Ventura County's Support-Local Program

The Main Ingredient

Ventura Chef Rachel Main, whose cuisine will topline this week’s “Dinner At the City,” elevates “homegrown” to an art form.

One of the Gold Coast’s most influential players in the Locavore movement, Chef Rachel Main of Main Course California has the curriculum vitae of a seasoned chef (Thomas Keller’s French Laundry anyone?), and the heart of a farmer. Chef Main is renowned not only for her cuisine but also for an uncanny ability to source an astonishing array of local ingredients for those recipes. That combination proved an irresistible choice when Totally Local VC considered prominent Ventura chefs to headline their upcoming “Dinner At the…” dining series, which bows this week with the inaugural event, Dinner At the City.

“Rachel has become one of the clear leaders in Ventura’s ‘eat local’ food movement,” said Kat Merrick, founder of Totally Local VC and the imagination behind the innovative event series that unites local chefs, vintners and farmers to create unique al fresco dining experiences at some of Ventura’s most historic locations. “She’s deeply connected with the farmers in the community- an essential component of our Dinner At the… series,” Merrick continues. “With Rachel Main in the kitchen, Dinner At the City is truly going to be an evening to remember.”

Chef Main’s menus are well-known to showcase peak seasonal flavors of Ventura. From organic carrot tops to deep purple basil blossoms, free-range Watkins’ cattle to Santa Barbara spot prawns, Main sources her ingredients like a hound dog on a scent. She has already been in contact with “her” farmers, ranchers and fishermen, anticipating the upcoming menu — but that menu won’t actually be fixed until shortly before the event. The three course meal she intends, featuring ingredients from local sources like Dave Pommer, Givens Farm, Chris Sayer, Phil McGrath and Earthtrine Farm, is at this stage an assemblage of “ideas” — perhaps an appetizer featuring California crab, local finger lime caviar and fried green tomatoes — but everything could change on a dime. “Who knows? If the coastal fog lets up, fried green tomatoes may miraculously morph into red, purple and green jewel-toned heirloom slices.” Either way, she’s ready. Main loves the challenge of working with what’s locally available and through years of experience has raised the ethic to a veritable art form.

Main was born in Fillmore, and shortly afterward moved to northern Louisiana, where her Papaw had a butcher shop and grocery store dubbed “The Home of Mr. Meat”. She started her college studies as a science major until her drive to make some cash led her to becoming a line chef at a microbrewery. While picking through bags of old cilantro and making salad dressings, she had an epiphany: “Everything I was doing was chemistry,” she recounts. All at once she got the processes and reasons behind why things worked certain ways and, wanting to improve on what she saw, immediately changed her major to the culinary arts.

Her first real job in culinary school was working as an assistant pastry chef for famed Louisiana Chef John Folse in Donaldsonville, La. Under Folse’s tutelage she gained her first understanding of what it means to source foods locally, as much of their food came from the bayous around the restaurant. In that endeavor Main experienced both the exhilaration of fresh local foods and the frustrations that can come from dealing with local shrimpers, fishermen and farmers, who operated on their own schedules.

On Friday nights her mushroom forager and heirloom vegetable grower would notoriously show up at six pm — an hour after the restaurant opened. Main would be so frantic from having to endure an hour of service without her mushrooms and vegetables she would rock back and forth while she cooked. “There’s Rockin’ Rachel,” the purveyors would joke as they sauntered in the door. “Why you do that girl?” She’d turn and wave her knife at them saying, “It’s because of YOU that I’m going crazy!” Main credits those formative times with both her first taste of featuring local ingredients and as her first training in “insane time management skills”.

