Montage Laguna Beach
30801 South Coast Highway | www.montagehotels.com/lagunabeach
hef Craig Strong is one of the most decorated culinary figures to grace Orange County and is a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. And while he consistently guides his flagship restaurant, Studio, to its five-star rating at Montage Laguna Beach, there is a hidden meal Chef oversees that is just as special. Just like Studio, the quality is sublime, the food delicious and experience unlike anything else available. There are no reservations though, as the only way to get a seat at this table is to follow your nose. The rule is that if you can smell the food, and you bring a bottle of wine, you can come. Of course, finding the venue is up to you, but if you do, you’ll be in for one of the most memorable meals of your life. Chef Strong is known for curating the experience diners undergo at Studio, and the love, skill and experience at his Sunday cookouts are no different.
Arriving at Chef’s home, the mood is relaxed and far removed from the bustling PCH, with the ocean view readily available for the taking. The air is scented by the various citrus trees in the garden, with the delicate pacific breeze rustling the fruits just so. The breeze carries with it, verses from Édith Piaf’s rendition of “La Mer” from the house speakers. Passing his daughter’s princess castle, Chef’s wife Lissa greets arriving guests with hugs and a glass of Rosé Brut. Remi, the family dog (named for the famous rat-chef from the film, “Ratatouille”) comes running from the neighbor’s yard to greet new friends. The Strong family has a doggie door in their neighbor’s fence that lets Remi move seamlessly between the two homes — it’s a perfect metaphor for the day, as we are excited for the opportunity to experience Chef’s cooking beyond the grounds of Montage.
The garden regularly feeds guests at the cookout and is meticulously curated by the Strongs, “It doesn’t matter what I’m making, it’s all the same thought. I care, and I want to do my best,” Chef explains when asked about the menu. The meal today consists of various grilled vegetables, salad, ribs, and chicken. The ribs were marinated the day before, then grilled with chef’s hot sauce, and, simply put — are immaculate. The vegetables are carefully blanched, so they don’t lose color and maintain their integrity. As I observe Chef char the vegetables, I’m sure somewhere in the world Francis Mallmann is nodding in approval. “That’s how chefs show love, with food,” Chef states. “The meal we’ll have tonight is the same my team at Studio is having for family meal. I prepped it yesterday,” he finishes proudly.
That is what food is for Strong; it is family. It’s love. It doesn’t matter if he has his tweezers at Studio, or tongs barbecuing for friends and neighbors, it is all about hospitality. “I put my heart into these ribs as much as I do any dish at work. It is the same to me. It’s about love,” Strong declares, as he moves from seat to seat, serving the guests. From running the grill to plating and offering seconds, Chef Strong is the consummate hospitality professional, and it is clear how happy this makes him. He knows that what he does at Studio is important, but there is nothing like cooking for people at home, surrounded by his family and friends. There is no pressure, just laughter, great food and amazing wine. “You know, it’s the same for me here as the restaurant. There, that’s my work family, and then I come home to my ‘family’ family, but the drive is the same no matter who I cook for. You can’t turn it on or off,” he finishes.
The occasional jingle of Remi’s collar permeates the breeze as he runs from guest to guest with hopes for a taste, occasionally running next door for a moment in between courses. Chef’s smile is infectious, and the entire experience is full of wonder and surprise.
Strong’s ability to cook is well known, but it’s his ability to connect the ingredients with whoever is at his table that is truly inspiring. His passion, no doubt, translates into his culinary endeavors. Even the garnishes for the dishes, pulled directly from the garden by chef and his daughter, are collected with laughter and smiles, and the occasional flying kumquat from his daughter. This is the man responsible for making Studio one of the best restaurants in the western United States and for a good reason; his effort and skill are flawless. The tastes of fresh vegetables pulled from the garden are sublime, the flavors the ribs have absorbed are divine, and the chocolate cake for dessert is beautifully rich, made with chocolate by Chef Thomas Keller himself.
Here, at this home, sitting next to the garden, the world drifts away. The passion and skills that make Studio an amazing restaurant are clear to see now, tethered directly to the meal on this Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere is impeccable. This cookout is undoubtedly an extension of who Chef is, what he values, and the love he and his family have for life. The food takes center stage, flanked by laughter and moments of what seems like never-ending happiness as guests watch Remi run around. Chef says he can’t wait to do this again, reminding everyone of the golden rule, “The rule is, if you can smell the barbecue then that means you are invited,” Strong says, smiling.
It is a magical experience, and if you want to understand how Chef Strong can create moments like this, then it really is a requirement to go to Studio and experience his food for yourself. The love, dedication, skills and experience all work together in some orchestral way that only fully takes your breath away when you taste it for yourself.
Chocolate Cake Recipe
Makes 12-16 in Ramekins
- 9 eggs
- 300g sugar
- 250g butter
- 250g Thomas Keller chocolate
- 150g All-purpose flour
Whip eggs and sugar together. Melt butter and chocolate together in double boiler. Sacrifice about 1/3rd of your egg mixture into the chocolate and butter mixture. Use a sifter for the flour. Bake 12-15 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
For more behind-scenes-action, follow Chef Strong on Instagram, @chefcraigstrong.