Chef Charles Imbelli brings a wealth of experience in kitchens from coast to coast to the new Harvest Restaurant and Bar at The Ranch in Laguna Beach.

Having started cooking professionally at age 14, we talked with the chef to learn how his evolving cooking style led him to Harvest and his vision for the restaurant’s new diners. 

Chef Charles Imbelli, Harvest in Laguna Beach

Chef Charles Imbelli, Harvest in Laguna Beach

As told to Virginia Fay

You began your cooking career with an apprenticeship at age 14—what drew you to cooking at such a young age? 

As long as I can remember, I wanted to be in the kitchen, helping my mother prepare food. I loved everything about it—the smells, the sounds, the books, the equipment. So when I was 14, my father convinced a local Italian deli to let me work for a summer making fresh mozzarella cheese, and when I was 17 or 18 and just finishing high school, I went back to the same deli and got a job, before moving to Washington State and continuing to work in kitchens.

How has your work testing recipes with renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson at New York’s Red Rooster affected your recipe creation today? 

I think that kind of focused work has been the most helpful as far as being able to come up with recipes that are easy to follow for even the most inexperienced cooks. Because I spent so much time testing and retesting, I’ve gotten to the point where I can conceptualize a dish, write it down on paper, give it to a cook, and have the final dish need only minor adjustments to be exactly where it needs to be. 

What drew you to the Harvest concept?

The property really speaks for itself. From the moment I pulled up the drive and saw the sun coming up over the canyon, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.

With Harvest’s recent opening, what impression do you hope to create? 

I want people to create sense memories with the dishes we’re putting on our menu—to be filled with a strong sense of place, and to always associate the flavors of our menu items with the place itself.

What were your top considerations when creating Harvest’s menu? 

The food here has to be fairly approachable—it is a ranch, after all, but at the same time our dishes still need to feel fresh and exciting. I’m calling the style of cuisine ‘California Comfort,’ and I think that is very apparent when you’re dining here. 

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your cooking career? 

That the impossible only seems that way until you actually do it.

What is your personal favorite item on the menu? 

Right now it’s the Harvest Burger. It’s a dish that I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to feature, because it really straddles that line between being familiar and surprising. The flavors all make a lot of sense together, but the hot pink ‘special sauce’ really shocks—until you taste it.

How does the Harvest Garden influence the menu? 

Currently we are in the process of replanting the garden for the season, and when it grows into the point of really producing, I plan on creating specials based on whatever is at its peak of freshness. Eventually, we’re going to have a garden salad on the menu that is sourced exclusively from our little plot. 

Who or what inspires you most when cooking? 

My cooking is the sum of everyone I’ve ever worked for, but my friend and mentor Ken Addington, who was the chef at Five Leaves in New York, and consulted on the Ace Hotel menus in both L.A. and Palm Springs, has been a huge influence over the last few years. David Waltuck taught me how to take things to the very edge of flavorful, to the point where it’s almost too seasoned, and then pull back just enough. Marcus taught me about a panoply of African spices, and what makes a good pickle. Danny Meyer taught me the value of hospitality above all else. Mostly I like to start with a single ingredient and then brainstorm flavor pairings in a stream of consciousness, until the final dish just feels right.

What is your favorite meal to cook when you’re off-duty? 

The dish that takes me right back to my parents’ kitchen in the Bronx—penne with a simple red sauce, loads of Parmesan, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil.

How has your experience in the restaurant industry differed from NY to CA? 

The biggest difference is that the seasons blend into each other a lot more here, so seasonal cooking is much more subtle. New York food is all about building layers of flavor and, at least in the wintertime, about braising everything. California tends to be a subtler cuisine, more ingredient driven, so I’ve had to adjust to that a bit.

What ingredient can you not live without?

Butter.

 

HARVEST  31106 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, CA 92651 ~ 949.499.2271|  TheRanchLB.com