlighting the sublime interplay of flavors in this elegant dish.

2010 Domaine Eugène Meyer Riesling @ OWE for $24

Meg Houston Maker, CSW, is a writer curious about nature, culture, food, wine, and place. Her freelance writing focuses on traditional foodways, artisanal food and wine production, sustainable agriculture, and the human connection to landscape. Meg contributes regularly to many food and wine publications. Find her creative writing at Megmaker.com and her essays on food and wine at Maker’s Table. Follow her on Twitter @megmaker.

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