On the Line: Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy

During my time with OC Weekly, one name that’s been in my peripheral is Chef Buchanan. Based out of Long Beach, his resume is like a six-degrees of OC, LA and beyond. I finally got to chat with Paul and his wife, Dana, while attending an intimate Brouwerij West beer pairing dinner they were catering.

Where does the name come from?
From reading a book in culinary school called On Food and Cooking where Harold McGee called cooking the “Primal Alchemy”. The first science man ever practiced. Cooking food changed it alchemically, and tasted way better than raw in many cases. Alchemists are later known for practicing their art to turn base elements into gold. I feel at Primal Alchemy we turn food into gold. A valuable commodity, indeed.

Your best recent food find:
Red Walnuts, first developed at the University of California at Davis by naturally grafting a cutting from the Persian red-skinned walnut onto the creamier English Walnut tree. I found them at our local Sunday farmer’s market a few months ago, and they are one of many ingredients we are playing with.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
That it is glamorous and profitable. There are proud moments and amazing experiences to be had, but the margins on high quality ingredients with integrity that are required to do farm-to-table right tend to create a situation that is far from lucrative. The cheaper and lower quality the ingredients, the easier it is to mass produce and make a higher profit. The hours most chefs work are in excess of 60 per week. So, glamorous . . . occasionally; profitable . . . not so much.

Tell us about your catering business. How would you describe your cuisine?
Primal Alchemy Catering was founded on “Local, Seasonal and Organic” from the very beginning. It was our ethos long before it was popular. We have strong ties to local farmers and farmer’s markets, as well as using foraged fruit for jams, jellies and marmalades.

Custom menus are created daily that represent the interests and needs of our clients. We do not have “Catering Packages” or “Wedding Packages”. People are individuals with unique tastes and experiences. We aim to not only meet their needs, but exceed their expectations with creative, thoughtful menus. Our staff knows service and are well-informed about the food they are serving. We strive for excellence every day, and we love the challenge of creating new and different menus. Family-style dinners and farm-to-table gatherings have been one of our specialties. Yet we will cater most any event from two to 2,000 guests.

Can you explain to readers what it means to go foraging?
There is food at our feet and within our reach all around us every day if we just take a moment to notice it. The urban orchard is my town alone has an amazing variety of citrus, stone fruit, nuts, berries, herbs and weeds. Yes, weeds! There are so many things to eat that we don’t know about. Stinging Nettles, Mallow, Chickweed, Mustard, Fennel, Sage, Dandelion, Elderberries, Elderflowers and more. Knowing what to look for and being brave enough to knock on a few doors to ask homeowners if they even use their fruit can yield tasty rewards. Most urban fruit falls to the ground or is carted away by squirrels. I also do foraging in the local mountains and hills where I can find Yucca Whipple, Figs, Watercress and plenty of other good eats out there . . . .but you need to be careful and know what you’re picking.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
Ice cream from Dina Amadril at Long Beach Creamery.

Indispensable tool in the kitchen (that isn’t a knife).
High temp silicon spatula can be used to scramble eggs, keep sauces from drying out at the edge of a pan, and gets the last bit of food out of most any container.

In your bio, you mention “Healthy Active Communities”. Please elaborate.
There are a lot of programs that encourage Healthy Active Communities. I am involved in many organizations that provide education and experiences helping people to lead healthier lives. Eat real food, learning to cook, having an interest in food and where it comes from, and all forms of exercise. Healthy Active Long Beach, Days of Taste, Kids in the Kitchen, Long Beach Alliance for Food and Fitness, and Long Beach Fresh Chefs Collaborative and Slow Food are some of them. I am also a founding member of  the Chef’s Accord, along with Alice Waters and others, established at the Ecology Center.

Favorite places to eat.
In Long Beach, I like Restauration, James Republic, Roe and Thiptara Thai. For sweets, Long Beach Creamery and Scratch Baked Goods. My home away from home is Viento Y Agua Coffee Shop, but I do love Berlin and Polly’s.

You list Restaurant Management at UCI as part of your education. I didn’t know they had a program. What can you tell me about it?
In 1996 I took a series of courses at UCI on Restaurant Management. My great teachers had real industry experience in every aspect of restaurants. I learned how to read P&L statements, identify waste, reduce theft, promote products, menu item placement, purchasing, identifying theft, controlling cost of food and liquor, and so much more. Most thankful to longtime friend Phyllis Ann Marshall from Food Power that helped the program greatly and became a good friend and collaborator on some consulting jobs.

