On the Line: Robert Hines Of Two Left Forks

Instead of introducing Chef Hines, I thought it would be more beneficial to have chef riff on the vibe over at his establishment in Dana Point. So take it away, Robert.

The thing we wanted to do at Two Left Forks was create a very decent menu that still allows you to come casual to the table. I love eating at fine dining restaurants, but it’s not something I’m going to do every night. The whole dressing up bit is something I like to do occasionally, but it’s really not how I dress on a daily basis. Most people don’t dress to the nines on a daily basis anymore. And if they do, they want to strip off their ties as soon as they’re in the parking garage, heading home.

So when we put Two Left Forks in play, we wanted to be sure that it matched the vibe of what we see Southern Californian people to be. They love the finer things in life, and they love food that’s a cut above. But they also love the lifestyle here: the ocean and the beach and the sun— many people build their lives around it.

We want people to feel comfortable surfing all day, hanging on their boats or doing a round of golf. And dropping into Two Left Forks in board shorts for some foie gras or pistachio-crusted rack of lamb and a great glass of wine. To us, that’s just the epitome of what life really is (and should be) about in the OC.

What is the secret to being an efficient expediter?
Attention to detail. Thinking ahead. Observation and common sense. At all times, you have to be thinking about the food that’s coming up, the tickets you have in front of you, what tickets just went out and how long it took. Also, the speed of the cooks and chefs, which is constantly changing. And constantly observe the flow of the food out of the kitchen. As that, too, changes constantly.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
Anything bread and butter. French baguette with softened butter on top. Jalapeno cheese bread. Cinnamon swirl bread with icing on top. Garlic bread with plenty of butter.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
Chefs are born chefs. Absolutely true. What eight-year-old watches Yan Can Cook for fun? [Editor’s Note: I did.] My mom walked in one day while I was watching Yan make noodles on PBS; she couldn’t believe I was interested in watching him make noodles and debone chickens. She admitted later that she was worried, and wasn’t sure I was going to be a “normal” kid. But what chef is a normal kid?

With the way your career progressed, would you say one of the contributing factors was timing, who you know, or something else?
Hard work and determination. That’s all it takes, and that’s what it takes.

What was the turning point in your life when you decided you wanted to be in the hospitality industry?
As I was graduating high school, my Mom mentioned that I might want to go to California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. I never thought I could make money cooking, but I also didn’t see myself working at a desk or being something like an auto mechanic, which was what my Dad had dedicated his entire career to (and he’s good at it, but me . . . not so much).

As soon as I took my first class, I knew this was my place. It came to me easily, which initially surprised no one more than me.

What should culinary school teach you that you didn’t learn until you worked in restaurants?
I don’t think they necessarily teach you about the harsh reality of working in a kitchen, and the speed at which everything moves. Although being a chef in a kitchen has its obvious rewards, it’s not always fun and games. You can’t be emotional about it. Any problem you have in your station doesn’t matter— all that matters is what it is you’re cooking, and how quickly you can get it to your expediter to please the client.

Also, you have to quickly learn and adapt to a whole new regimen of cooking at every single restaurant. Either you adapt and learn on the fly and make things happen, or it just doesn’t happen.

Where did you grow up, and where’s home these days?
I grew up everywhere in South Orange County. I went to a different school every year until high school, and finally settled my last three years of high school in La Mirada. I actually stayed there six years. Now, I’m settled in Costa Mesa.

Do you have a preferred beverage?
The Federalist Dueling Pistols— it’s a half Zinfandel, half Syrah blend.

What do you recommend for first-timers, and what are your best-sellers?
I recommend short rib poutine, a twist on the classic. My version is a bit beyond the Montreal-based style. I top mine with braised short rib, high end French cheese (Tomme de Savoie), mushrooms and onions, demi glace and beurre blanc on top.

Best seller is a three-way tie between:

Short rib poutine.

Burrata salad – I’ll sell 10 in one night, and the very next day I’ll sell 30. We haven’t quite figured out the rhythm on this one. Heirloom cherry tomatoes, burrata cheese, pickled red onion, balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil.

Then, the biggest surprise to me – the banana butterscotch and flourless chocolate cake dessert. It’s flourless chocolate cake with chocolate butterscotch mousse, then white chocolate, caramelized bananas (banana brulee) and white chocolate mousse.

Let’s discuss how you first met Chef Andrew Sutton. How did that go?
I was working at Catal, and we ran out of salmon in the middle of our rush. The sous chef gives me a 200 pan (a container for the salmon) and tells me to go get salmon at the nearby hotel. I walked past the next door Storyteller Cafe, and walked into Napa Rose. I proceeded to the back of the kitchen and asked for the chef.

They sent me to Andrew Sutton.

I said, “Hey Chef, I need to borrow salmon. I’m from Catal.”

He paused for a minute, not accustomed to stupid, ignorant chefs from other restaurants asking for salmon, and then personally walked me to their walk-in. When I walked into the walk-in, I was wowed. I was amazed at how clean and organized the walk-in was, so I turned to him and remarked on how I would love to work at a place with a walk-in as nice and clean as his.

He proceeded to show me where the salmon was, and told me to remind my chef that we needed to return a salmon filet to him. So, I asked him right there, “Hey, can I come work for you?” He looks at me like I’ve lost my mind, but tells me to drop an application. A week later I came back to apply, saw him in his office as I walked by, so I poked my head in and asked, “Hey, you have an opening yet?”

I came back every three days for two months, and every time I’d poke my head in his office and say, “Hey, you have an opening yet?” After three months of pestering him, he said, “If I give you a job, will you stop pestering me?”

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
Steak and eggs, over easy.  With toast, lots of butter. Of course.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I’m a teddy bear on the inside. I have a pretty gruff exterior, and toe a pretty smart line— stern and sometimes demanding. But that’s not how I carry myself when I’m not at work.

What did you return to Hotel Laguna after leaving for a higher chef position?
I wanted to make something of the place; I wanted to make a real difference there, and I knew I had the ability to. 

Many chefs had been through the doors— first when it was Claes, and The Terrace, and then when it switched to OceanView Bar & Grill. But they had not left their mark in a positive way. In my tenure to that point in the industry, I had already seen a lot of chefs come and go without really improving the status of the business.

I knew with a bit of hard work and dedication, this place could go a lot further than it had done. I had the opportunity to come back and make a difference, and I seized the day. Fortunately, it worked out really beautifully.

Hardest life lesson you’ve learned”
A promise made is not a promise kept. Often times in your career, people will promise you things and not deliver. Know your worth instead of relying on promises around your worth.

Your favorite childhood memory:
A day on the boat with my Dad, fishing on the ocean.

Last thing you looked up online:
I’m constantly online when I don’t have a knife or a pan in my hand. Before this interview, I was checking out dinuguan, a Filipino pork blood stew. You put it over white rice.

What didn’t people tell you about working in a restaurant?
You’ll never be able to have a holiday off.

You’ll end up carrying a bottle of Super Glue in your pocket because you end up cutting yourself all the time.

If you’re good at what you do, you find yourself looking to increase efficiency in other industries; constantly evaluating how they’re doing their jobs, what they could do to increase their efficiency. Like an ice cream line, or while trying to make a deposit at the bank. It’s brutal.

Two Left Forks is located at 34212 Pacific Coast Hwy, Dana Point, (949) 489-8911; www.twoleftforks.com.

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