Chatting with Chef Jason Giles of Monterey’s Portola Hotel
In my last post, I began telling you about my stay at the Portola Hotel in Monterey. On Saturday night, we were treated to a beer and food pairing dinner, designed by Chef Jason Giles, in the private dining room of Jack’s Restaurant at the Portola.
Chef Jason served us a very inventive menu (which I’ve posted below), each course created to pair with a specific beer. Okay – I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I did give the tastings a try, before Janine, the hotel’s wonderful general manager, graciously brought out a great bottle of Rosé from their cellar for me. Wasn’t that sweet of her?
Turns out Jason’s not a big beer drinker either, so I asked him about his process in creating the menu.
“I rely on meeting with the brewer (the hotel’s in-house brewer, Kevin Clark), and talking with him. I find out what he was thinking when he brewed a particular beer. From there, it’s trial and error- I find out what works and what doesn’t work. For example, I learned that a ‘hoppy’ IPA doesn’t particularly work with spice, even though every one associates something like spicy Asian foods with beer. Lagers work, as they have a richer, more rounded flavor. Whereas that ‘hoppy’ IPA is great with something like a ribeye steak, as it cuts through the fat, and the flavors of both the beer and the steak come through well.”
“Then I just have fun with the menus.”
Indeed. We started with a Lemon Thyme Popcorn paired with a blond ale. “You know, we did brewer’s dinners once a month for 18 months. We started every one of them with a flavored popcorn, and that was my favorite.”
“And the Corn and Grape Soup- that was so unusual- how did you come up with that?”
“Corn is so perfect this at that time of year – late summer into early fall. I don’t have to do much to it. I like to add a contrast of textures and even temperatures, so I added the grapes cold at the last minute. And the corn is sweet, but the grapes add a different sweetness.”
“Has it stayed on the menu,” I asked.
“I brought it back last year. I like to offer seasonal soups, and switch them out every couple of weeks or so. We had a green garlic and potato one this spring, and a pea soup with a lemon broth. Initially, it was served with crumbled bacon, but now it’s a vegan version, to accommodate the rise in request for those dishes.”
I ask him if he minds the upswing in special request diets- vegan, dairy free, gluten free.
“Well, I’m sure it’s easier being located where we are. My chef de cuisine and I shop every week at our local farmer’s market. We’re able to create menus from what we find there. Even for our larger needs, like banquets, we source from Swank Farms, one of the larger, local, organic farms in Hollister.”
He also adheres closely to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch when it comes to the seafood he uses. So I had to ask, are there “no-no” seafood products that you really miss using.
“There are things I miss, but I understand that we have to preserve the oceans and product for future generations.”
Salmon, year round, came up immediately.
“It’s so difficult, because it’s so popular, and it’s tasty. We serve local salmon when it’s in season, but people expect it all the time, and ask for it. And shrimp – we use Gulf shrimp, but there’s more work involved for us. We have to peel and devein them, and then Gulf shrimp are smaller than (farmed) Tiger shrimp. We miss having a jumbo shrimp we can stuff, or wrap with prosciutto and grill, but the Aquarium does a good job working with chefs, talking to us, and they’re constantly looking for underutilized fish, and suggesting ways we can use them. Black cod, for example, was formerly mostly byproduct, and now it’s a premium fish.”
“And I’m passionate about this whole issue,” he adds. “I think chefs in our day and age are a little more creative given the product they have to work with. More thought goes into how they cook and what they use, as opposed to relying on the same old tricks.”
I noticed from his resume, that he also spent some time as a pastry chef at a restaurant in Salinas.
“I enjoy doing pastry work, as opposed to many chefs. For one thing, I have an insatiable sweet tooth,” he admits. “And the two processes are so different. I’m not much good at drawing. I can’t get the pictures in my head out on to paper, but when I cook, I can be creative. My artistic side comes out. The pastry work appeals more to my scientific side – getting the right balance and structure, making sure a cake comes out right every time.”
Well, I can tell you this. The Portola serves a killer chocolate chip cookie!
I have recreated the Lemon Thyme Popcorn recipe for you. It’s on the next page, and also posted Chef Jason’s menu…