Ryan Shelton arrived at Le Cigare Volant this spring. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
SCW: What was the biggest challenge in moving your culinary work from the Bay Area to Santa Cruz?
RS: Chefs generally carry a queue in their heads of the next few new ideas they’d like to see, and everything I was dreaming of had no place on the Le Cigare Volant menu. It took a couple trips over the hill and a few conversations with Randall Grahm before I was finally able to switch my mind over and start coming up with new, applicable dishes. At Baumé, I was last working on teeny-tiny 12-course French cuisine tasting menu dishes with a strong Asian influence and a focus on technique and luxury. Turning away from that Asian influence was probably my hardest challenge. Favoring quality of ingredients and creativity over technique and luxury was hardly a challenge at all for me. It has been a pleasure.
What are the upsides and downsides of working in an exhibition kitchen?
I love working in an exhibition kitchen. I love the infrequent conversations which drift my way. Being able to catch things like “Oh, my gosh, this is so good!” is really rewarding because you know it’s genuine. I can gauge for myself when tables are ready to have their next courses sent and how busy we are. It is true that we have to be more careful that we appear to be working as clean as we are, but I don’t consider that a downside.
Where do your menu ideas come from? Farmers markets? Contact with other chefs? Travel?
My menu ideas come first from the season. I’ve been writing dishes for around five years now and I know what produce to expect and when. If it’s July, for example, I know that the right melon is right on the horizon. Going to the farmers market is secondary for me, because at that point, I know it should be available and it’s just a matter of checking for the source I most trust to deliver a consistent, high-quality product. Once I know what type of dish to develop, and what ingredient to feature, I begin tracing my food memories of that ingredient and when I’ve most enjoyed it with what other flavors.
What's the hardest part about creating dinners for Le Cigare Volant's clientele?
The most surprising challenge for me has been how well local Santa Cruz diners know where their food comes from. It’s an inspiration and I wish people were as knowledgeable everywhere. They are sharper about local sources than I am, which sets the bar quite high for me. The benefit of this is that the response to proper sourcing is always immediate and favorable.
How does the day begin?
I almost always begin my day by cooking. There’s always something that needs to be thrown on the stove, and I try to get as much going early as I can. After I feel I’ve made enough of a dent in what needs to be done, I meet with each of my staff individually, and we discuss how they will approach the dishes that they are responsible for that day or that week. It usually takes us a week of practice with a new dish before we are confident that it can be served consistently. This is a constant and ongoing process and I try and keep my team constantly engaged and involved.
If you weren't cooking, what would you be doing?
I would probably be fairly well-suited to teaching cooking, if that counts. In college, I used to want to be a composer. It probably wouldn’t suit me very well anymore. I would probably have more fun and success in something like home design or remodeling.