On the Line: Marc Johnson Of Oak Grill, Part One

I was a fan of Marc Johnson from my first meal at Oak Grill. The revamped culinary destination at The Island Hotel was memorable enough to make my Top Five last year. Don't let his youthfulness deceive you– there's a love of cooking that sparked a successful concept in college.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
These days, with TV shows like Hell's Kitchen, people tend to think that all chefs yell and scream at their staff, which is just completely not true.

How did you father influence your love of cooking?
I grew up with my dad doing the cooking. Our weekly food schedule included salmon, pasta and (my favorite) tri-tip with baked potato and asparagus. He was always in the kitchen, which really gave the two of us a chance to bond. He used to say, “If you buy good stuff, the food will turn out good.” My dad, in turn, got his cooking bug from his grandmother. It's funny, because on my dad's side all of the men and women were in the kitchen. It was the opposite on my mom's side.


Where was your most recent meal?
I went to Marche Moderne in South Coast Plaza and had rainbow trout with raisins and caper beurre blanc. Oh, and some fried pig ears. It was all VERY good.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Japanese supermarkets. I shop at Mitsuwa or 99 Ranch Market. I love the produce and different seafood varieties they offer. I'm obsessed with the live Dungeness crab most of all. We have purchased yuzukosh┼Ź at Mitsuwa for the restaurant, which we use to marinate bok choy for our togarashi-crusted ahi dish.

Best culinary tip for the home cook.
Home cooks often don't use enough salt, and they rarely (or almost never) finish their dishes with acid. Sometimes it's that splash of sherry vinegar or squeeze of a fresh lemon that will bring a certain freshness to a dish, or help cut the fat in rich or heavier dishes.

Most frequently asked question by guests.
“Is this gluten-free?” “Is the fish wild?” “Is it organic?”

Let's talk about those breakfast burritos you're known for.
I attended University of Arizona. When I was a sophomore, I made breakfast for people that included breakfast burritos. One of my close friends said I should start selling them. An idea was born. After thinking about how to market this burrito idea, one day I hopped on my skateboard with a box full of burritos. I visited two classes that were filled with athletes and a good majority of the football team and handed out the burritos, letting the students know these would be available on campus.

Next thing I knew, I had several requests for orders. I basically created Moki's Open Kitchen out of my apartment, and it lasted for three years until I graduated. With all the athletes behind it, it didn't take long for the rest of the student body to catch on. People would just place orders and stop by to pick up their burritos. I did continue to deliver to these two classes, though. They were my first tasters, and so many people in those classes wanted them.

Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make?
I've never been one to get into the molecular side of cooking or creating with liquid nitrogen, but I'd love to stage in Heston Blumenthal's kitchen in England. He really understands the science behind cooking. It would be great to learn how to re-create one of his kitchen “science experiments”.

What would be your last meal on Earth?
The #19 from Langer's Delicatessen in Los Angeles. The #19 comes with pastrami on rye, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing. It is out of this world. Plus, I love sandwiches.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Fennel. I use it in most of our purees and sauces. It's a perfect base that adds an additional depth of flavor and complexity. I particularly enjoy its subtle licorice flavor. I also like to shave fennel on salads or on a seafood crudo dish because it imparts crunch and a palate-cleansing taste. I think it is undervalued because most people see this bizarre-looking bulb with fronds and say to themselves, “What am I going to do with that?”

Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
Pizzeria Ortica, Taiko for Japanese, El Toro Bravo in Costa Mesa for tacos, Zinc Cafe in Laguna, and Ramos House in San Juan Capistrano.

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about working in a restaurant?
That to get ahead in this business, it's essential to keep learning and growing, which means young talent come and go. You can have a great team at one moment, and then someone advances or moves on and you're training someone new.

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