On The Line: Debra Sims Of Maro Wood Grill, Part One
Chef Sims was like a breath of fresh air, and not just because her restaurant resides along PCH in Laguna Beach. Her experience in the military makes her more professional, detail-oriented and outgoing in the kitchen. Her modest space burns though orders of empanadas, burgers and a lovely banana pudding. We catch Deb between lunch and dinner service at Maro Wood Grill to complete our interview.
How does Argentine cuisine differ from other styles of cooking?
For me, the Argentinean style I have adopted is based around the mesquite wood grill. When conceptualizing a new dish, I'm always thinking about how I can incorporate the mesquite flavor. It's amazing how the mesquite flavor permeates every dish; even the chimichurri has a different flavor as it sits by the fire. I don't think I have cooked any protein, other than by grilling, since right after we opened! There is just no beating the flavor that comes from our grill.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Buy good knives, have them professionally sharpened regularly and please, please use a proper cutting board.
Where does your restaurant name come from?
"Maro" is a nickname for Mariano, and he's the boss. Plus we use a wood grill. Maro Wood Grill; we are pretty simple!
What do you cook on the wood grill?
Everything I can, and some things I shouldn't!
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
Hmmm, I'd have to say my Mom's house.
One food you can't live without:
I'd say I definitely couldn't live without salad. I just love that refreshing crunch in my mouth. It's like jump-starting my palate into a frenzy.
What is your most popular item?
I'd have to say the most popular item is our grass fed beef Maro Burger. Our burger is made with locally sourced, grass fed beef from Paso Robles and prepared with artisan, organic and house made items. Accompanying this natural mesquite wood fired beauty is aged Vermont cheddar, Nueske's applewood smoked bacon, artisan potato bun, organic lettuce and tomatoes, and house made pickled onions and aioli. The combination of the local beef, the natural wood fire and hand picked organic ingredients truly make this one burger not to miss.
What are the seasonal specials on the menu?
Right now we have access to some amazing local wild fish. We've been getting King salmon from Fort Bragg, seabass from Catalina Island and just Saturday we had three yellowtail from around San Clemente Island.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
So far, I've really been into the farmers markets and farms that are around, like VR Green Farms in San Clemente.
Tell us about the Gourmet Bag.
Our Gourmet Bag is something we offer year round, and usually change with the seasons. If I find some awesome new thing that I want to feature, then we re-think what comes in it.
Currently, for the Charcuterie-Cheese version we are offering Fra'Mani salame, Mascarpone, Drunken goat cheese, house pickled asparagus tips, an assortment of dried fruits and nuts, house made Membrillo (quince paste), organic San Clemente honey and an artisan baguette from our bread company out of Santa Ana.
Of course, also available is the Organic Chicken version of the Gourmet Bag that comes with our mesquite chicken from Pitman Farms in Fresno. Accompanying the whole chicken is our organic green salad and roasted vegetables for about four adults. Both bags come with Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino waters. They are perfect for the beach, Pageant of the Masters, Music in the Park, even just to take home and enjoy with a glass of wine while watching the sunset on these gorgeous Laguna summer nights.
What is your beverage of choice?
Beverage of choice for me changes. Always water, with a pinch of baking soda (balances the body's pH) and a lemon slice. Lately though, I've been drinking the Argentinean Mate Tea we serve. I love the earthy taste, and it is packed with more antioxidants than green tea.
What are your favorites on the menu?
Since we change the menu all the time, it's easy to say that all of them are my favorites! Right now . . .I'm super digging the tuna salad I just put on the menu. I poached some of the wild Yellowtail we got on Saturday in organic olive oil, heirloom garlic and Sonoma sea salt. Then added celery, shallots, Dijon mustard and our house made garlic aioli. It is served with wild organic arugula, Nicoise olives and a Dijon vinaigrette. It's the freshest tuna salad I've ever tasted.
Your earliest food memory:
I always remember sneaking into the fridge and snagging tiny handfuls of my Mother's homemade chocolate chip cookie dough.
Favorite meal growing up:
I used to love pan fried pork chops with rice and mushroom gravy, and grilled Olathe sweet corn.
What makes your banana bread pudding special?
Our bread purveyor provides us the best brioche loaves I've ever used. Access to organic, just overripe bananas, vanilla beans, eggs, milk and cream allow the natural flavors of all these ingredients to shine. The added sweet touch to this dessert is the Argentinean dulce de leche. Each piece has a fat dollop and comes in a heated bath of vanilla-bourbon cream sauce. It's an amazing combination of texture and flavor.
Where was your most recent meal?
I had MaDee Thai Kitchen in Costa Mesa for dinner. I had the papaya salad, vegetarian kao soi (yellow noodles with spicy curry), basil tofu and an iced tea. It was yummy.
Paul Bocuse is one of my favorite chefs because he is one of the first "Nouvelle Cuisine" chefs, which stresses the importance of fresh ingredients as opposed to traditional, classic French cuisine. He is a great chef and teacher, having guided numerous chefs to become famous themselves. He's also the founder of the Bocuse d'Or, which is considered to be the Olympics of French cuisine. He's such a pioneer and leader to this industry.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
It just depends. Sometimes sweet . . .sometimes savory. Recently, I made organic fruit with Greek yogurt and house made granola. Then there were the pancakes. Sometimes "farm breakfast" with roasted potatoes, eggs, bacon and toast. Sometimes breakfast burritos. It just depends on my mood. For sure it starts with a nice latte, though!
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
When we first opened, we had this gentleman request shredded carrots on his pizza. Yes, I did do it, and was hoping no other customers would see him eating!
Strangest thing you've ever eaten:
I remember when I was in Bogota, Colombia visiting my friend, and there was this big platter of assorted meats. He put this black piece of sausage on my plate. It was blood sausage. Not exactly palatable for me.
Your best recent food find:
I recently discovered The Bread Gallery in San Clemente. They make their breads fresh and have an amazing sandwich.
Tell us about the Green Feast.
This summer, we are honored to be a part of "Green Feast" at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. We are going to be in the "Eco App Off" which features other chefs who share my same belief of serving local, sustainable and responsible food. This is our first time being invited to the event, and we are so excited to be outdoors during the last days of summer, rubbing elbows with Southern California's greatest chefs, grilling and serving our food.
Every ingredient that is used at this event must be sourced within 250 miles from the Ecology Center, and is to be served on non-disposable or edible vehicles. For sure, we will use the Paso Prime grass fed beef from Paso Robles. The rest of the dish, I'm still conceptualizing.
Did we read somewhere that you're participating in the Golden Foodie Awards?
YES! This was an event we heard about last year, but only after the voting occurred. This year we got in early and are so privileged to be serving over a thousand guests at the Red Carpet Gala before the awards show. I even got to shoot a couple of commercials that are online and will play during the show. As for the actual "Golden Foodie Awards", we are contenders in three categories during the Golden Dine Out: Best Steak, Best Burger and Most Delicious Dessert (August 25 - 31).