When I think of brewery tasting rooms, the first thing that comes to mind is a luxe lonchera parked outside. So when my friend at OC Beer Blog told me about the cuisine coming out of Barley Forge's kitchen, I had to see for myself. Jonathan Bendall serves meals that can stand up against Costa Mesa's restaurant-heavy food scene. Green heirloom tomatoes in our tuna melt and seasonal watermelon salad are just a couple of the dishes that make their menu worthy of this Weekling's interview.
One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true:
That as a chef, I will be super-critical of other people's cooking. Pretty much if I didn't have to cook it and it's not fast food, I'm all about it.
Where did you grow up, and where's home these days?
I was born and raised in Orange County. As a kid, I kind of bounced around all over, from Huntington Beach to Yorba Linda to Fountain Valley. Now, I'm settled in Costa Mesa.
Your original focus was on pastry; how did that come about?
When I was 12, I was dead set on making a cheesecake. My grandma helped me, and we bought all the ingredients; they cost $65. I couldn't believe all that was for one dessert. But really, it was because it took a couple of tries to get it right. It was a process and an experience, and when it finally came out right, I was proud of it. After that, I had a fascination for baking. I always knew I could learn to cook, but I wanted to be trained the right way how to bake.
Tell us about the menu at Barley Forge. What's popular, and do you have any seasonal items?
Overall, the items sell pretty equally. We get a lot of feedback on the pulled-pork sandwich with Carolina sauce and creamy pineapple slaw on a soft pretzel bun. The lamb burger on brioche is also popular, with house-made tzatziki, sweet black-lager onion jam and arugula. Our meat-and-cheese board is second to none. It's something I put a lot of research into, to find new cheeses and source incredible meats that you can't find just anywhere. It comes with house-smoked nuts, olives and local honeycomb. Right now, I'm waiting on a cheese from Aniata Cheese Company called Ol-Scuir. It's an Italian blue cheese that's been pressed with macerated berries and crushed rose petals. The rind is a deep red color. It has a rich, fruity aroma with a mellow, grassy flavor. This should be an available addition to the meat-and-cheese board in late July.
Seasonally, we utilize the ingredients that are at their peak in flavor, from soup to salads to the sandwiches. Right now, we have a watermelon salad with baby heirloom tomatoes, micro cilantro, baby pecorino and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. We are also offering a rotating turkey burger with seasonal flavorings; currently, it's Italian-inspired, on soft ciabatta and topped with bruschetta, fresh mozzarella and a basil aioli.
What do you recommend for first-timers in the industry?
Learn how to find balance between family and work — it's not easy. Don't ever think you're above doing dishes or mopping the floor, and most important, don't burn your bridges, which is one of the best pieces of advice from Chef Peter Petro. This industry is smaller than you think, and you never know whose kitchen you will walk into.
Let's talk about having Peter Petro as an instructor.
He's a "no excuses" kind of guy. The foundation he set for me has guided me though my career. He set his standards high. Clean fingernails, clean uniform, pressed and starched. If you weren't early, you were late. He instilled a work ethic that I now expect from my staff. He showed me that a chef doesn't have to yell to get his point across. He taught me how to use salt correctly in both savory and sweet dishes. He's been a mentor and a friend, and I have the utmost respect for him as a person and as a chef.
As a supporter of local farmers and ingredients, where do you source some of your ingredients from?
I get my lamb from Da-Le Ranch in Lake Elsinore. All of our amazing sausage comes from Mattern Sausage in Orange. We use only the freshest bread from Sadie Rose in San Diego, and I get specialty squaw and pita from Breads of the World at the OC Marketplace. Aniata Cheese Co. in Vista gives me the most amazing selection of cheese for our meat-and-cheese platter. I visit local swap meets and farmers' markets each week to get the freshest local produce. Also, Angel's Salumi & Truffles out of Carlsbad provides us with an incredible selection of salami.
Are there any challenges to cooking/working/serving in a brewery?
Yes. We are a small kitchen. I have developed a system to make it work, though. It's all about prep and knowing how long each component of each dish takes. It requires a lot of communication with my staff. Some days are crazy, but we make it work. We always rise to the challenges. Because we also run food directly from the kitchen, I have the unique experience of getting to interact with customers. Many times, they don't realize that it's my name on the menu, but it's great to see their reactions when they are excited about the food.
What is your guilty pleasure food?
I'm a Skittles addict. It's the one food I actually feel remorse after eating, but I can't help myself. Other than that, I love trying any and every new beer that comes out. I love to see what's up and coming.
Your best recent food find:
The short-rib tacos and 48-hour fries from The Corner in Huntington Beach. The short rib is tender and flavorful, and it's topped with aged white Cheddar and pepperoncinis in a crispy shell. The fries are the best: crispy outside, fluffy inside and served with house-made ketchup. Just an amazing meal.
What did the Art Institute teach you that you might not have learned as quickly if you didn't attend?
How quickly student loans can rack up.
Last thing you searched for online:
Looking for the next cheese for my meat-and-cheese board. And a car seat for my son, who is due in August.
Tell us something most people don't know about you.
That I was a union carpenter, specializing in steel-stud framework. I helped build quite a few buildings that
you see in Orange County.
You have a whole day to yourself; what would you do?
This seems like an impossible dream. I suppose I would try to find a new restaurant that hopefully has an awesome beer list. After that, I would probably try to get some of the things done around the house that I never seem to have time for. I'd probably end the day on the couch, binge-watching episodes of Archer.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
I'm not a huge breakfast fan. Honestly, I'm pretty satisfied with my daily Starbucks coffee. But I have this concoction I make when I have all the ingredients. I take a single buttermilk pancake, spread it with maple syrup and peanut butter, top that with sliced bananas, then smother it in steel-cut oatmeal, brown sugar, raisins and more maple syrup. It sounds insane, but I swear it works. I ordered all the components one time when my wife and I were in Morro Bay, and the waitress was so intrigued she suggested they add it to the menu. It was dubbed the "Gio Special."
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Your favorite childhood memory:
Making spaghetti and crab legs every Sunday with my grandmother.
What profession would you like to try if you weren't in this business?
Mixologist. I love the idea of taking unexpected flavors and putting them in a drink.
Hardest life lesson you've learned:
That decisions you make when you're younger can have a huge impact on your life and family, but they don't have to define who you are. It's about learning from those mistakes and making the choice to become a better person. I never imagined I'd be where I am now, but with hard work and support from my friends and family, I'm pretty proud of what I've accomplished.
Check out all things food and beer at www.barleyforge.com.