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Ray Garcia: The Reformed Locavore

Executive chef, Fig, Santa Monica, CA
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ray Garcia

Fine dining defined Ray Garcia’s early culinary work before he shifted to a local focus. He worked at a variety of restaurants in the Los Angeles area while pursuing a political science and economics degree, then chose his passion for cooking over law school, attending the California School of Culinary Arts. He practiced his craft at a collection of fine-dining restaurants at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, and has worked under world-renowned chefs, including Douglas Keene at Cyrus and Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. In 2009 he opened the Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant Fig, providing the Los Angeles area with a truly seasonal bistro that pulls ingredients directly from farmers markets and regional farms, ranches and fisheries.

Having worked for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry before making an impact of his own at Fig, Ray Garcia knows full well the influence chefs wield.

“I made a conscious decision early on that I want to use my powers for good instead of evil,” he quips.

While many chefs talk a good sustainability game, few take it to the extreme that Garcia does: He has hired a full-time forager who scours the California coastal and farming communities to ensure the restaurant cooks as locally as possible. Garcia filters the restaurant’s water, recycles maniacally and composts everything. He even makes hand soap from Fig’s fryer oil. Last year, Fig implemented valet parking for cyclists, to encourage more local diners to pedal instead of drive.

All these choices are “extremely expensive to realize,” he says, but in his mind, “there is no alternative.”

“How hypocritical would it be for me to shop and be seen at the farmers market and then be wasteful and harmful to the environment when no one is looking?” says Garcia. “Kids are watching,” he says, “and future generations of chefs are watching.”

As recently as six years ago, he was a chef who would think nothing of ordering his white truffles from Alba via FedEx, just because he could. Listening to eco-activist chefs like Dan Barber and Rick Moonen made him shift gears. Now, he is fully committed to supporting local farmers through his buying power, and in other ways. Several times a year, he hosts the farmers who make him shine.

“We chefs get a lot of the credit for how good the food is,” says Garcia, “but it’s off the backs of the men and women farmers who have it so hard.”

He got a glimpse of exactly how hard when he created a vegetable garden at Olympic High, a continuation school for struggling teens in need of positive role models. Garcia was quickly humbled by the vagaries of weather.

“Some days I’d get to the garden after a hard rain and the peas were waterlogged. Other days the arugula was burnt by the sun,” says Garcia. “It was frustrating.”

And so were the kids—at first. They looked down their noses and kept on texting when he made mozzarella from scratch. But then he served it with some lettuce the students had grown, with fresh vinaigrette. “They couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.

 “They still tell me that was the best salad they ever had, and they keep asking me to make it again,” says Garcia. “And that feels really good.” —Pascale Le Draoulec

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Ray Garcia

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Chef at Fig in Santa Monica, Calif.

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Pascale Le Draoulec is a James Beard Award–winning author who has written about food and restaurants for more than 15 years.

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