From suitcase to Bernardus, Cal Stamenov talks Fungi

Posted by John Foley

Bernardus Lodge & Spa Executive Chef Call Stamenov

FD: What dish are you most well known for?
CS: Selecting one dish is challenging as the menus change often. As far as ingredients, I would think I am best known for cooking with fungi; for example my Portobello mushroom soup, wild mushroom risotto and black truffle martinis. After our first few rains, the foraging season begins and mushrooms will sprout up along the Big Sur coast. (A day of mushroom hunting through Big Sur is my ultimate winter excursion.Back into the hills of Big Sur – in the forest are patches of perfect, delicious chanterelle mushrooms just waiting to be discovered.) We work with a small company that hand selects black truffles in France and while truffles in Italy for us. Fungi are truly edibles from the wild.

FD: Which Chef is your number 1 influence?
CS: Ducasse became my mentor at a formative period of my career. After graduation in 1983, I entered the suitcase phase of my life, and for the next 10 years I hopped around the world. At one point during that period I worked in Europe for two years without pay, just for the opportunity to learn from the best chefs. I spent my first four years after graduation doing pastry exclusively, understanding that to be a great chef I’d need to master every aspect of haute cuisine. I worked in New York and Switzerland, then landed the top position of pastry chef at Masa’s, at the time the most exciting, “hot” restaurant on the West Coast. Still hoping to work in New York’s finest kitchens, I moved east again to be pastry chef for Jean Louis Palladin at the Watergate. Here, I literally lived out of my suitcase for six months, moving nightly from room to room, depending on guest occupancy in the hotel. Jean Louis understood my desire to branch out beyond pastry, and he proved to be the French connection I needed, paving the way for my entrée to the three star kitchens of Europe. I went first to Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco where I worked for a year and a half. It was here that I learned the exacting techniques at the foundation of great cuisine, as well as the value of impeccable, quality ingredients- philosophies that are at the heart of my cooking today.

FD: What inspires you to continue to innovate in the Kitchen?
CS: The gardens are an endless source of seasonal inspiration for me. Overseeing a restaurant requires devising recipes and menus on a daily basis. This is my favorite part of the job, because the opportunities for creativity are limitless. The process goes something like this: If a forager unexpectedly arrives at the kitchen door with a basket of fresh-picked mushrooms, these might suggest a salad for that evening’s menu. For me, the ingredients are the catalysts, generating ideas that then evolve into dishes. All day long while I’m busy with meetings or budgets, I’ll be thinking about that windfall of mushrooms, devising a salad in my mind. I’ll think first of what’s in the garden, remembering the bed of mache that is ripe for picking. The first favas of the season also looked promising. They’re very young and will be a pain to peel, but how tender and sweet they’ll be. Later in the day, the idea of adding bacon might pop into my head, its smoky crispness offering a good contrast to the silken texture of the mushrooms. Around 5 p.m. I’ll sit down with my team and we’ll talk about my concept. I like a collaborative forum, involving everyone in the creative process. I’ll make a few trial salads, then we’ll all taste and judge. The bacon seems out of place to me, so we try a bacon vinaigrette instead. Much better- more subtle and balanced- so the salad goes on the menu that evening. Over the next few weeks I’ll keep refining it, maybe adding a dash more sherry vinegar or a sprinkling of tarragon, until it’s absolutely perfect. If the salad is popular, we’ll keep it on the menu and create variations for each season, using different mushrooms and substituting other herbs and vegetables for the favas. And so it goes.

FD: What are your culinary goals for the next few years?
CS: Cooking is a personal art form, and mine, naturally enough, reflects the food I like to eat. My tastes are evolving and I like lots of vegetables, so these show up in all my dishes, very often as juice-based sauces, where their vibrant colors and fresh flavors offer a lighter, healthier option than cream-based reductions. Guests are now embracing the menus where vegetables play a key role – and my goal is to continue advancing vegetables onto center stage.

FD: What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t cooking?
CS: You will find me in my backyard. I have become a bit of a collector over the years and now have about 60 rare fruit trees including Australian finger limes, yuzu and heirloom stone fruit. Echoing my own childhood past, my children are learning to garden, having discovered both the satisfaction of watching something grow and the thrill of harvesting what they planted. I love showing my girls how to plant seeds, pick basil or make compost. I’m also teaching them the value of organic farming and instilling a respect for the land. We have a few lazy farm cats, a dozen chickens and about 200,000 honey bees. This is my first year harvesting honey from the bees and I am constantly educating myself on backyard beekeeping.