Back of House: Road Trip

Chef David Baron gets to know his farmers and fishermen as he prepares to open his much-anticipated Salt Wood restaurant in Marina

BY ROSIE PARKER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN HALLEY AND ROSIE PARKER

Like most chefs, David Baron understands that he’s nothing without good ingredients. But with a loyal nature and insatiable curiosity, the vendor partnerships he forms go deeper. “It’s about the relationship as much as the product,” he says repeatedly. “If I’m going to work with you, I need to know who you are and what you do. And I want to know why you do it, too.”

I first met Baron in April 2017, shortly after he left Casanova in Carmel and accepted the position of executive chef at Salt Wood Kitchen & Oysterette at Sanctuary Beach Resort in Marina. I was invited to accompany him on a two-day road trip along the Central Coast and into the Central Valley—an epicurean adventure visiting several of his purveyors.

We were joined by Ben Halley (our trusted driver), a chef and hospitality consultant working with Hersha, the parent company of the resort. The journey would end with a feast from our gatherings, cooked by Baron and Halley in the home kitchen of Swank Farms owners, Dick and Bonnie Swank.

Although Baron had worked for years with some of the people we visited, he was meeting others for the first time. Regardless, he had the same care, attention, enthusiasm and “you’re in my inner circle” attitude at every stop. Watching Baron listen to everyone’s stories, I was impressed by the powerful relationship and mutual respect between farmer and chef.

“Good food takes hard work,” Baron stressed to each vendor. “That’s the story we want to tell.”

ROASTERS AND RANCHERS

As with any proper road trip, we start with coffee. I meet Baron and Halley at North Coast Roasting, a 100% organic micro-roaster based in Soquel, founded on the belief that what’s good for the planet is good for the people. Baron, a flashy-looking guy with gelled-back hair stands mesmerized by the coffee roasting process. He’s dressed for the road trip in a tight camo thermal, gold chain, baggy cargo pants, and bright yellow Adidas sneakers. Gold-rimmed sunglasses are tucked into his shirt. On first impression it’s clear: David Baron has swagger.

“I’ve never seen this before, not even on TV,” he says with childlike wonder, referring to the satisfying sound and smell of the roasting beans. When the beans are released from the kiln in a cloud of steam, we both take a comically exaggerated whiff. Baron flashes a giant smile and says, “All I know is we’re about to be hella juiced driving in the car.”

Caffeine seems like the last thing Baron needs. (Side note: Going on a road trip with two chefs, you’re reminded of their superhuman energy and endurance. They can go for hours without food, water or a bathroom break).

From Soquel, we travel to Merced to meet Cliff Pollard of Cream Co. Meats, a left coast meat distributor based in Oakland. The company is just over a year old, but Baron has been working with Cliff for more than 10 years. “He only works with the best chefs, so I honestly don’t know how I got so lucky,” he says modestly.

Central California is the base for Cream Co.’s Antique Beef program, which focuses on the value of retired Holstein dairy cows, instead of letting the animals get sold to the commodity market. “is is real full animal sustainability,” Baron explains.

“These are dual-purpose animals,” Pollard adds. “They have healthy, happy lives on pasture, and, if taken care of, build rich intramuscular fat that produces a delicious meat.”

On a tour of Yosemite Valley Beef, the slaughterhouse they use in Merced, I see the awe-inspiring carcasses from the Antique Beef program. Six to eight years old and around 600 pounds, they look like Cadillacs in a garage full of economy cars. “It gets harder for me the older I get,” Pollard admits as we tour the facility. YVB is a certified organic slaughterhouse that averages about 80 kills per day, vastly different than a commodity facility that typically averages 2,800.

“Transparency is the key word for everything we do,” Pollard adds. “That’s why we’re always so excited to get chefs like David out into the field.”

We end the day in Oakdale, visiting Cream Co.’s other Central Valley operation, Full-Tilt Farms. It’s a Demeter-certified biodynamic egg ranch run with Stueve Organic, which raises Cornish Cross chickens on its historic family farm. “Our supply chain is as open as the fields the animals roam on,” says Jake Townsend, who manages the Stueve operations. “So whenever anybody asks, we take them out here.”

FISHERMEN AND FARMERS

The next morning we venture out of the fields and onto the sea. It’s early at the Monterey Wharf and Baron’s mind (and mouth) are already racing. He talks quickly and passionately and at times it’s hard to keep up with him. He punctuates most sentences with: “You know what I mean?”

We meet Adam Aliotti, a spot prawns fisherman who will take us out on his boat, the Ocean Warrior. Aliotti is a fourth-generation Monterey Bay fisherman: “In elementary school I was drawing pictures of commercial boats,” Aliotti says with a laugh. “You can definitely say it’s in my blood.” His grandfather, Giuseppe (Joe) Aliotti, accidentally founded the fishery in the bay in the 1950s, when spot prawns kept getting caught in his octopus traps. Here only two people hold spot prawn fishing permits, which were handed down generation to generation: Aliotti and one of his cousins.

“I really want to be pushing local seafood at Salt Wood,” Baron explains. “There will be an iced seafood counter, so I’ll be able to pick up my spot prawns when the season is right and put them on display—raw and alive!”

“When people ask about them, we tell them about Aliotti, because his story is now a part of our story,” Halley adds.

Next we visit Monterey Abalone and its secret seaweed city that exists right under the wharf. After California banned commercial abalone fishing, owners Trevor Fay and Art Seavey worked hard to sustainably farmed red abalone in growing cages suspended under the pier. “It’s an ocean-based operation,” Fay explains. “We’re feeding them their natural diet of kelp and that really comes through in the product.”

