On the Line: Ryan Garlitos Of Irenia Supper Club, Part One

He's thinking about a nap.
Photo by Dustin Ames

When a chef or colleague suggests an establishment, I know it has their seal of approval. So when Irenia Supper Club started popping up in my feed, I knew it was worth checking out. With an ever-changing venue and menu, chef and founder Ryan Garlitos explains how it can be more challenging than any luxe lonchera or restaurant. 

What are the challenges to operating a pop-up?
We treat our pop-up like it's a full-fledged restaurant. We own everything we use, from all the kitchen supplies, to the tables and decorations, and even all the plates, silverware and glasses. So packing up and transporting everything on event days is a pretty huge job. Storing all our supplies when we don't have an event is also an issue. Other than that, we face the same type of challenges that brick-and-mortar spots encounter every service, but we do it in a brand new space, with a different kitchen, and sometimes a different staff every time we open. The roving, ever-changing style of our restaurant requires that we adapt quickly and effectively when we encounter obstacles. We like to say it's like experimenting opening night over and over again.

Favorite meal growing up:
Pinakbet, a Filipino vegetable stew made by braising eggplant, okra, kabocha squash and long beans in a broth flavored with tomatoes, roasted pork and bagoong (salt-preserved anchovies). All enjoyed with a bowl of rice. The flavors of all the vegetables infuse the broth, and the pork and anchovies flavor the vegetables. It's a great way to get kids to love vegetables.

Where was your most recent meal?
I actually just got back from Seattle, and the last meal I had there was at Sitka & Spruce. The food was excellent, and very representative of the Pacific Northwest. I had a king salmon dish with sour pear puree, delicata squash, sunchokes and celery leaf that was incredible. They won a James Beard award for a reason.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Taste everything. And taste your dish after you add each ingredient to see how it changes. Then season based on what your dish needs. Try to use recipes as more of a guide, rather than a concrete manual on how to prepare a dish. Unless you're baking, in which case you should probably stick close to the recipe.

What is your indispensable kitchen tool?
The chef's knife I've had since culinary school. I've purchased a lot of fancy Japanese knives over the years, and they're all great in their own right. But my old chef's knife has been such a versatile tool over the years. I try to keep it sharpened, and still use it every day.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Ethnic, hole-in-the-wall, mom & pop restaurants. There are a lot of places in Orange County that will never make a "best-of" list, but are consistently delivering great, ethnic food.

Your best recent food find:
Habuya Okinawan Dining in Tustin, which was recommended to me on separate occasions by my friends Nate Overstreet (of Wheat & Sons) and Ashley Guzman (formerly of The North Left). It's a tiny restaurant in a random strip mall (like many great Orange County restaurants), and they serve traditional Okinawan-style dishes. Okinawa has some interesting culinary influences, so you'll see dishes like potato gratin with Japanese mayo and furikake alongside Japanese staples like ramen and udon.

Let's talk about your concept. What inspired the first supper club?
I was making dinner for some friends one night in my buddy's loft. I made chicken adobo and some ginataan shrimp for about 10 people. At one point in the evening, someone joked that we should do this again for other people, and charge them to eat. We all laughed it off, but about two months later we were serving 20 guests in the same loft at our first supper club.

Who is the supper club named after?
Irenia Supper Club is named after my grandmother on my father's side, Grandma Irenia. Grandma grew her own vegetables, made sausage by hand, salt fermented her own fish, and even made her own ointments. She also prepared traditional dishes for dinner every night, and to this day is still one of the purest cooks I've ever known. She taught me how to cook with love, and in turn, show your love and care through the food you prepare for others. She is also responsible for my belief that Filipino food is worthy of a bigger spotlight. Using the name Irenia is my way of honoring her memory and the values she instilled in me about food and cooking. 

One stereotype about the industry, and whether it's true.
Restaurant people work hard and party harder. I think it's true until you hit a certain age; at least for me it was. And once you hit 30, forget about it. Nowadays, I just want to get home at a reasonable hour so I can go straight to sleep.

Favorite places to eat.
I love Bestia and Night + Market in the LA area. They're two restaurants at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of cuisine and style, but they both represent what I love about a great dining experience: consistently delicious food and welcoming service in a fun atmosphere. 

In the Orange County area, you can find me at Tanakaya and Cream Pan in Tustin at least once a week. I also love to eat at Taco Maria when I can. Carlos (Salgado) feeds me well whenever I stop in for a visit.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Two eggs, sunny side up.
Spicy longanisa (Filipino pork sausage).
A plate of rice.
Banana ketchup, with a little sriracha mixed in.

You've worked for/with previous On the Line subjects Andrew Gruel, Art Gonzalez and Carlos Salgado. Was there anything you learned from them that you apply to your work?
I like to think I've learned something from everyone I've worked alongside in any kitchen I've spent time in. 

Andrew taught me how to work quickly and produce food efficiently. He also showed me that the restaurant business is first and foremost a business. And that no matter what your concept is, success boils down to managing costs and managing people.

Art was instrumental in teaching me how to work my butt off in a kitchen. I've never thought of myself as the most skilled cook in a kitchen, but I always believed I could work harder than anyone on any given night.

Carlos has probably been the most influential chef/cook/person I've ever worked with. He taught me how to slow down and cook with my mind and senses, taste everything, and work every day to make things better. In his kitchen, you learn respect; for ingredients and the people who grow and raise them, for the guests who fill the dining room every night, and for the cooks and servers who work alongside you on a daily basis. He also showed a lot of confidence in me throughout the four years I worked for him, which made me confident in my own abilities. I'm proud to call him a mentor and a friend.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Anything that adds acidity or sour flavors. Filipino food is known for the strong presence of sour notes: vinegar, citrus, tamarind, pickles, etc. Salt, fat and sweetness will only get you so far. Acidity can take a dish from good to great. 

When do you anticipate the next supper club?
We hope to have our next supper club sometime in January, but we will have a better idea after the New Year. Follow us on Instagram or Facebook, or join our mailing list to get up-to-date info!

You can follow Irenia Supper Club on their Facebook page or their Instagram account. You can also reach them at ireniarestaurant@gmail.com.

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