Meet Chef David Slay of Park Ave and il garage

Does the name Chef David Slay ring a bell for you? How about Park Ave? Constantly voted #1 restaurant in Orange County and in the top ten in OC through Zagat, the modestly located restaurant is a site for exquisite food, excellent environment, and dedicated commitment to quality ingredients. In fact, the chef and owner was recently named to the Orange County Hall of Fame for culinary arts through Orange Coast magazine, and it is well-deserved. We were intrigued, however, by what made the restaurant so special beyond just the food, and the answer resided in the simple back-to-basics method of sustaining one's self via a garden. The iconic restaurant celebrates its 10th anniversary this year (look out for a soirée involving food and wine), and its garden located on the five-acre property has been maintained for nine of those years. Getting more involved in gardening ourselves, this kitchen-providing masterpiece of a layout was of high interest so we just had to learn more.

To start, people might be curious as to why such a highly acclaimed restaurant in Orange County is in such a strange location. Stanton is not a city well-known for food or any fine dining after all. Chef David elucidated for us however on how Park Ave came to be. The restaurant sits on a property that used to be his business partner's family's dairy farm - the Ronnenberg Dairy - and Highway 39 Chicken Pie Shop. Once the area was reopened, it took two years of construction to change the blighted property to what it is today. Now Park Ave is a destination spot with a loyal clientele (Chef tells me there are more than 16,000 subscribers in their email database). There is nothing else around the property so those coming over are strictly there for their meal, and though Stanton is a small city, it happens to be a great central meeting spot for guests who are, say, coming from Hollywood and meeting friends in Newport Beach.

As for Chef David, he travels from Manhattan Beach daily to his beloved restaurant. A third generation chef and restaurateur, he hails from St. Louis but moved to southern California 25 years ago, opening a restaurant in Beverly Hills called La Veranda (run for 10 years) and operating a catering business. Self-taught, he dedicated himself to pursuing opportunities to train so he learned in Paris and Versailles with French chefs. This experience of working without the romanticization of being in a restaurant that some may feel today ensured that he was working as hard as possible and kept abreast of how the best restaurants were run.
"It set a definite tone for not the style but the substance of what I do, how I operate a restaurant, and the details of making a great restaurant." - Chef David Slay on training
The restaurant itself is fashioned in the nostalgic theme of old Hollywood though the front and back are distinctly different styles (soon to change). Though the back area is perfect for a lunch or brightly themed events, overflow during dinner service puts guests in this room that is not best suited for intimate evenings.

What's your favorite thing to cook?
"Even though we're cooking steaks and chops here, I like fish. It's seasonal, and there are so many different changes of the year for what's fresh and available. You'll always be able to get a NY steak. You'll always be able to get a filet mignon but you can't always get John Dory. You always can't get Alaskan halibut. A big part of my cooking is simplicity - taking a nice piece of fish and working with really good olive oil, fresh herbs, a citrus of some sort, and simply grilling or roasting with leeks from the garden or fresh fennel."
Are other restaurants doing what you're doing (growing a garden)?

"It's hard to do if you don't have the property. So, some are doing it on the walls, some doing wine barrels, some pots of herbs and stuff. It's costly. It's much cheaper to buy it. It takes a lot of money to create it, maintain it, and plant. Someone needs to be here six days a week. It's a huge commitment. We're looking to double the size of ours though, growing more tomatoes, lettuces, and specialty produce. We don't want it to just look good. It needs to produce."

While we walked around the garden, we spotted an impressive multitude of vegetables and fruits from Swiss chard to tatsoi to fennel to kumquats and more. What begun on just raised beds has expanded into including another two feet underground of soil. Despite being on the same land as a previous dairy farm, the soil was lacking proper nutrients and took several years to finally be hospitable and fruitful to the plants. The vegetables themselves are driven by what's in season, and the decision on what to plant varies, depending on what Chef David wants to cook.

American style in cuisine, Park Ave does not change their menu frequently but it does strive for as much garden produce as possible. As for il garage, the beautiful, intimate restaurant bordering the garden has a daily changing menu that is based on the garden produce. With the ability to seat approximately 70 people, it is the perfect spot for dinner and special events (often used for corporate luncheons too). The food there is strictly Italian so the cooks in the main Park Ave kitchen must juggle to provide quality American-style steaks and chops for the larger restaurant along with an ever-changing, seasonal Italian menu. According to Chef David, a quick 42-second walk from kitchen to il garage will bring the food to guests still hot.

Are you producing enough for the restaurant?
"No. What we grow, we put on the menu daily at il garage and for Park Ave, we provide for ourselves all lettuces, all tomatoes, all things in season, and all herbs which ends up only being about 20% of what we use. We are pretty busy so it's hard to do all of that from such a small garden but a lot is in seed right now!"