Let’s talk about some of your clients. For example, how did you get connected to the TED Conference?
TED called me out of the blue one day, and I had no idea who they were. My wife, Dana, overheard the conversation and filled me in as she had worked for one of the original sponsors of TED back in her interior design days. TED found us because of our reputation, and wanted to have us provide some food for the conference. We started out doing their finale event, a picnic for 1000 that closed out the week. We also provided all the box lunches for their secret off-site field trips. TED was very specific that they wanted traceability of quality local ingredients, and their research pointed to Primal Alchemy.

The first year they were tough: tastings, details and lots of phone calls. After that, they fell in love with us and gave us more events each year. Our last event with them, we fed 1,800 people at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Passed appetizers and themed food stations featuring four local Long Beach farms, So Cal Harvest. We actually bought out an entire urban farm in November, told them what we wanted them to grow in time for harvest in February for TED. Dana signed and built a 24-foot-long farmer’s market vegetable-centric station in the main room. We invited the farmers to represent their farms and speak with the TED attendees about the harvests. The very next day we did lunch for 1,200. It was a fun 24-hours. Our clients love that we go to great lengths to insure the ultimate success of their events.

You’re making breakfast for yourself; what are you having?
Any number of things could be in our fridge, since we own a catering company. We usually have some great ingredients on hand. My wife and business partner, Dana, can cook eggs like a pro and knows her way around a kitchen. She makes some pretty mean breakfasts for me and our daughter, so I don’t have to cook! A typical day might start with a small bowl of cut up citrus (Ruby Red Grapefruit, Kara Kara Oranges and Blood Orange). A big bowl with Rainbow chard from our garden, steamed, then topped with an over easy farm egg, our own cured speck ham, salsa Quemada and some avocado. All that with a cup of Polly’s Italian Roast Coffee.

Tell me more about your family. How did you meet Dana? Do you own any pets?
As of this month, I have been married to Dana Buchanana for 20 years, though we’ve been together 25. We are still good friends and make each other laugh daily. We spend a lot of time together, as mates and business partners, so I guess that says a lot. I placed an ad in the Grunion Gazette 25 years ago, and she answered it; this is pre-internet, of course. 16 years ago, we had our daughter, Skye Luna Buchanan. Super proud of this kid— straight A student since kindergarten, so she’s wicked smart. And she has a great sense of humor. And, she can bake! Really bake. We just lost our 18 1/2 year-old dog, Ziggy, last summer. And we still have our eight-year-old rescue named Dasher. I am a lucky man, for sure.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
Visiting my Grandma Bessie for holidays like Easter, 4th of July and especially Thanksgiving! She would make pies that were out of this world, in addition to all the other holiday classics. I love her so much, and am blessed to still have her in my life. She will be 104 years-old this November.

Tell me something most people don’t know about you.
I can roller skate backwards faster than most experienced roller skaters can go forwards.

Last thing you looked up online.
Foraging details on Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich’s Facebook pages.

Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I started out as an iron worker, so welding and chipping slag. Moved on to construction trades— framer, masonry, alarm systems, etc. Later was involved in electronics, military aircraft, target identification systems, high speed film and video cameras (mostly for DOD projects). I am very good at logistics and working on projects.

Tell me about living in the South Pacific, and also what let you to Long Beach and planting roots here.
I lived in the Marshall Islands for five years, became a Divemaster, Wreckdiver and Instructor in less than a year. Accumulated over 750 dives, mostly below 100 feet on WWII wrecks. That part of my life holds great memories, great weather, great friends, phenomenal experiences above and under water. At the end, I was looking to go back to school, and I was impressed with a man I met that went to culinary school in San Francisco. I wanted to cook like that, so after I went to a small cooking school in Thailand. I headed to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy. After graduating with honors, I headed back to Long Beach, where my mother then lived, and started working in the best restaurants I could.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
You can’t put the skin back on a pig. Long story, but let’s just assume that the biggest mistake people make in communication is that it actually happened.

What would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
I love to teach, so an instructor position in a culinary school is possible. I would love to pass on my experience to a new group of chefs. I am also a big advocate on safe, healthy food, so speaking to groups about food security, knowing what you are eating and healthy diets is also of interest. Our food system is severely damaged and corrupted by both large corporations and the government. No one seems to be looking out for our best interest, so I would like to educate the public about what hidden ingredients are in the food we eat . . . that we think are safe to eat.

Learn more about Chef Paul at www.primalalchemy.com.

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