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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Mastering the Menu: Since taking the helm at Avanti in 2005, Ben Sims has updated the menu while keeping longtime fans happy with a selection of Avanti classics.

Santa Cruz Classic

Chef Ben Sims of Ristorante Avanti talks about balancing old standards with new offerings.

By Christina Waters

THE SEASONS each take turns showing up on the earthenware plates of Avanti. Beet raviolis in winter and fava beans and lamb in the spring. An astonishing creation of lentils, pancetta and roast Brussels sprouts has winter patrons coming back for more. And heirloom tomatoes, shell beans and padron peppers splash gorgeous colors throughout Ben Sims' late harvest menu. A fixture at several of the local farmers markets, Avanti's chef fills his creation with the freshest items from local fields and orchards. "And at least one day a week I try to go to the city, or to the East Bay," he says. While there, Sims goes to eat, hooking up with former colleagues from Pizzaiolo and Chez Panisse and sampling new ideas from the kitchens he most respects.

Local and seasonal: those are Sims' key ingredients. "I came here four years ago and the owners, Paul and Cindy, already had a deep relationship with local growers," Sims explains. "They introduced me to the farmers--Windmill Farms, Meder Street, Dirty Girl."

Sims is that rare animal, a Santa Cruz native. After culinary school in San Francisco, an internship turned into a job at Chez Panisse, where he cooked for three years. Then there was a period of travel and cooking in Italy, France and London, which turned into a year-and-a-half odyssey that included a stint at Sally Clark's. "It's a very expensive city," he says of London. "It's very tough to live there, even though the people are wonderful. It was time to come back to California."

When he did, he realized it was time for a transition. "As a line cook, every day is simple. It's a fresh start, a chance to please people with a new dish. But as a chef, you're having to think about the future, more responsibility, wear more hats, have to do more planning and less actual cooking." It was time to make that move, and the job at Avanti opened up.

Sims dines out looking for ideas, and then brings them back and translates what he likes into his own menu. He describes the cuisine at Avanti as "a California brand of Italian, using what you have locally." He inflects the menu with his training in country French styles of cooking.

Sims is a brand-new husband and admits that marriage has changed things in his life--for the better. "It does make life happier, removes pressure. It mellows things out." The grin broadens. "We really like to cook together at home."

At work, Sims keeps things creative for himself by offering nightly specials that reflect a sudden windfall of produce or a culinary inspiration recently experienced. "But I need to make sure certain things stay on the regular menu. The chicken cacciatore can never come off the menu." He pauses and adds: "And the meatballs. The roasted chicken and fusilli." These dishes have achieved cult status with Avanti's many regulars, patrons who come in weekly for certain favorite items.

Sims is happy with new items coming from Marin Sun Farms, the source of the pork he's currently using. "I love the grass-fed aspect of their meats. At first I wasn't super into it, and then we started eating grass-fed beef at home. Now I love it. It tastes younger and much fresher. I feel that it's healthier too. The vegetarian thing is relaxing, especially with better meat handling and with more pastured and grass-fed meats.

"It's fun. It's really fun in a tactile, chemistry set sort of way." He grins again.


Address: 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.427.0135

Hours: Open 11:30am-2pm Monday-Friday; 5-9pm Sunday-Thursday;
5-9:30pm Friday-Saturday

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