If you overthink the name, you may overlook the kind of menu Green Tomato Grill has. Sure, you'll find salads, tomatoes and grilled meats. But I found an achiote-beef-and-egg breakfast wrap that satisfied hunger pangs, and the adobo lime popcorn woke up my taste buds. Kyle Markt is the man behind the flavor profiles, and he strives to win over diners with his ability to create a meal to your liking. Here, requests are gladly accepted and delivered.
Let's talk about your concept. So, two guys with no restaurant experience decided they wanted to start a restaurant that could be fast, healthy and tasty. They figured if they could deliver on those three things very well, it would be successful. I came into the picture soon after and strongly advised that it was a terrible business investment. But they persisted, so I designed the menu and most of the overall concept that is now Green Tomato Grill.
We took what was trending in the quick-service industry and made improvements where we thought other concepts fell short. Our biggest dilemma was whether to even promote being healthy. We didn't want the stigma or lack of flexibility of being a health-food restaurant. When we finished the menu and recipes, we decided it was healthy. That's how we would promote it.
All our sauces are gluten-free and either Greek yogurt-, tofu- or vegetable-based. We make EVERY item from scratch. We butcher our meat. We fabricate all of our 20-plus vegetables every day. Our lemonade is made with 100 percent agave. We tried to keep all our entrées in a reasonable calorie range. Most important, our food makes you feel good, and that's why we've been so successful so far.
Best tip for the home cook: Grill everything, and only use kosher salt. Everything needs to be salted. There's nothing on this planet that tastes good without it. Whether it's a grilled chicken breast, or a little piece of tomato-- a pinch of salt always adds to it. In moderation, of course.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own): Break of Dawn. Seriously, the best breakfast in Orange County. I would go there almost every Sunday with a group of friends. Get the veggie casserole, if you haven't had it. My girlfriend only gets the Portuguese sausage and rice.
Where was your most recent meal? Brodard Restaurant in Garden Grove. I had pork spring rolls and Vietnamese beef stew with a baguette. [Editor's Note: He also stated that Orange County has the best Vietnamese food.] Kim (my girlfriend) is Vietnamese, and she taught me pretty much everything I know about Vietnamese cuisine. I tried to reverse engineer the beef stew at home, figured out some of the key components, and that's actually how we make the Achiote stew here.
What is your food-service work experience? I got my foundation working in restaurants in Cleveland. I started my first job at Fire Food and Drink as a prep cook on the weekends and worked my way up in that kitchen. The executive chef, Doug Katz, left a lasting impression on the type of cuisine I prepare. From there, I bounced around Cleveland restaurants, cooking through college.
I moved to California six years ago and became a private chef to a young, wealthy businessman in Laguna Beach. I was basically in his entourage and cooked for his guests and threw lavish parties. That was the best job I ever had. While I was there, I branched out into private catering, and later landed a job as executive chef of a boutique hotel in Laguna Beach called Hotel Seven4One. While at Seven4One, I met my future business partners and started working on the Green Tomato Grill concept.
Most undervalued ingredient: Dijon mustard. I put it on everything. Oh, and only use Grey Poupon; nothing else is close in flavor. I can't come up with a (salad) dressing that shouldn't have Dijon mustard in it. For hot and cold cooking, it just works. It doesn't even burn that well on the griddle.
What is your beverage of choice? Winchester Coffee from my favorite coffee roaster, Beyond the Grind. I have it black. I'm fully addicted to it. They're very passionate about their product, and just down the street.
One food you can't live without: Kombucha. It's my new cure-all for everything.
Favorite meal growing up: My whole family is insanely good at cooking. Most meals had a grilled meat -- often times flank steak -- with a fresh baguette from Little Italy and a Caesar salad.
Your earliest food memory: Ordering a warm brie platter at a tavern my family frequented when I was young. The server thought it was strange that I didn't get the chicken fingers or grilled cheese, but I knew what I was doing, and I ate the whole wheel.
Your best recent food find: Cucina Enoteca. The burrata with garlic confit or the chicken-liver pâté.
Favorite chef: Jesse Brockman. He was one of the winners of The Great Food Truck Race from the Lime Truck. His obsession with demi-glace knows no bounds. Where does the restaurant name come from? [Laughs.] That was the hardest part of this whole project. After about two years of concept development, we still had no name. We knew it should be something with "Grill" in it and sounded fresh. We decided on Green Tomato Grill because the dot-com was available and it seemed to fit. Then we added the fried green tomatoes.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I lived in Hong Kong, and it's all street food. I would have fresh coconut juice in the tropical weather. Durian is up there, and balut [fertilized duck eggs] is really weird, too.
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You're making breakfast. What are you having? Eggs over-easy with white rice and cilantro. I don't know why, but that just gets me there. It's my favorite meal of the day. A little bit of grain and a little protein go a long way when you're starting your day.
What's cooking in a rehab center like, and how did it compare to other cooking environments? Cooking in rehab taught me a lot of patience and really forced me to learn how to cook for what other people wanted, not what I thought was best. That environment really helped me to develop my skills in soy-free, gluten-free and dairy-free cooking.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?): We cater to special dietary-needs people. I had a girl come in once -- allergic to soy, dairy, gluten, nuts and a few other things. We eventually came up with something that worked. I think it was a rice bowl.