From Wheelbarrow Smoked Salmon in Oregon to Black Tortilla Tacos in Mexico
By Liese Gardner
“You could call this article ‘How to turn the world of catering into a Bohemian lifestyle.’” As he says this, Andrew Spurgin, a caterer and event architect who turned his world of catering and design into a Bohemian lifestyle, laughs. But it’s no joke.
In a world where many people believe careers should go in a straight path, there are many more who believe in the concept of pivoting – simply changing direction slightly in order to see a different road and take it. To these people, living the life on the road less traveled isn’t always easy, but it’s always exciting and it always leads to growth of character, experience and new business. Spurgin’s road less traveled has led him to Park City (in this case his friend chef Chad White invited him along), Baja, Oregon, Seattle, Boston, and a host of other locations. The map is still being drawn up for new destinations.
The evolution has happened over time. Spurgin has always been a chef who loves to illustrate his dishes, creating miniature blueprints for exquisite plates of food. The actual finished product faithfully follows the drawing in a way that reminds one of Picasso’s line drawings.
“I do like these structured pieces,” he says. “And like Coco Chanel, I always take off one element from the plate before creating the final piece. But actually, I think that a lot of the food I do is more like my lifestyle – simple.” Drawing everything also leaves nothing left for interpretation, so I’ve found it’s the perfect industry tool for not only your clients, but those that work with you too.”
Coco Chanel. Picasso. Perhaps those allusions are a reach when describing food, but then again, perhaps not; especially when you consider that culinary artistry has risen as its own design form and as we’ve become more enamored of food as entertainment. Yet, any great chef wouldn’t want to be classified under any one art form.
“The way I have set up my firm is fluid; like water we can take on any shape, or form, we can be liquid, we can be frozen, we can be steam, and we can simply slip under a door,” he says.
As to his newfound flexibility as a chef and event designer he wonders why it took so long to get to this point. “Now, I work like a general contractor, rather than being burdened with the nemesis of many a large company with tons of staff, responsibilities, day-to-day problems solving of a lumbering juggernaut. We’re nimble, quick and 99% paperless. My business partner, Jesseca Crissey, and I assemble teams of pros as we go. It’s so much more rewarding and the camaraderie is amazing. We call the people who work with us ‘pirates’ because they are seasoned veterans with no fear, who love what they do, and are really good at it. And, if need be – travel!”
Recently Spurgin assembled a team of culinary pirates for a trip to Oregon to cook for a wedding at Stargazer Farms, and all-organic facility. “Stargazer Farms is an incredible property with a rich history, and was once one of the largest flower growers in the U.S. Now it is a 60-acre organic farm owned by a dear friend,” Spurgin says. “I invited two chef pals from Portland — Melissa Mayer and Maylin Chavez — to go with me. The menu was from the farm’s bounty and was literally created once we arrived. The wedding couple was very easy-going and just happy to be there which made it really easy and fun.”
At the center of the menu Spurgin designed was Smoked King Salmon caught in the nearby rivers. The salmons were first brined in local raw apple juice and maple syrup with smashed fresh sour cherries, star anise, peppercorns and morita chilies (smoked and dried peppers). “We then soaked a bunch of chopped wood and got the fire going,” Spurgin says. “The salmon went on one side of the grill and was then covered with a wheel barrow to create an off-the-cuff smoker.”
The rest of the menu included salt-brined chickens on a wood fired rotisserie on the farm. Zucchini and gold bar squashes with purslane, toasted pine nuts, lemon, olive oil, and Parmesan. Fresh cranberry pole beans cooked over an open fire. The next day for breakfast, which was also cooked over the open fire in cast iron pans, Spurgin took the remaining cranberry beans, added duck fat and turned them into refried beans. And served with this, Micheladas. “Perfect for hangovers,” Spurgin says.
14 key limes (Persian limes are fine if key limes are not available)
1 5-ounce bottle Tajin Classico seasoning
1 5-ounce bottle Tabasco
1 6.75-ounce bottle Maggi seasoning
1 32-ounce bottle Clamato, chilled
3 Tecate beers, 12-ounce cans, chilled
1 tablespoon sea salt
Chill pint or large-sized glasses. Juice two limes. Line a bread and butter plate with a paper napkin. Cover the napkin with enough lime juice to moisten it. Spread some Tajin onto another bread and butter plate. Dip the rim of each glass in the lime juice (adding more lime juice as you go) then dip the glass in the Tajin to cover the rim of the glass. Generously fill glasses with ice. Give them three good shakes of Tabasco (more if you like it spicy). Three good shakes of Maggi. Squeeze two key limes into each glass.(If using Persian limes, put approximately 1 tablespoon of juice per glass.) Fill gasses half way with Clamato juice and then top with the Tecate (or other Mexican lager). Stir 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt (can be kosher salt) in each glass. Serve immediately. Repeat!
Breakfast also included water “scrambled” eggs (see video method below) with mole negro oaxaqueño, crema and scallions, served with slowly braised serrano chile infused zucchini and tomatoes and fresh corn tortillas.
The next week was spent in Baja in the region’s nascent wine valley — Valle de Guadalupe. “I spend as much time in Baja as I can,” Spurgin says. “The area, so close to San Diego for me, is rapidly becoming a culinary Mecca. Valle de Guadalupe is simply a magical place with so much going on from everything culinary to simply stellar wineries.”
The event was held at Finca Altozano (an outside seasonal restaurant in the middle of the vineyards) with chefs from Southern California and Baja, Mexico, who had been invited by the chef Javiar Plascencia. Spurgin and his crew of culinary pirates experimented with a staple of Mexican cuisine – the taco. These were filled with raw milk goat cheese that Spurgin made from scratch, octopus that were smoked and then grilled, and chapulines (little grasshoppers with a touch of lime and chilies). They were finished with a crema Salvadoreña smoked with a Smoking Gun (a hand-held food smoker), mustard blossoms and salsa de guajillo. White clothes pins were used to hold them together. On the side, a lime and ginger effervescent fermented yogurt drink made from the whey left over from the cheese making was served. The black tortillas were made minutes before they were served. “I seem to have a penchant for turning any baked good jet black,” says Spurgin. Not by burning them, he quickly clarifies. To do this, he used an organic, carbon-based product he got in Japan.
“At night, we slept in the vineyard under the stars,” Spurgin says. “Magic.” The road less traveled in the life and work of Spurgin, is one that, no matter what path it takes, will always lead to a good meal at its end. Or beginning. Or middle.