A NIGHT AT THE CACHAGUA
Clockwise from top left:
Diners; the General Store; soccer between seatings;
roasted baby beet salad with coconut chevre and balsamic reduction;
beef bone marrow bruschetti with shiitake, butter capers and parsley;
the author with Jones and La Guigole.
An Upper Carmel Valley Adventure
BY CAMERON COX
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JORGE NOVOA
In case you have ever wondered, here is how to open a Champagne bottle with a saber:
- Remove the foil and wire basket.
- Score the glass just below the rim with a knife or glass cutter; this will be your target point.
- Grip the punt—that’s the concave bottom portion of the bottle— with your nondominant hand. Gripping the bottle with a rag or towel will give added traction.
- Tilt the cork end of the bottle away from you.
- With your dominant hand, take a Hungarian saber and place it flat against the side of the base of the bottle, cutting edge pointed toward the cork.
- All in one swift, fluid motion, slide the blade towards the cork, slicing off the top of the bottle at the target point.
- Retrieve severed glass and cork.
- Pour Champagne. Drink. Repeat.
Please don’t attempt this at home. It is as dangerous as it sounds. But do take note; it could come in handy should you find yourself chatting away over dinner with Chef Michael Jones, because he just might insist that you do it. (Careful with that last step.)
Jones can be found deep in the hills of Cachagua (that’s Kuh- SHAH-wa), a region of Upper Carmel Valley some 25 miles east of the Carmel coast and a world away, at his Cachagua General Store. On most days the unassuming store front serves as grocer for the community of off-the-gridders, winery employees and other working people who live nearby, and a base for Jones’s high-end organic catering company, A Moveable Feast, which he began in 1976. On Sundays, Jones morphs the place into a casual brunch spot; on Monday nights, he and his staff escape the routines of catering to let their creativity rip, staging a fine dining event the likes of which you probably won’t experience anywhere else.
A quick Google search for Cachagua General Store will most likely take you to a smattering of very polarized Yelp reviews that vigorously rant or rave about the restaurant’s food, service and rustic atmosphere. You’ll also find the Cachagua General Store blog site, which serves as sounding board, soapbox and endless archive for Jones’s own heated rants and raves about, well, anything. Local and global politics, town gossip, personal histories, food-borne illnesses and pathogens are just a few of the topics you’ll find there. It’s enough to send you to Cachagua based on intrigue alone.
Just finding the Cachagua General Store can feel like a minor triumph in and of itself. The drive from Carmel takes 45 minutes to an hour, the last stretch climbing along a dizzyingly winding road replete with stunning views of oak-studded hills and grassy valleys and a slalom course around road kill and careening locals who really can’t be bothered with you and your cautious pace. So if you set out for a Monday night dinner, take care, buckle up and keep to the side of the road. And remember: If your goal is to actually make it back home in one piece, it would behoove you to either take it easy on the champers or designate a more responsible friend to drive your dinner party back to safety.
Pulling into the dirt parking lot on a recent evening, our party of three could hear the happy buzz of the 6:30 diners (there are two seatings, the other at 8:00) oozing out of the barn-red building, backed by various critter noises we later learned came from chickens, roosters and peacocks. All else was dead quiet, making this little establishment seem like the only life force around.
We were greeted by Peyton and Pauline Bryan, who had just finished their dinner and stood lingering outside to digest a bit before their walk home. They live at the other end of the road and claim that they quite frankly “don’t need to go any farther” than CGS. They haven’t missed a Monday Night Dinner since they began in 2006. “It’s our date night,” Pauline explained. “We’ve been coming to the General Store for its different incarnations. It was a pool hall and then a bar before Michael took it over.”
Joining our conversation was Dylan, Jones’s youngest son, who comes down from Santa Cruz to help out with Monday Night Dinners. It was between seatings and he was taking a break from the kitchen. “Yeah, the General Store used to be on the side of the dining room because it was bigger, and the bar was on the smaller side where the store is now,” Dylan said, describing the CGS’s evolution since Jones bought it in 2003. Peyton chuckled. “For a while we sat next to a big cooler full of milk and cheese. Some people would come in for groceries while we were eating!”
Dylan smiled and added dryly, “Yeah…Cachagua’s a little different.” Peyton and Pauline began their walk home and we headed inside. We were already late for our reservations at the bar.