Main worked next for the esteemed New Orleans Chef John Besh. She was intimidated by him, and though she interviewed for the post in a state of terror, that day she gained both a mentor and a life lesson. “He taught me very early on that the best way to get things done (and done right) is by attacking what you are afraid of,” she recalls. She slept on a friend’s couch in Thibodeaux, LA, attended classes and worked as a personal chef for a client during the week, then commuted two hours to New Orleans on Fridays to complete an almost impossible list of tasks in the three hours before they opened. Remembering those times still stresses her out. “I learned a LOT about how to prioritize what needed to be done, and how to be honest with my work.” To this day, Main credits Chef Besh as being the role model who inspires her, “one hundred percent.”

Main didn’t know much about Thomas Keller and The French Laundry of Napa Valley when she started looking for post-graduation employment, but when she found their website, she was moved. “I wanted to learn how to make the food that was in those pictures,” she recalls. While working at The French Laundry, Main also pursued the task of turning their garden apprentice into a paid garden manager. She created graphs and spread sheets to show them how a farm manager could ultimately make them money, keep the restaurant supplied with what they needed and support local farmers if they created exclusive contracts with them. When Main went back years later to visit one of the farmers, he pointed out a woman in the field. “That is Chef Keller’s farm manager,” he remarked. “They contracted the farm a few months after you left, and she works as a full-time paid employee.” “I felt so damn good!” she gushed.

Ultimately Main left The French Laundry to move back to the place of her birth, Ventura County, taking a post as a private chef for a family in Santa Barbara that owned a private school. There, she got to make all sorts fun and exotic dishes for school luncheons like eggs benedict breakfasts, real Peking Duck and spreads of Moroccan food. The menus were so intriguing that the parents of the students often took their clients to lunch meetings at the school rather than restaurants.

Main worked for that family for a wild five years and in the last few spent so much of her time on a private jet, flying everywhere, that she was almost never home. “I longed to feel connected to the place in which I owned a home,” she said, and thus decided to put down roots. One key piece in that plan fell into place when she met local food purveyor Ato Prado, whom she describes as “a great produce salesman,” explaining, “He would go to all kinds of local farms and make sure we were getting the best produce possible. He made sourcing locally easy for me.”

Main took some time between jobs to enjoy gardening, to study what grows in Ventura County, and explored the local resources by going to farmers’ markets. She also joined with dear family friends, her “aunt” and “uncle” Jo and Kris Young, in creating the “Eat Local One Year” challenge in Ojai, the goal of which was, for an entire year, to eat only foods sourced from within one hundred miles. “Kris and I would have long talks about how his endeavor would be possible, and through all of that research I started making great connections with farmers.”

When Main met Robert Jacobi through a mutual friend they immediately “clicked.” The pair joined forces in 2008 to open Main Course California, Ventura’s top-line full service catering firm. The alliance came to pass after she found that Jacobi, who holds degrees in both international relations and hospitality management, shared her impeccable service philosophy. “Whether it’s a six-course tasting menu with full wine pairings, a simple buffet or drop-off dishes for a client at home,” she explains, “we strive to make each client to feel special. Fine dining favors and caring service are things that every person deserves.”

What frustrates Main most is how disconnected many consumers are from what is grown here. “Ventura County has so much amazing produce that doesn’t make it onto local menus” she explains. “It gets used by chefs in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara — that drives me nuts!” She yearns for people to understand the true cost of sourcing and preparing what she describes as “fabulously flavorful food,” and to be more connected to the people who are responsible for its growth and harvest. “Our dollars are how we show what is important to us,” she concludes, “and whom we care about.”

Chef Main will roll out her rarefied skills to diners at Totally Local VC’s Dinner at the City next Thursday evening, July 7, in Ventura. The event will unfold on City Hall’s expansive lawn, overlooking beautiful downtown and commanding a view that sweeps down to the ocean. For Main, the opportunity to cook for this event feels like coming home. “I’ve been gone a lot from Ventura County,” she notes, “either because I moved away or because my jobs required tons of traveling, but I’ve always wanted to feel connected here. TLVC’s idea for chefs to represent local farmers through our food is just so damned cool!”

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One Comment

  1. WONDERFUL! This is how I think and feel too! Love it.

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