Carlsbad, California — Take a pinch of adventure, add a dash of wanderlust and mix in opportunity. Blend in a passion for deliciousness and what does the recipe yield?
For three chefs with Maryland ties, the dish might be called California dreamin'.
Two are world-famous: celebrity chefs Duff Goldman and Michael Voltaggio. One is an emerging young comer on the culinary scene: sous chef Ryan Coffey.
Yet all three relay their experiences of living a Maryland chef's life in California, whether that's cooking with out-of-this-world produce, hobnobbing with celebrities or introducing folks to favorites from back home.
"In L.A., the elements of art, entertainment and fashion certainly inspires," said Voltaggio, who's been based in California since 2008. "It's helped the evolution of my food."
Today, the Frederick native and Bravo "Top Chef" winner is building a bicoastal culinary empire with four restaurants (and a fifth forthcoming), including a trio of establishments in Los Angeles.
His acclaimed "finer dining" restaurant ink. — named Best New Restaurant in America by GQ in 2011 — is located on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. The famous stretch of towering palm trees boasts blocks and blocks of shopping, dining, fashion, and art options. Entertainment attractions such as Paramount Pictures and Fox Studios are nearby.
Inspired by the city's diverse ethnicities, cultures and industries, Voltaggio has coined the food at ink. and the ambience as "Modern Los Angeles" — where the Getty Museum, to Rodeo Drive and the lush Hollywood Hills all beckon.
Fresh and organic ingredients drive his food ambitions, as he aims to create a multi-sensory experience. "The produce here in California is some of the best in the world," he said.
In a region whose dynamic dining scene ranges from food trucks to groundbreaking chefs like Wolgang Puck and Alice Waters, his menu changes seasonally. A recent peek revealed fare that critics have praised as "playful," "visually stunning" and "flawlessly executed." Think kale pasta with kale pesto, pecorino and pumpkin seeds, or Baja sea bass with uni butter and a mushroom pancake.
"I'm super proud of every dish," he said.
The 38-year-old chef launched his culinary career in high school, working for his older brother, chef Bryan Voltaggio, at a hotel kitchen in their hometown. By 19, he'd landed a prestigious apprenticeship at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. He went on to four-star restaurants such as The Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills.
While his repertoire melds modernist to classic French techniques, he's no food snob.
Voltaggio's artisanal sandwich concept, Sack Sandwiches, is situated in the same complex as ink., but has its own space.
Customers can munch on 4-inch-thick sammies that are unique yet familiar: cold fried chicken, a Vietnamese banh mi, or a take on a Spanish omelet. House-made spicy "crab" potato chips are on the menu, too. Hungry air travelers can find a smaller sandwich outpost — ink. sack — inside the Los Angeles International (LAX) airport.
Along the way, Voltaggio has gained fame on "Top Chef" (Season 6 competitors in 2009 included his brother) and hosted the Travel Channel series "Breaking Borders." In 2013, he was recognized as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs.
"I'm 100 percent about the food. Being a chef is not about being a TV star — although there are privileges," he said.
'Ace of Cakes'
For Goldman, "Baltimore is my home, but it's been really great to expand to Los Angeles," said the Charm City Cakes pastry chef and Food Network personality. "I love it, man. L.A.'s really fantastic. We get to do everything on a bigger stage."
When Charm City Cakes opened its doors in Baltimore back in 2002, the bakery was at the forefront of the couture cake movement.
Today, he and his team still design and create one-of-a-kind, elegant, sometimes outlandish, edible masterpieces. The intricately designed confections have incorporated cutting-edge elements such as sound, smoke and motorized moving components. The crew has baked, frosted and assembled cakes for the 2013 presidential inauguration, Super Bowls and Hollywood premieres, much of it chronicled on the Food Network series "Ace of Cakes," which ran for 10 seasons.
Building on the success of his original location, Goldman launched Charm City Cakes West in Los Angeles in 2012. He later founded Duff's Cakemix, a DIY cake and cupcake decorating studio. Chef Giada DeLaurentiis described Cakemix on her website as "…like Willy Wonka's workshop and the Project Runway studio rolled into one sweet package."
"In L.A., most of our staff came out from Baltimore," said Goldman, 42, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. In fact, the chef who was recently in town to launch a new bakery in Harbor East, adds that the City of Angels "is a lot like Baltimore."
"It's full of very creative people, who really appreciate art and what we do," said Goldman, whose Food Network shows include "Cake Masters," "Worst Bakers in America" and the "Baking Championship" series.
"We have done some fun projects with Disney lately, and John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, including a sculpted cockatiel [cake] for Chrissy's father," said Mark Muller, general manager of Charm City Cakes West.
Goldman does philanthropic work, too.
For the past few summers, he and friends like the Voltaggio brothers, actor Ben Feldman (a Potomac native who's on the NBC sitcom "Superstore") and what he terms other "ex-pats" have co-hosted Crab Cake LA, a traditional Maryland Blue Crab feast held in Los Angeles. The annual event draws hundreds: celebs such as Nicole Richie, Laurence Fishburne, Waldorf natives Joel and Benji Madden and Ryan Phillippe have joined the fun. Ticket proceeds have benefitted charitable organizations that benefit homeless and low-income individuals.
