Interview with Post Ranch Inn's Executive Chef John Cox

Interview with Post Ranch Inn's Executive Chef John Cox
You describe Sierra Mar's menu as an "unconventional fine dining experience" -- please tell us what this means?

There is a certain level of predictability in most "fine dining" restaurants. Whether you are dining in Paris, Sydney or New York, you are likely to find a very similar set of ingredients: truffles, caviar, foie gras, wagyu beef and other "haute" ingredients assembled in familiar ways. The Post Ranch has a highly discerning group of international guests; when they dine at Sierra Mar I want them to experience something they can't find back home. I don't believe in formality or pretention – there isn't a set formula for an incredible meal – it is about providing each guest with an experience that engages all of their senses and speaks to them on a personal level.

What is the atmosphere and experience at Sierra Mar?

It is almost impossible to fully describe the atmosphere at Sierra Mar. To start the restaurant is built into a cliff 1500 feet above the Pacific and has a living roof of wild herbs and flowers. Even as you step indoors it feels like you are outside: there are floor-to-ceiling windows and stone floors with wood and iron accents. The dining room is built in levels so each table has a clear view of the ocean. You can see miles of rugged coastline, the mountains rising in the south and dark patches of kelp forest just offshore.

Where do you get your inspiration for your creations?

Here in Big Sur, inspiration is not hard to find; it surrounds me every day. Even something as simple as my morning walk to work gets me inspired: red crayfish being removed from traps in the lagoon, bright yellow quince reflecting in the water from a low-hanging branch, the smell of lemon verbena and rose geranium, the crunch of dry meadow grasses below my feet, a burnt oak stump beside the trail. Some things, like perfect ingredients, provide direct inspiration, while others evoke something less tangible.

Do you use any unusual cooking techniques?

There is a cheese that I slow roast with dried grasses from the meadow – the cheese already has a pastoral quality – but roasting it inside the rind over smoldering hay creates a melted interior that is smooth and perfumed with the sweet aroma of hay and a subtle smokiness.

I like to use unique brines and marinades for many of my meat dishes. A few of my favorites are the Berkshire pork tenderloins brined overnight with juice from the apples in our garden (these are two huge trees that Billy Post planted eighty years ago and are similar to a giant Gravenstein). We also prepare elk that I marinate with toasted dandelion root and chicory and a pheasant marinated with buttermilk and fresh bay laurel leaves.

We use planks of fallen oak to roast fresh octopus and then send it into the dining room on the smoldering log. I smoke blades of giant kelp over driftwood and use it to wrap local red abalone for two days, then shave the abalone paper thin. The kelp is high in naturally occurring glutamates and sea salt, which essentially cure the abalone.

What are some of the best local ingredients that you use?

Big Sur has an abundance of amazing ingredients. Because of the mild climate, we are lucky to have wild foraged greens almost year round: mustard, radish, miner's lettuce, fennel, watercress and many varieties of sage. Recently, I have been working with several caviars that are either locally sourced or indigenous to this area. I cure and smoke locally caught black cod roe and make a spread that tastes like an incredibly decadent smoked salmon. I also just got some Komochi Kombu- and while it sounds exotic, it is actually an ingredient that is found right here on the Central Coast. It is herring roe that have been laid on blades of giant kelp. This is a delicacy in Japan and is often enjoyed in celebration of the new year, and almost all of the commercial harvest is exported. I serve a tasting of local caviars as part of my Taste of Big Sur menu. We incorporate local red abalone and a number of seaweeds onto our menus. I work with a ranch in Carmel Valley that raises several types of heritage pigs. My favorite is a cross between a Berkshire and local wild boar. The meat is very flavorful but also well-marbled and tender.

What do you see as the latest trends in high end restaurants?

There are tons of trends right now. My favorite is the open sharing of information. Many chefs and restaurants share their ideas and menus through blogs and other forms of social media. The idea of having a secret recipe has really fallen out of fashion. I will frequently post new dishes and thoughts on my blog:

What's new at Sierra Mar?

We just unveiled a new three-course lunch menu that I am really excited about. In mid-November we will start our Taste of Big Sur tasting menu, which will be an eight-course tasting menu inspired by the Post Ranch. It will include the rarest of local ingredients and be an experience that can only be had at Sierra Mar.

About: Post Ranch Inn