It’s a breezy and sunny Saturday morning in Santa Monica and the Farmer’s Market is busy. The smell of herbs, fruit and vegetables blend in with the smell of the sea just a short walk away. Brisk business is being done, there’s a general feeling of happiness and goodwill throughout the market as customers – locals and tourists taste, smell and buy. In the midst of this is a smiling, good-natured man in a white coat pushing a heavily laden cart. His name is Gianfranco Minuz and he is in his element here. The growers seem to know him well, trading jokes and showing him their best items.
For me, the writer following around the Michelin-starred chef, it is a revelation. His discerning eyes don’t miss anything. A new product at one grower is sitting in a little basket, and he immediately veers towards it. They are mandarinquats, a hybridization of mandarin orange and kumquat. The result is an oddly shaped, beautiful orange that is tart and slightly bitter (you can eat the skin). Chef Gianfranco lifts one, tests its weight, smells it and then bites into it, catching the juice into his hand. “Gut,” he says in that Northern Italian accent of his that has hints of Austria in it. “Taste” and so I do. I trust his judgement and when I bite into that odd little orange, it’s as if summer explodes on my tongue. It is tart, it is sweet, the skin isn’t the harsh bitter of a regular orange, but the hint of bitterness is there mixing with the sweet.
We continue to walk the market, me snapping photos, asking questions and talking. He’s generous with his time and knowledge – stopping to answer customer’s questions, though he’s not selling anything at the market. An elderly woman stops him, asks about a vegetable and he spends ten minutes explaining to her how its used, what’s good with it and illustrating with those expressive hands. She’s charmed as am I and apparently every grower and farmer in the market.
We find Persian lemons that are strangely sweet and so aromatic they remind me of a floral perfume. He shows me the pea shoots he uses in many of his dishes. I notice how fascinated he is by the colors and scents. There is something almost computer-like about the way he takes things in – you can almost see the wheels turning in his head and his mind is planning menus, dishes, sauces…
Back at the restaurant where he is Executive Chef, he invites me to sit and have a cappuccino and even that becomes somewhat of a class as he talks to me about the way coffee is roasted in Italy, and explains exactly how to fold my foam into the coffee. His kitchen staff are industriously working but peeking over on occasion with that way that children peer at their parents to see if they are noticing they are doing a good job. They clearly adore the man and want to please him.
I sip my cappuccino and watch him work in the open kitchen. There is a zen-like manner to the man as he works. The kitchen and restaurant get busier and busier and so I leave to talk a walk in the market on my own. The growers remember me and go out of their way to rave to me about Chef Gianfranco. They’re proud of him and want me to know how great he is. He’s not just some buyer to them – they’ve adopted him and want me to know it.
I meet up with friends and head on back to the restaurant for lunch. We sit at the counter surrounding the open kitchen and are served a feast as we watch him in action. His focus is unbreakable no matter how crazy the kitchen gets or how many troops of people walk into the place. In everything, he is courtly and polite to his staff. There is no yelling, no Gordon Ramsey-esque antics in this kitchen – Chef is clearly not a shouter, but as elegant and charming in work as he is with the growers. He simply murmurs please and thank you in a low voice, almost a whisper and the staff runs to do what’s needed. They are well-trained, a smoothly oiled machine that runs on the respect and obvious admiration they have for him. I comment to the woman who takes my plate, “does nothing phase him?” “No,” she says. “Everything runs off him like water, nothing touches him.” She beams. “He’s the best.”
He serves us one perfect strawberry with balsamic that is so sweet and delicious I want to weep. Following that is a tomato salad made with tiny market tomatoes, calendula petals and mint. It’s wonderful and I clean my plate. Another plate shows up with an avocado and watercress salad with egg. It is luscious, almost meaty yet so elegant. My friends moan in appreciation. A tuna carpaccio is next, drizzled with olive oil, watermelon radish and horseradish. Next up is a beautiful pizza that has some of the same market tomatoes which are so sweet and perfect that two weeks after the meal I am still remembering that hot little pop of sweetness on my tongue. I think we are done but more plates appear as if by magic – salmon that is crusted with salt and spices – another delicious offering. After that, he brings out his tortellini and I am still craving that delicious bite of soft pasta, the tang of the melted Italian cheese and the coolness of the sauce flavored with borage flowers. In a word, it is a symphony of flavors and positively astounding. Those articles I’ve read that call him a genius aren’t exaggerating. He is a genius with food, colors and flavors. With each offering, he smiles that humble smile of his and asks us if we like it. We do, and when we rave, he blushes and smiles, tucks his head down and gets onto the next thing, a place of blood oranges in brandy to cleanse our palettes.
I grew up around great cooks, have tasted the offerings of many a chef from Mexico to San Francisco, to New York and L.A.; including many celebrity and Michelin-starred chefs, and not one thing has ever compared to my meal that Saturday in Santa Monica. West Hooker-Poletti has indeed found a gem to run his kitchen at Lago Santa Monica.
By the way, you can follow the social-media saavy chef on Twitter. His Tweets are about as delicious as his food.
All photos in this article are #nofilter and taken with the #Nokia #Icon on the #Verizon network #VZWBuzz