"We ship the crabs in from Maryland," said Goldman. "We have newspaper on the tables and show people how to crack crabs." The menu also features corn on the cob, pulled pork and hush puppies, and Goldman whips up Smith Island layer cakes, Maryland's official dessert. "We have beer sponsors and cases of Utz chips."
The up-and-coming chef
Coffey grew up outside Philadelphia and took a circuitous path to cooking.
The 28-year-old chef spent time as an assistant football coach at Delaware State University before finding his passion. He wound up in Baltimore, studying the culinary and hospitality industry at what's now Stratford University.
After plying his craft in kitchens from Baltimore and Delaware to Palm Springs, he landed his latest position in 2016 at Twenty/20 Grill at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa, a sophisticated property with Mediterranean flair. The airy restaurant includes al fresco patio dining with a fireplace where patrons can enjoy sweeping views of the Carlsbad coast.
"One reason I wound up here is that my wife is a native Californian and she wanted to come back home," said Coffey. "As they say: happy wife, happy life. But I've fallen in love with the region too."
Carlsbad, in San Diego County, is a city of verdant rolling hills, expansive beaches, fresh water lagoons and salty ocean air. Visitors will find extensive nature trails, flower fields and farmer's markets.
Coffey has embraced his love for seafood and created inroads with local farmers. "They're sometimes surprised when I come out into the fields. I want to bring the freshest, locally sourced ingredients to our signature dishes."
The menu (which changes every few months) boasts dishes that run the gamut from free-range chicken with goat cheese polenta, shaved Brussels sprouts and heirloom carrots, to braised lamb rigatoni with local mushrooms.
For brunch, there's an Eggs Benedict sandwich called "The Baltimore," made with jumbo lump Gulf crab and Old Bay Hollandaise.
"You can't be a chef in Maryland and not know how to make a good crabcake," said Coffey. When California diners learn he's from the Old Line State, they often chat him up about the popular dish, which occasionally pops up on the menu.
Coffey, who knows Baltimore puritans often scoff at seafood from beyond local waters, notes that he's working on having Maryland crabmeat shipped to the restaurant. "Only when it's in season," he adds.
He's constantly trying new dishes and trying to learn from other pros, with an aim of someday launching his own restaurant.
"Social media has helped me learn from other chefs and talk to them. You can see what everyone's doing anywhere in the world."
"As a young chef, Ryan has been able to accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time," said Executive Chef Julian Quinones. "His drive and passion for the freshest and highest-quality ingredients match his enthusiasm for cooking."
Beyond the meals, the chef — who still has a house in Baltimore near the Hollins Market — has brought other memories of Maryland to California. "I keep my Orioles cap in my back pocket. When I wear it, it's always a crowd pleaser."
While he relishes living in a community "blessed with a beautiful climate and weather" he jokes that "if it's below 65, people are in jackets and they say they're cold," he chuckles.
Still, he's fallen in love with California. "It's a beautiful place and I enjoy the lifestyle. The fact that I get to cook and create here, is pretty cool."
Where to eat
ink.: 8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 323-651-5866, mvink.com
Sack Sandwiches: 8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 323-655-7225, sacksandwiches.com
Charm City Cakes West: 8302 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 424-343-3992, charmcitycakeswest.com
Twenty/20 Grill at Sheraton Carlsbad: 5480 Grand Pacific Drive, Carlsbad, California. 760-827-2400, twenty20grill.com
Campfire Restaurant: Rustic, chic spot complete with a wood fireplace serving New American farm to table fare and innovative cocktails. Desserts include S'mores. 2725 State St., Carlsbad, California. 760-729-5263
Where to stay
Omni La Costa Resort & Spa: Spanish-Colonial style resort on Carlsbad's southern end only three miles from South Ponto Beach. Amenities include eight pools; The Spa at La Costa, the [Deepak] Chopra Center, tennis courts, championship golf courses, and five restaurants. 2100 Costa Del Mar Road, Carlsbad. 760-438-9111
Mondrian LA: Luxury boutique hotel in the heart of West Hollywood's famous Sunset Strip. Chic interiors, including an indoor Lucite swing. Skybar Lounge offers cocktails, music and the perfect LA vibe. 8440 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 323-650-8999
The Park Hyatt Aviara: Nestled atop a hill overlooking the adjacent Batiquitos Lagoon wildlife sanctuary, this Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond property boasts lavishly appointed guest rooms and suites and picturesque views of the surrounding wilderness and golf course. 7100 Aviara Resort Drive Carlsbad. 760-448-1234
What to do
The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch: The Field opens March through May to showcase vibrantly blooming Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers, a miniature rose garden and more. Tractor rides offer ways to enjoy the open fields. Open through May 14 from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. 5704 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad. 760-431-0352
Carlsbad Village Farmer's Market: State Street Farmer's Market, 2907 State St., Carlsbad.