Stepping into the dining quarters of the place felt a bit like entering a pirate ship setting sail through the set of Deliverance. The air was warm and muggy and boozy. Wood paneling crawled up the walls to meet the wood ceiling above; candlelight, chandeliers, flags and bottles filled the room.
Diners were casually laughing and talking—sometimes yelling— across the room at each other over wine barrels, green and white checkered tablecloths and steaming plates of food. A handkerchiefed dog wove his way through the crowd as a stuffed elk head looked out over the whole scene. A few men near the paper curtains, (yes paper, with folds drawn in with a pen) were playing harmonica and banjo and I was convinced Jack Sparrow would come busting through the door at any moment, wielding a shotgun and a lasso.
At the other end of the room lay the bar and behind it the open kitchen, where a handful of young men, most in their 20s, were prepping and plating away with Chef Michael Jones at the helm, his wild silver hair tucked under a black beret. Darting back and forth between the kitchen and dining room, he gave us a nod as we walked in. The hostess informed us that they’d had a few last-minute cancellations. Later, we’d feel lucky to have come on an unusually slow night, as it allowed time for a lesson in “Champagne sabering” and a chance to hear how Jones started cooking.
“That’s a funny story,” he began. “I was studying electrical engineering at Cornell and my housemates and I lived in a farmhouse outside Ithaca, New York. We had pigs and cows and a garden.” The landlord decided to open an inn in the farmhouse; Jones and his friends were subsequently evicted, but they were still given access to the garden.
One October evening, while harvesting peppers and corn, Jones looked up to see “guys busting out all the doors of the restaurant, running towards their cars, and there’s the chef chasing this guy up the driveway towards the road with a knife and I’m, like, ‘cool!’” He was hooked.
The chef, Etienne Merle, had lost his temper over a server who mispronounced the term “flambé” and, after scaring off his entire staff, came running to Jones and begged him to help. The two of them served 150 dinners. It was opening night.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Jones said of his first shift with Merle, which totaled about 50 hours and was only interrupted for the occasional truffle omelet and bottle of Beaujolais. “It was like being at the Olympics. It was like Thermopylae. It was just nuts.”
Jones continued to work for Merle over the years and to this day they are friends.
Jones graduated from Cornell and took a job in London as a laser research officer for the British government. “I lasted six weeks,” he said, laughing. “The first day they handed me a book and said ‘Take this home and read it’ and I said ‘Oh no, huh-uh, not me. I have reservations at the pub. I’m working 9 to 5.’ I wanted to have a life.”
After leaving London, Jones landed a job at a winery in Burgundy. He later turned his focus to food and spent four years apprenticing in Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Kosovo, Turkey, England and New York. “In France I was getting eight bucks a day. At the end of the stagier [apprenticeship] you can afford to go to dinner there and then have just enough money to get you to the next place.” Upon returning to the United States, he opened a restaurant with some friends in Telluride, Colorado. In the late ‘70s he put down roots in the Monterey Bay area, eventually opening the acclaimed Carmel restaurant Silver Jones, and raising his three sons, who have all been a part of the family food business.
When asked what it’s like to cook with his kin, Jones replied, “It’s all we know.”
Jones’s eldest son, Brendan, started cooking with his father when he was 3 and has trained in various restaurants in Spain, including Michelin two-star-rated Mugaritz, outside San Sebastián. Despite a tough Irish outer layer, Jones is pretty gooey with pride over his son’s accomplishments. “Within one week, Brendan was in the snake pit next to Andoni, the executive chef at Mugaritz,” Jones boasted. When asked if Brendan was the executive sous-chef of CGS, they both laughed, as if to say, “We don’t do that here.” Jones tried to explain: “You see, in these Michelin restaurants in Spain, they have a chef, they have a science guy, and then they have a concept guy. Brendan is the concept guy of CGS.”
Brendan contributed to many of the items on the night’s menu, and the influence from Spain was apparent. The dishes were rustic yet refined, with a touch of whimsy: roasted bone marrow bruschetti with shiitake and parsley, beef tartare with tarragon ice cream, roasted baby beet salad with coconut chevre and balsamic reduction. This is not the kind of food you’d expect at a dusty roadhouse in the sticks—but then again, nothing here is what you’d expect. Remembering … “Cachaugua’s a little different.”
Indeed. At Cachagua General Store, things are different, and all things seem possible.
