As an executive chef, you know how to create dishes that taste great; yet managing the integrity, quality and personalities of the restaurant business can take much more than culinary talent.
For 31-year-old Ricardo Ortega, who balances executive chef responsibilities at two distinctively different restaurants – Ventana Grill in Pismo Beach and the iconic Avila Beach tradition of The Old Custom House – staying true to his vision and trusting his expertise to guide him is a proven formula for success.
Challenges Fusing Ortega’s own Mexican heritage into a coastal tequila theme. Appealing to the vision of restaurant investors. Inheriting chefs from prior operations.
Formula Dream without limitations, build a team with a vision, and then get diplomatic.
Perched on a coastal bluff, lagoon to the left, Pacific caverns to the right, Ventana Grill surrounds guests with stunning views, unforgettable sunsets and a swank setting for an eclectic, fresh and innovative dining experience.
With an atmosphere like Ventana Grill, the recipe for a successful re- launch seemed well crafted, but Ortega admits reinventing a brand and a menu was a tricky balancing act. Ortega doesn’t own the place, investors do, and so proving himself took time.
“With a lot of players, there were a lot of ideas about what the new restaurant should taste like; it was a tug of war. But I’ve had a history of success with menus and signature dishes,” Ortega shares adding that it was a diplomatic process, but ultimately the management recognized his track record. “They let me be free to style the menu my way and the combination is working really well.”
Ventana Grill is a coastal infusion, twisted with the trends of today and presented with bold, colorful plating. “The hard work isn’t necessarily in the cooking,” says Ortega. “The pride of the restaurant’s success is in the preparation. It’s the labor-of-love attitude our culinary teams have when preparing each dish that results in delicious meals that have a coastal theme and latin influence,” he says, but that, too, was a hurdle at the get-go.
When the restaurant prepared to reopen, managers brought Ortega in for a fresh approach, yet rehired a former chef.
“When you want to redirect your restaurant, you need to start with a clean slate because visions for how the kitchen should run and how dishes should be prepared are bound to clash. It was a hard decision, but we needed to work with a chef that understood and bought into our vision, so we rehired for the position,” Ortega says, pleased with the dedication of his crew and sous chef Jesus Martinez.
Opened nearly a year now, Ventana Grill uses sustainable seafood where they can and high-quality proteins to create menu items that merge with fresh salsas and tequila–infused flair; it’s a perfect pairing for this beachside restaurant that has made a proud name for itself with signature dishes like the succulent rib-eye drizzled in agave nectar.
At the center of the restaurant is Ortega’s foundation; fresh, homemade flour or corn tortillas. Guests can walk up to the grill and get warm, fresh tortillas to complement their meal. “It’s my way of blending my own culture into the tequila coastal theme,” Ortega says proudly.
No meal at Ventana Grill is quite complete without the enlivening kick that a perfectly crafted cocktail adds to the experience. The bar features an extensive selection of tequila – among the most varied on the Central Coast. If guests like, they can carry their love of tequila right through to dessert with Ortega’s XO Tiramisu made from Patron Tequila…a satisfying end to a coastal dining experience.
The Custom House 404 Front Street, Avila Beach
Sweeping with coastal history, Old Custom House is just steps from the sandy Avila Beach and is well rooted in tradition. Once the site of the Port of San luis’ U.S. Custom House, the restaurant’s location was a coastal landmark as a wharf stop, but when an oil spill in the late 90’s threatened the safety of the land, the entire area was evacuated and buildings destroyed.
Soon after the cleanup, a massive rebuild took place and the site became home to a larger, more expansive version of the historic Old Custom House. Growth isn’t always easy. That was especially true when fans, hungry for a taste of tradition, flooded the restaurant.
Challenges To organize kitchen flow in a newly expanded kitchen and create efficiencies. To respect traditional favorites while updating an age-old menu.
Formula lean on skills from days as a line cook to optimize kitchen work stations and increase food-to-floor speed. Rely on expertise of food suppliers and serve high-quality products that keep customers coming back.
The Old Custom House made a powerful name for itself with a breakfast menu that attracted crowds that would line up down the sidewalk just for a taste of homemade waffles and other favorites. Planning for those hungry customers, The Old Custom House rebuilt bigger and stronger. Ortega says the owners brought back the former kitchen staff, a crew accustomed to a much smaller operation. Over time, the vast kitchen and increased demand of a 350-seat restaurant added stress to the team.
“In former kitchens I was a line chef; I was fast and I was good. So, when they found themselves in trouble, I stepped in and took charge, organizing the kitchen to get the food out in a fashionable time,” Ortega recalls. In no time his know-how earned him the role of executive chef. But the key to his success is his crew and sous chef, Mario Hernandez. Their dedication to quality ingredients and preparation keep the flavor-forward menu fresh.
The menu still includes the old favorites traditionally served like Belgium waffles, Machaca, Coconut Prawns. But Ortega has since amended the menu to add a modern twist with dishes like fettuccini pesto pasta and expanded seafood options.
“We’ve added high-quality seafood, bringing in swordfish, halibut and salmon. We now carry six different steaks and broadened our breakfast menu,” Ortega says, citing that the key to success in altering a historic menu is to take it slow. “Don’t make drastic changes. People want to be able to come in and find their favorite or an alternative to it. And when those faithful customers ask about something no longer on the menu, we accommodate and fix it for them no matter what.”
He’s seen a trend in customer tastes. Those from the Valley want to come in during vacation months for the old favorites, but the locals are hungry for something new; Ortega is quick to please.
“Give the people what they want. It’s a pretty easy equation,” he says adding that he likes to buy local and provide the highest quality in his products but that it takes the talent of his trusted chefs to turn great ingredients in to great meals.
Relying on Jordano’s, Ortega says he appreciates that he can find regular brand names with Jordano’s instead of buying house- brand condiments that the big food powerhouses push on restaurants.
Pricing is a key component to success and having a partner to keep him aware is a huge benefit, Ortega says.
“Jordano’s works with us to keep our pricing fair over the years. For instance, my Jordano’s salesman indicated that shrimp was going to take a big hit with the increased demand driven by the oil spill in the gulf. We were able to do a big power buy and now have plenty with a locked-in price,” he says.
Ortega balances plenty – schedules, food guides, menu specials and the personalities of all his employees. The one key to success, he says,
is to make sure you get out of the kitchen frequently, “I’m spread pretty thin between restaurants, but I always take the time to be a customer in my restaurants. It’s really important to see what the customers are seeing.”