Q & A With Fig's Ray Garcia: On FBI Dreams, Revolutionary Sushi + Cooking For Dogs
Ray Garcia, Executive Chef at Fig in Santa Monica, is perhaps the only 32-year-old chef who can say he has worked for Thomas Keller, Douglas Keane, and a picky canine in the same year (more on that later, but yes, a customer at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, where Garcia was formerly Executive Sous Chef, once sent back beef that wasn't cooked to her dog's liking). And then there were the law school/FBI dreams that were ditched shortly after he tasted foie gras for the first time. Bet that phone call went over well with the parents.
J. Garbee Ray Garcia
These days Garcia is turning out bacon-wrapped bacon alongside quinoa salad (check back for the recipe) and volunteering at Olympic High School (he grows heirloom tomatoes and make fresh mozzarella while the teenagers text and drink Red Bull, but he gets a gold star for trying -- baby steps). The project that he started last year on his own has recently segued into Michelle Obama's Chefs Move To Schools program. More on that in our second interview. First, turn the page to learn how Garcia went from a kid in East L.A. who had never cooked an enchilada to a chef. A darn good one.
Squid Ink: So you grew up in L.A.?
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Ray Garcia: Cypress Park, North East L.A. It wasn't until college that I traveled west of the 110. Maybe I visited a few beaches as a kid, but I don't remember specifics. So until the first time I stepped on [UCLA] campus as a freshman, I honestly had no idea where exactly [UCLA] was. That's true, by the way.
SI: Sort of funny, as you work at a swanky hotel in Santa Monica now.
RG: Yeah, and I live in Playa del Rey. Now I can't imagine living anywhere but the Westside. Every time I go east, like to Pasadena, it's so hot and the air is just so different in the San Gabriel Valley. I'm completely a Westside guy now. My mom just rolls her eyes.
SI: You have a lot of Mexican-inspired dishes on your menus now. Did you cook growing up?
RG: Not really. I mean, my mom and both grandmothers were great cooks, mostly Mexican home cooking. But to me, that was the same as tuna casserole and meatloaf to everyone else. It was just the same old stuff you ate. My eyes really opened to food when I got to college. I had a roommate whose father had owned a sushi bar in Seal Beach that's been around for thirty years or so now. I hadn't really had Japanese food until I met him. I'd had bastardized Chinese food here and there, but other than that, just my mom's home cooking.
SI: So your college buddy got you into other foods.
RG: Right. [Brandon Go] had been working at his family's restaurant, Koi Sushi, since he was a kid. He was really passionate about it. He was into reading cookbooks. I'd never done that. And he was the one who first took me out to a fancy meal at a restaurant. I thought he was crazy. People spend this much on food? That's crazy.
SI: It can get crazy.
RG: Yes. But it's also great. It works both ways. My college friends would go crazy when I took them to my mom's house, and we'd pile up her enchiladas... bring them back [to campus] and they'd go crazy. They'd never had enchiladas like that. Homemade. That was when I first realized there is this cross-pollination of food in L.A., but you have to find it.