At this single location, you can stock up on groceries and propane for the week, stuff yourself with organic eats at the Sunday brunch with the locals, get saved at a church service later that afternoon, attend an ESL class taught by Jones’s 84-year-old mother, grab a beer and a game of “hillbilly bocce” out back, reappear on a Monday night for the most affordable gourmet meal around (the aforementioned roasted bone marrow is just $8.50, for example), all the while surrendering yourself to the very real possibility that at any point during your visit, you might trip on a chicken.
Jones’s advice for first timers: “Bring your sense of humor.” Though lighthearted about some things, Jones is wildly serious about the topic of food and its origins. His personal stance on the organic vs. “conventional” issue: “Why go out of your way to f— with the food?! You put garbage in, you get garbage out.”
Those who seek farm-to-table eateries will feel right at home at CGS, as Jones has been a big supporter of local and organic foods since well before a movement mobilized around them.
Some of the produce used at CGS is grown by its neighbors—like Joanie, who has been coming to the Monday Night Dinners for two years. Her favorite part about the dinners is seeing “all the characters that hang out here … You might have to wait two hours for your meal but you love it because you’re surrounded by people who are so interesting. Across-the-board interesting.”
She had come that night to trade fava beans and eggs for CGS’s pork four ways. Jones readily welcomes the barter system. “I’ve got kids coming in here tonight who grow us 12 different kinds of eggplant, padrone peppers, all this crazy sh–. They eat whenever they want and we don’t charge them.” He then added, with great sarcasm and irony, “but luckily we’re rich and it doesn’t matter. Money is an outmoded concept.”
Joking aside, there is some truth here. Money doesn’t seem to hold near as much weight at CGS as it does in any conventional restaurant. There are more important forms of currency at play. In looking at the prices, it seems almost impossible that the Monday Night Dinners and Sunday brunches could ever pull a profit. But that was never the point.
The Monday Night Dinners have become a destination for those who seek out adventurous organic food and don’t mind the drive (there are in fact several nearby tasting rooms to break up the trip, see listing on the EMB website), but Jones started serving meals at CGS to give the hardworking locals an opportunity to have a fine-dining experience without breaking the bank.
The Sunday brunch in particular is “something we do for the local knuckleheads,” Jones said. “Say you live here. So it’s Sunday morning and we’re not sure you’ve had a meal that was not from a microwave in the last week, so we serve pastured eggs, Nueske bacon, pancakes with homemade buttermilk, coffee, Odwalla orange juice … all for $10 if you are a local, $12.50 for town people.” Arguably one of the best deals around.
We’d finished our dessert and Jones returned with a bottle of Champagne, a bar towel and La Guigole, his “Champagne saber.” He ran through the motions with me on how to successfully “saber” the bottle open, I took a swing and “thwack!” the top went flying. While my cohorts and I scoured the floor for severed glass, Jones walked the foaming Champagne bottle over to the nearest table and poured a round. It was on the house, “since their eyesight was technically in jeopardy,” Jones said. Fair enough.
His delivery is often gruff, salty and unapologetic, but always entertaining. At the core lies a generosity of spirit that extends far beyond the CGS walls.
“He’s a helluva good guy,” said Dave Fox, a Cachagua resident of 26 years and CGS regular. “I tell you what, in the first year I knew him, I seen him do more for more people than I’d seen anyone do in my entire lifetime.”
When Dave’s eyesight was failing and he awaited surgery, Jones helped out. “He was giving me credit at the store and everything till I could get back to working. He made this beef stew with mushrooms… that sh– was good.”
When word hit the community that Pablo, a Cachagua resident of many years, was ill and dying, Jones repeatedly sent workers from the store to his trailer in the woods with plates of food. In a time when technology has whittled human communication down to texts, tweets and Facebook posts, these neighborly acts feel sadly archaic, wildly refreshing and, on the whole, hopeful.
In a CGS blog post dated January 19, 2011, Jones praised restaurateur Tony Tollner for offering up his Carmel-based Rio Grill to host a fundraiser for Rachael Short, a local photographer who had been critically injured in a car accident: “I always tell people that the word ‘restaurant’ comes from the verb ‘to restore.’ We used to be a solace and shelter back in the day, and an important part of not just commerce, but society and communication. Some places still are.”
Yes, like this one.
Cachagua General Store
18840 Cachagua Rd. • 831.659.1857
For two of Jones’s recipes, Panzanella and Crema Inglese Valrhona, and a listing of Carmel Valley wine tasting rooms to be found along the way to CGS, please see the EMB website.