Coastal Cuisine, from the Ground Up

  • Richard Carleton Hacker

Executive chef Craig Strong of Studio, the signature restaurant of Montage Laguna Beach resort in Southern California, has given the term farm-to-table a literal translation. The spices and herbs used for Strong’s celebrated California-French cuisine are grown just steps from his dining room tables in a garden he planted in late summer. One would hardly think that such a variety of seasonally changing ingredients could be planted and harvested on a picturesque bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but the Studio Garden is not your typical farm.

Inspired by boyhood memories of tending his grandmother’s vegetable garden, the Southern California–raised chef began contemplating growing his own vegetables, herbs, and spices for Studio’s kitchen. Montage general manager Todd Orlich, who also enjoys gardening, encouraged Strong to create the Studio Garden, which is composed of flagstone-walled earthen beds 31 inches above the lawn, a judiciously determined height designed to keep the rabbits out.

“Instead of just having a lawn with a beautiful view, we’ve added another element,” says Strong, “something that people can touch and smell and taste and experience, for a gourmet meal that’s truly hands-on.” He worked with gardening consultant Kathryn Agresto to map out the pesticide-free seasonal plantings that inspire Studio’s ever-changing menu. Mint-crusted lamb incorporates cracked-wheat tabouleh with mint, parsley, and pea tendrils from the Studio Garden, while the duck confit cannelloni is made in a sauce with Swiss chard and oranges harvested only hours earlier.

Plus, guests at the chef’s table begin by accompanying Strong on a garden tour, where, in addition to being encouraged to touch, smell, and taste what the garden has to offer, they choose vegetables and herbs to be incorporated into their dinner. Guests can watch Strong dig up potatoes, then, shortly afterward, eat those potatoes with grilled vintage beef tenderloin with bone marrow in a bordelaise sauce.

In addition, many of the garden’s aromatics, such as lavender, mint, lemon verbena, and basil, are used by the resort’s mixologists and in its spa treatments. “These are great examples of what we do at Studio and at Montage,” says Strong, “using the best ingredients combined with very personalized service. It’s very interactive and it creates great memories, and when you put all of those things together, that’s what you think of when you come to Montage.” (949.715.6420, www.studiolagunabeach.com)

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