Let me be real with you.
I could geek out on Chef Gregg Wangard’s fresh, zesty summer garden gazpacho, overflowing with bright lemon cucumber goodness and just-plucked cherry tomatoes, peppered with dainty herb-flower blend, and drizzled with buttery, Templeton-sourced Olea olive oil. I could talk in painstaking detail about the exquisite, all-natural ingredients the Gardens at Avila executive chef is sourcing directly from his impressive, 1.5-acre onsite garden, located just a stone’s throw away from the restaurant and adjacent Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort.
Oh yes, I could do that. A lazier writer might do that. But I won’t, and here’s why: You can’t eat flowery words.
Like so many thoughtful chefs and passionate eaters I know, Wangard is skeptical of the puffed up rhetoric and locovore one-upmanship that too often surrounds the mainstream-adopted “farm-to-table” movement. Like all great movements, it has jumped the shark.
Note: When potato chips and other processed junk food is deemed “farm fresh,” you know it’s all over. Then, there are those restaurateurs who deliberately misrepresent just how “local” their food truly is. This, of course, is a cardinal sin.
“For the few chefs and restaurants who are actually serving truly local food, it’s downright offensive,” Wangard said during a recent lunch interview in the cozy lounge. “Farm-to-table has become so rehearsed.”
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- SO FRESH, SO GREEN: From left to right, Gardens at Avila Baker Chelsea Freeland, Executive Chef Gregg Wangard, and Sous Chef Michael Avila are backed by the greenery of the restaurant’s 1.5 acre onsite garden. With an abundance of fresh produce and herbs at his fingertips, Chef Wangard has free license to play up local dishes with vibrant abandon.
Wangard’s solution? He slyly calls his grub “spontaneous garden cuisine,” a term that aptly connotes the immediate, seasonal excitement behind his ultra-fresh plates. There’s no doubt about it: I like this guy’s gumption—not to mention the way he handles a hunk of sea bass. With clear, blue eyes and a Midwesterner’s earnest, easy-going demeanor (he’s originally from Brandon, Wis. population: 873), Wangard isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. The chef is full of passion, and his culinary creations—crafted with local fish so fresh it was probably alive when delivered to his kitchen alongside onsite veggies so seasonal they simply vanish from the menu when the onsite crop is devoured—speak volumes on their own.
“The ling cod is coming into the kitchen flopping around, and we’re talking about a 30-pound fish that will swallow anything,” Wangard said, imitating the bug eyes and gaping mouth of the prehistoric-looking species. “When we’re gutting and cleaning these things, we find whole fish inside. It doesn’t get any fresher; many times our fisherman, Chris, is coming [into the Avila Pier] that day or the day before.”
Wangard is a sap for authenticity: He loves the sound of tearing open a bag of local Morro Bay Oyster Company oysters only to see a clutch of tiny crabs scuttle out onto his countertop. Bread, on the other hand, must never come from a bag: Baker Chelsea Freeland makes it from scratch, and it is sinful.
The chef tops his plates with produce sourced from (yes—local) purveyors as well as from the restaurant’s bountiful garden, which has flourished thanks to ongoing support from growing experts Bill and Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farms. Recent offerings included a cornucopia of get-it-now summer items: zucchini fritters with cinnamon basil and heirloom tomato sauce; roasted baby beets atop baby kale greens, blood orange slices and burrata topped with pungent, bright-yellow fennel pollen.
I had the utmost honor of visiting Wangard’s lush, green workspace, shared by sister Boutique Hotel Collection restaurants Apple Farm, Sea Venture, and The Cliffs Resort. To get there, we simply hopped on a golf cart and puttered over the small bridge that connects the resort and restaurant to the lush landscape.
It was an interesting ride, indeed: Avila Beach Drive rushed below; tall pillars wrapped in climbing green and purple beans towered ahead. Beyond that, the meandering Bob Jones Bike Trail beckoned with intoxicating, summer-scented foliage. Over the past three years, Wangard has transformed his menu to reflect the seasonal offerings.
“Every year, the garden itself has been growing into something bigger,” Wangard said, surveying the rows of peppers, root veggies, plump watermelons, and herbs of all ilk. When asked what transforms a vague idea of “local food” into a truly homegrown experience, he’s quick to the draw.
“It’s all about the story,” he said. “It’s in the story of the fishermen we work with; it’s in the story of the local products we use, from the heirloom tomatoes or the Asian pear purveyor to the lettuces.”
Wangard encourages diners to dig in and speak up. Chances are, if you have a question or comment about an ingredient he’s slicing and dicing, you’re in for quite a yarn.
“When it comes down to it, I can tell real stories of what we are serving and why we are serving it,” Wangard said. “I like to hear the farmers’ stories, and the best part is being able to go out to the tables and share it.”
What’s growing at the gardens?
Every week, Gardens at Avila Restaurant Executive Chef Gregg Wangard is pulling up a new crop to play with. What’s coming out of the ground now? Red cabbage, sprouting broccoli, thyme, rosemary, sage, lemon verbena, bronze fennel, baby carrots, green garlic, and chives, to name a few. Looking for some detoxifying juice action? Plenty of these ingredients are making their way into fresh tonics like my spicy favorite, The Green Meanie (kale, ginger, jalepeno, apple, cucumber, orange, pineapple), and the sweeter Beet Friendly (chioga red beets, apple, ginger, and Meyer lemon).
The Gardens at Avila is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (with local wine and cocktails available) seven days a week with breakfast and lunch served Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner served daily from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and happy hour is offered Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. For more details, check out sycamoresprings.com.
Hayley is eating way too much homemade chipotle-tomatillo salsa (counts as a veggie, right?). Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.