Throughout this year, we had heard that plenty of restaurants were feeling the crunch for limes and potentially other ingredients. Chef David noted that having his own garden has really helped against such market price swings. In fact, last year when tomatillo prices went through the roof, Park Ave's own bed of proliferating tomatillos lasted them all summer.

In addition to the produce grown in the garden, Chef David's business partner also has a farm in Temecula where olive oils are made. On-site, the restaurant has its own resident bees which we were surprised were a part of the property. These are used for the honey they also make for Park Ave.

While guests can happily stroll through the garden as part of the il garage constituency or with Park Ave, there are also groups of students that may visit the garden to learn more about farming and how restaurants operate. Apparently these walks become very educational tours for people as many do not know where food comes from in nature (is there a strawberry tree perhaps?). Not only does the garden allow for the restaurants to serve their own, controlled ingredients but it also is a healthful choice. Chef David stated that there is a strongly-educated young demographic of students interested in health and food who are curious about his restaurants' approach to seasonal menus and just using only as much as needed. Part of the trend of this educated subculture is an increased focus on other lifestyle habits such as farming and visiting farmers' markets.

"I'm kind of old school - I don't have any tattoos, I've got all my hair still, and I have no earrings. I guess I missed a step along the way (laughs)."
We started talking about not the trend of restaurant gardens which, as aforementioned, can be difficult for a lot of people but the resurgence of farming and culinary arts, particularly among young chefs who also happen to be adorned and dressed of an ilk not too long ago looked down upon. Chef David knows where some of their mannerisms comes from though; when he had just finished his own training in France and came back, it was hard to look "outside the walls" and see that trends were changing in food. Like many "greener" chefs, it was hard to care about what anyone else thought or what they were doing. However, his business sense did kick in (having grown up in the industry with his father and grandfather), and his five-year plan mindset led to his success today.
"At that age, you just have blinders on. One of the strengths I did have throughout my career is to not go that way. After a while, you start to realize that it is a business."
He commends that "there's a lot of great talent though" and is glad for the interest. Those dedicated to the art have made a big impact where they can, and the field has never been bigger or given as much attention. Small businesses are cropping up. Farmers' markets are becoming popular. "Artisan" has been emblazoning brand labels and menu descriptions as well as common buzzwords such as "heirloom," "heritage," and "handcrafted." Curious, we had to know how this movement in the past few years has affected his own craft.

How are you reacting to the trends?
"I have good strengths and keep up with what's going on. I travel. I read. I eat out. I stay fresh and change our menu constantly. We have a staple of about 50% on the menu and 50% we change frequently. I think that's been a big part of our success. We've had nine consecutive years of growth, and that's tough to do in the restaurant business. 2008 was a tough year but we've gone over every year over the previous. I just keep up with it. I have two friends who have done the same menu since they've opened. They wonder why they aren't busy on a Saturday night but it's because they just won't change."

I like that you actually go eat out at other restaurants.
"It's important. However the host addressed me, whether it's positive or negative, I take back here and address our staff about what happened when I walked into a restaurant. You're our first impression. You're our last impression. What you do at that front door sets the tone for the entire evening. If you treat them wrong, it's going to have an effect on the whole evening. They're automatically going to be ticked off at the server. The expectations of the food is going to go down. The front door is the first and last impression. Sounds hokey, sounds silly, but that's what I believe."
Park Ave stays fairly booked every night and is strongly a "reservations recommended" place but once you find your way inside, the staff is there to ensure you have a great experience. Chef David's outlook is to be appreciative of every person who walks in through the door because they are making the active choice and action to dine at the restaurant(s). As he points out, "you have a lot of choices and we're grateful that you're spending it with us."

Where is the Orange County food scene going?
"It is totally different from when I opened 10 years ago. It now competes with LA, I believe. The only thing about it is that it's too spread out with just pockets of good restaurants. You could go to Manhattan Beach and visit five or six restaurants with no problem but it's hard to do that around here without going to Laguna Beach or chain types. The SOCO area is doing well too though."
Any favorite restaurants you like to visit? 
"I like ARC. Noah's a really gifted chef and he's a character. That's what the business needs - he's such a great guy and really talented. He's entertaining. He's got stories. He's a showman! I don't eat out a lot in Orange County though because I live so far away but a couple new places around my house are really Fishing with Dynamite."
A seasoned restaurateur, Chef David easily showed us the importance of what the restaurants do; the accolades that Park Ave has received is a certain testament to what a commitment to fresh, true ingredients and passion produce. Our thanks go out to the chef for his time with us and showing us the impressive garden. We are excited for the new plans for his property which are slated to be complete by the winter season - expanded garden, a fish bar, a pizza joint, and even a marketplace. If you are looking to visit Park Ave, they are located at 11200 Beach Blvd, Stanton, CA 90680.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.