Carmel-by-the-Sea has been known as an artists’ colony and a golfers’ paradise for decades. But the oceanside California enclave is gaining a reputation for serious cuisine, thanks to chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine, the Restaurant at L’Auberge Carmel. The up-and-coming chef is generating buzz for his inventive and focused seafood cuisine at the upscale restaurant.
The Pennsylvania native had an early start in the kitchen; he was making classic French desserts like crème brûlée and soufflés for dinner guests while he was still in kindergarten. He later attended the Western Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu) in Portland, Oregon, then worked for Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant in Chicago for five years and helped open The Elysian (now the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Waldorf Astoria Chicago) before making his way out to Carmel.
In his previous life, Cogley spent two years traveling the world as a professional ice skater with Disney on Ice (he admits that he was one of the princes — but he won’t say which one). The talented chef recently spoke to Forbes Travel Guide before jetting off to the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen earlier this summer, where his poulard, liver, seaweed vinegar and coastal herbs creation drew a lot of praise.
How did you go from ice skater to professional chef?
It was a good way to travel. When I traveled the road skating, I had the Relais & Châteaux book. If I was in Berlin, I would look up a property there. I would go to that property and sit there in the lobby and read or take my cookbooks and study.
On the tasting menu at Aubergine, you pair pickled umeboshi plum with Miyazaki beef. Why do you think there is such a fascination with Asian flavors for many chefs today, including yourself?
It starts with the whole Japanese respect for product. There are a lot of things in Japan that aren’t anywhere else in the world, seafood-wise. It captures more than other cuisines. [Umeboshi plum] is a flavor bomb, and the smallest amount can take things to different levels. You try to use worldly flavors, but we’re not trying to put things together because it’s trendy.
What did you learn from your experience of working for Charlie Trotter in Chicago?
It was still a really strong kitchen when I was there. Chefs Matthias Merges (Yusho), Bill Kim (Urban Belly) and Giuseppe Tentori (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster) were all in the kitchen. Chef Trotter was more about the whole experience: Are the alleys clean? And the bathrooms? The experience starts at the curb. That stuff always stuck with me. It’s every minute; it’s not just one dinner or one dish. And the relentless pursuit of perfection. You could never be good enough.
The dining experience at Aubergine is limited to tasting menus, and the descriptions on the menu are quite brief. Who is your ideal diner?
People who have heard about what we’re doing and know where we are in the world, and trust us to let us cook for them and show off the amazing product that’s around here.
What are some of the local ingredients you’re excited about right now?
Local red abalone, Carmel Valley olive oil, local crab and king salmon from Moss Landing. We also just started getting Monterey squid again.
Where you get all the seaweed you feature in dishes?
One of the first calls I made was to find out what seaweed was around. The abalone farm had nine different seaweeds and it sent samples — it was awesome. Now we know more, so we picked seaweed at 6:30 a.m. this morning, sea lettuce and mermaid’s-hair. We take all the mermaid’s-hair, or ogo, and put it in a seaweed vinegar so it turns red, like Ariel’s hair in The Little Mermaid.
Is that a clue to which prince you played during your Disney on Ice days?
Photos Courtesy of Patrick Tregenza