In his garden-to-table approach to fine dining, Chef Ben has crafted an enviable plant-based menu that is winning awards and impressing palettes nightly.
At the age of eleven, young Ben knew he wanted to be a chef, already working in a small-town Colorado dive bar. When he was named chef d’ cuisine at Studio at Montage Laguna Beach earlier this year after seven years at the luxe property, Chef Ben Martinek said it was like a dream come true. He had already experienced fine kitchens at Raya at The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Beach, Cortez and Jardiniere both in San Francisco and a steady climb up the ladder at Montage Laguna Beach. Chef’s creative approach and love for plant-based cuisine has inspired him to work with locally sourced ingredients, many from the 1,000-square-foot raised-planter organic garden ten steps outside the front door of Studio.
I’m most proud of the team we’ve built at Studio – we’re like a close-knit family applauding each other as we continue to grow.
Chef collaborated with the gardening team to determine what to plant and how they’d be used, and it was there that the idea of working with the life cycle of a plant became the “seed of an idea” that became a six-course tasting menu that explores the evolution from seed to root to flower to fruit. By day, the garden is buzzing with bees and butterflies, and the team of on-site gardeners tending to the plantings, and by night, you’ll see guests walking the garden before or after dinner. On the night I dined there, the bartender dashed out the front door to pick a floral garnish for a beautiful drink. Chef says the garden provides unlimited inspiration for his plant-based and gourmet menus alike. And the awards are coming in—Five Stars from Forbes, the Grand Award from Wine Spectator and Food & Wine’s Top 50 Hotel Restaurants, to name just some.
On this particular night, we were spoiled by Chef Ben who put together a custom paired menu with Studio favorites and some of the Garden Tasting Menu. While the cuisine was impeccable, the chef was equally charming and indulged all our questions. Eventually, he appeared to find out how much more we could handle, and alas one shared stunning dessert course later, our evening at Studio had come to a very satisfying end, with stories to share with all who would listen the next day.
We caught up later with Chef Ben Martinek to get more of his take on garden-inspired cuisine and working at the elegant oceanfront luxe Montage.
ICONIC: Your resume reads as somewhat a Cinderella story starting at a Colorado dive bar and landing this coveted position of chef d’ cuisine at Studio. How does that feel?
CHEF: It feels great—I’m enjoying my new position and creating new dishes for our guests.
ICONIC: After seven years at Studio, what new innovations are you literally bringing to the table?
CHEF: So much of my inspiration comes from our location overlooking the Pacific Ocean and from our newly replanted garden. I source as much produce onsite and locally as possible, as well as seafood from the Pacific. I’ve recently started a mentorship program to develop our young cooks into young chefs. It’s very rewarding.
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ICONIC: We love the Studio garden and the use of its bounty in the kitchen. Please share more about your love of local and on-site sourced ingredients?
CHEF: It doesn’t get much better than having your own plot of land for picking fresh ingredients, and I feel fortunate to have our new garden. The replanting of the garden is what inspired the new Garden Tasting Menu, taking guests through the evolution of plants—from seeds to produce or flowers. For locally sourced ingredients, we use produce from the region’s various farms and markets, including Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.
ICONIC: How does the garden influence your menu daily?
CHEF: Our culinary team visits the garden daily, before service, to select and pick what looks and tastes fresh, as well as any produce starting to sprout. We incorporate what we find into the regular dishes, as well as create specials.
ICONIC: What other fresh new ideas are you bringing to Studio?
CHEF: Healthy dining is more popular now than ever before, so we emphasize fruits and vegetables in our dishes, and we are always experimenting with different techniques to enhance the flavors and texture of various produce.
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ICONIC: Your plate design is stunning…how do you approach plating food for the eyes?
CHEF: I look at three criteria when plating: flavor, texture and presentation. For presentation, we like to offer contrasting or complementary colors with differing heights, while taking the actual plate into consideration.
ICONIC: During your time studying the culinary arts, did you know what you wanted to be known for? What do you want to be known for today?
CHEF: I’ve always had a strong interest in marine biology and the ocean, which is what originally drew me to California’s coast. Cooking with seafood is a natural for me, and I’d like to be known as a chef with a strong sense of responsibility and stewardship for the ocean—serving responsibly harvested fish and utilizing farms that adopt sustainability techniques.
ICONIC: What do you feel most proud of?
CHEF: I’m most proud of the team we’ve built at Studio – we’re like a close-knit family applauding each other as we continue to grow.
hen of the woods mushroom espuma, kalamata olive “top soil,” puffed grains
CONFIT ROOT VEGETABLES WITH COCONUT CURRY
kohlrabi, cipollini onion, heirloom carrot, coconut and golden curry, pickled mushrooms