On the Line: Marc Johnson of Pelican Grill

Chef Marc knew at an early age that he wanted to spend his time in the kitchen. While his personal taste is more comfort fare, he brings an elevated level of cuisine to the kitchen at Pelican Grill. He can also tell you a thing or two about tomato plants and flowers, as I learn in this week’s On the Line.

There are multiple dining concepts at the resort. Please elaborate on how they differ in cuisine compared to yours.
Pelican Grill is surf and turf cuisine and a local favorite. Our Italian restaurant, Andrea, is known for handmade pasta and the tableside risotto wheel presentation. Coliseum Pool & Grill is all about family and the view of the huge pool and coastline. All three restaurants have a casual yet elevated vibe, ocean views, outdoor terrace seating and complimentary valet.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
I think the stereotype of Orange County having only chain restaurants while LA has so many independent concepts is no longer true of our local industry. Orange County has really come into its own as a culinary hub with real talent, and that’s what brought me here.

What is your beverage of choice?
IPA from Beachwood Brewing.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I read something about your 45-minute lunch and your burger and beer lunch specials. What are those about?
My Express Lunch on Mondays through Thursdays is a two-course menu for just $22 served in 45-minutes or less. It includes a starter and an entree. Burgers, Pizzas & Brews is another weekday deal, but it’s only available in the bar. For $15, you get to choose a burger or pizza and pair it with a local craft beer like Karl Strauss Amber Lager or Scrimshaw Pilsner.

Most undervalued ingredient:
I recently started getting into Middle Eastern spices. So I’m experimenting with ways to incorporate them into familiar dishes, while elevating the flavor profile of the dish, but not completely changing the familiarity.

Do you get mistaken for (and have you ever met) the other Chef Marc Johnson in Orange County?
A few years ago, my meat purveyor congratulated me on my new position at Oak Grill. Turns out it was the other Marc Johnson. I have yet to meet him.

I prefer to dine in the bar/lounge side of Pelican Grill. Other than the plush seating, are there additional differences to sitting on the formal dining room side of the restaurant?

The biggest difference between the lounge and the dining room would be the ambiance. In the dining room, there’s the open kitchen, and you can see all the action. In the bar, it’s two huge TVs playing sports.

How was Pelican Grill’s Kentucky Derby party?
It was great. We sold out of tickets. There were a lot of big hats and everyone had a great time.

What do you have in store for the summer menu at Pelican Grill?
I plan on making lighter dishes utilizing seasonal produce and seafood. My Summer of Crudo specials will feature sashimi-style small plates.

Where was your most recent meal?
At Upland in NYC, I tried several different dishes like Nduja Pizza, Roasted Maitake Mushroom, Cioppino and Chicken Liver Pasta.

What was your best recent food find?
U&I Bowl from Mu Ramen in NYC. It’s a simple, yet amazing dish. Definitely one of the better dishes I have enjoyed this year.

What did you learn (if anything) at the California Culinary Academy that you might not have learned if you didn’t attend?
I think the culinary academy gave me a leg up when it comes to costing. Most everything else I learned just by working in the kitchen.

Where did you grow up, and where do you consider home these days?
I grew up in La Canada Flintridge. I currently live with my wife and French Bulldog in Glendora.

Do you have any skills that aren’t related to the restaurant?
Gardening is becoming a hobby of mine that I am really starting to enjoy.

Last thing you looked up online.
Tomato plants. I’m planting some in my garden at home and was looking at different varieties.

Favorite meal growing up.
Shepherd’s Pie.

Tell me something most people don’t know about you.
I worked as a florist throughout high school.

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
Biscuits & Gravy.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
Patience. Working in such a fast-paced, stressful environment, it’s very easy to get frustrated.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
I started taking cooking classes when I was in fourth grade. I used to love spending time with my mother in the kitchen, cooking for her and my brother.

What would you like to be doing if you weren’t in the industry?
I would like to be a professional snowboarder.

Pelican Grill is at 22800 Pelican Hill Rd. S, Newport Coast, (844) 443-0022; www.pelicangrillnb.com.

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