In a t-shirt and jeans, Tim Byres shuffles through the dirt in the dusty, windy San Juan Capistrano at the Ecology Center, a 28-acre organic farm. He is dressed more like a field worker than a cook. Byres roams rows of crops and gives a tour of ripening pumpkins, grapes, peppers, and more. He offers a fresh, crispy cucumber that tastes like artesian water and tells of the night he and his loyal friend Mikey, a good-natured dog with a funny face, laid between the strawberries. Byres likes to nibble on the fruit when no one is around.
Stretched out in a strawberry field, the winner of a James Beard cookbook award and Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef (2012) is not waiting for you. Byres, a native of California and born in Walnut Creek, made a name for himself as a barbecue expert in Texas and ran two restaurants with the name of his cookbook: Smoke in West Dallas, then Smoke in Plano (both closed). He then worked for a time as managing director of the Stephan Pyles Flora Street CafÃ© in the Dallas Arts District.
He cooks in the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and in the US Embassy in Brussels. During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure, he was also the culinary ambassador for the American Chef Corp, a partnership with the James Beard Foundation. He represented the USA in foreign countries, such as Mongolia, where he rode on horseback as a guest of honor at an outdoor festival and feasted on a slaughtered goat in front of all the guests. He parted his eyes, as is the custom.
“Suddenly everyone relaxed,” said Byres of the experience. âThey say, ‘Okay, this guy’s cool. He’s on board. ‘ I didn’t get squeamish. I didn’t get weird. And for over 20 minutes everyone was there in this (state of) vulnerability, a kind of openness, there was something so relaxed. And then you didn’t need your translators becauseâ¦ we were just people having a fun experience together. It changed my perspective. And I wanted to come back and deal more with event gastronomy. “
That’s what he does while living a hot summer in a 24-foot Airstream trailer in San Juan Capistrano. He cooks dinner for 40 at The Ecology Center twice a week to explore for himself and show guests what responsible, farm-to-table eating is all about in a series called Hearth. (He actually built an outdoor fire pit as well.)
The dinners are part of the centre’s mission to “raise awareness and increase the resources needed to continue building a regenerative food culture that sustains both people and the planet”. But above all, Byres is here to experience the adventure: for a cook who comes from the farm to the table, this is the time when he takes off the white linen sets of the fine cuisine and the fresh produce that is served lively Flavors gives in this rustic setting.
The way he explains it sounds refreshing and inviting.
âIt’s a real opportunity to eat in a common space and have something that is really fun. It promotes this spirit of hospitality. Hopefully it’s like a memento as opposed to a fancy thing, âhe says. âIf you can have fun, maybe meet people you don’t know, it’ll be really cool. … And then the farm has its own story to tell. So there is all the education and stuff here that will be part of it. “
So let’s dig in the dirt with him and see what awaits the guests at these dinners.
The influences: Byres is inspired by the backyard story of our backyard. “I look around all the time, there is so much history here,” he said. “Dana Point Harbor, the mission, the indigenous people we were in contact with and who give blessings and things like that, the cowboy story of Rancho California, the Spaniards, the Mexican Baja desert trade …” And don’t forget the barbecue. With the help of the local pit foreman Daniel Castillo from Heritage Barbecue, he has already served a barbacoa banquet for the farm workers.
The ingredients: They’re not limited to what’s grown on the farm and are filled with other items, such as seafood from the Dory Fishing Fleet in Newport and a treasure trove of dried chilies, spices, and other goodies that Byres brought back, including an earthy, grainy Mexican chocolate from Oaxaca. He keeps them all in a brightly colored bus that serves as a pantry.
The dishes: New menus are put together for every dinner. A sample menu featured appetizers with lettuce and herbs and a relish tray with radishes, weeds and âfermentsâ as well as artichoke with rocket aioli and charred carrots with mole. Among the larger dishes there was a rabbit clay pot with mushrooms, sherry, and fava beans; Wheatberry Salad with Spring Peas, Sprouting Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Amaranth; and Blackgill Rockfish with green garlic, leek, olive oil, and gremolata. At the end there was strawberries, honey, jam and tea.
The details: Tickets for the upcoming dinners, which will take place on August 13, 14, 20, 21, 27 and 28 from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., are on sale. Price is $ 250 per person and includes dinner, wine, paired cocktails, tax, and tip. Each event includes a guided tour of the property, which offers experiences such as brick-making, live music, and art exhibits. Dinner will be held outdoors at the Ecology Center, 32701 Alipaz St., San Juan Capistrano. Call 949-443-4223 or go to theecologycenter.org.