It’s surreal underneath the wharf: dark with slippery planks, barking seals, workers suited up in rain bibs and boots, and countless cages of giant kelp. The process for farming abalone is labor intensive and patience testing as it takes at least four years until they reach a harvestable size. “It’s an honor to keep the heritage of our area alive and bring abalone back to the dinner table,” Fay says. “You guys are legends,” Baron confirms. “True legends.”

“Now we’re going to see a different legend,” Baron says with a laugh when we’re back in the car. “We’re going to see my boy!” We’re on our way to Swank Farms in Hollister where owners Dick and Bonnie Swank have a closeness with Baron akin to family. Swank is good-natured with a warm smile and strong sense of humor. Baron runs around him like a gnat that Swank has to keep swatting away.

“I started working with Dick three years ago when I started buying tomatoes from him. But that was all he would sell us at that time,” Baron recalls. “You didn’t want anything else!” Swank shouts back. “I tried to get you to buy other things!” Baron gives a knowing smirk and says, “Well, look where we are now! You’re my guy!”

Touring the farm, we stop at various fields so Baron can harvest produce. “He’s such an inspiring chef,” Swank effuses. “He gets out there and really engages—with us, with his family, with the community, with his staff. It was hard to get in the inner circle and we work hard every day to make sure we don’t mess up. But it’s farming, it’s unpredictable—we mess up. So it’s good to know we have David in our corner.”

THE CHEF

Baron, 33, is a first-generation American of Nicaraguan and Filipino descent who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. His grandmother on his mother’s side was a tamale lady. “I was a curious kid, always getting in trouble. Travieso—that was my nickname,” he says with a smile—travieso in Spanish translates to naughty. “So the kitchen was where I grew up, because that was the best place to keep an eye on me.”

One of four children, Baron says that dining out was a luxury they couldn’t afford. So he learned the importance of making food from scratch and the power of a home-cooked meal. “My mom taught us how to show compassion for others through food, through the act of sharing food, and small gestures, like bringing the man at the gas station a tamale, or customizing the empanadas to fit all of our likes and dislikes.”

It was when Baron was in high school, going to continuation school and volunteering at St. Anthony’s kitchen and the St. Francis Living Room in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, that he decided he wanted to be a chef. After fulfilling his mother’s request that he attend college, Baron signed up for culinary school and immediately started training.

From the start, Baron built an impressive resumé, with stints in the kitchens of Chris Cosentino at Incanto, Daniel Patterson at Coi and Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn. “I’ve been fortunate to work with chefs who make you better because they demand that you work at their level,” he reflects.

In 2014, Baron relocated to Carmel to take the position of executive chef at Casanova. Despite the slower pace of the Monterey Bay area, Baron stayed busy. He has an innate need to interact with his community—whether it’s through his kids’ sports teams (he has three children under the age of five) or by volunteering at local schools. He has been an avid supporter of the MEarth ecoliteracy program in Carmel and recently purchased a home in Marina, where he’s dedicated to bringing some of those same programs to schoolchildren there. “Working and living here, I have this incredible opportunity to build this great restaurant, and build great chefs, but I also have the opportunity to build my community,” he says. “I’m motivated to put Marina on the map beyond the restaurant.”

THE DINNER

“So, what’s on the menu?” I ask as we unload our bounty into Bonnie Swank’s remodeled “chef’s dream” home kitchen.

“Oh, I have no idea,” Baron replies nonchalantly. After a pause, he gestures at the spread on the kitchen island—teal and purple-striped abalones, a pile of translucent orange-red spot prawns (many bursting with roe), biodynamic eggs, marbled tenderloin from the Antique Beef program, a whole organic chicken, deep red dulse, bowls of herbs and edible flowers, bags of roasted whole coffee beans, crates full of Swank Farms produce. “I mean, all of this is what’s on the menu.”

This ingredient-driven approach is indicative of how Baron thinks about the menu at Salt Wood. “We live in a bounty of some of the best produce in the world. at’s so inspiring. My approach is natural. I want the dishes to come together organically. I want to truly highlight the ingredients of our area. And I have to draw on all my training—classic and new-school techniques—to achieve that,” he says.

I settle in with my glass of wine and watch the show—a dance in the kitchen between two chefs laying claim on ingredients. I’m quickly intoxicated by the sweet, salty, smoky smell of brown butter and cauliflower, pan-seared chicken, blistered cherry tomatoes, and braised leeks with kale and chard. Beets are buried in whole coffee beans and roasted in the oven. Baron and Swank go outside to build a fire pit. Cherrywood smoke billows up through the grate covered with beef tenderloin, abalones in their shells and spot prawns atop blackened leeks.

Dinner is served. We sit around the table, plates piled high. Reflecting on the bounty, I think about something Halley said after we left the wharf that morning:

“There’s a push in our industry right now to shy away from commodity production, to seek out heirloom, endemic species and bring them into the limelight. Otherwise, they will disappear. It’s up to David and other chefs in this region to really pioneer that again—seek out these vendors, get their products onto the dinner table and make people understand that they should support these local endeavors.

“It’s about supporting my network of people, supporting my community,” Baron had told me early on. “It’s about being in a position to potentially change your community’s outlook on food. I don’t take that lightly.”

For the first time in two days he is quiet. Sated, sleepy, a can of beer in his hand, Baron looks content. “It’s going to be fun,” he says repeatedly about opening Salt Wood. I can’t imagine he would have it be any other way.

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