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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Firestarter: Brian Curry (right) at work at Avanti.

Eat Here Now

Avanti's Brian Curry talks--and walks--the philosophy of keeping food local and dining the seasons

By Christina Waters

There are only so many things you can do to food," says chef Brian Curry, a big rangy blond from Kansas City, with a grin.

Trained in classical French culinary technique and recently smitten with Italian food stylings, Avanti's kitchen alchemist has joined his obsession for regional nuance with a spirit of adventure. And while Curry swears the phrase "fresh local ingredients" will never pass his lips, that phrase is--deliciously--the whole point of his 24-hour-a-day culinary focus.

"It's all about latitude," he says.

A plate of beautiful beans arrives to illustrate his point. The slender green beans are from Dirty Girl Farm--"those are Joe Shirmer's beans," says Curry. The creamy, cannellini beans are grown at Molino Creek just up the coast. A lean slice of toasted francese sits next to the beans. It glows crimson red from its dunking in juices of ripe, dry-farmed tomatoes.

"All the farmers had so many tomatoes this season. I just had to use what they grew," he says.

What I am tasting is the September climate, the soil, the indefinable conjunction of elements that make the harvests of this region unique--what the French call terroir--the essence of the place at a specific moment.

Curry is very much in the business of shopping the farmers markets, finding out what's at its peak and most abundant, and of supporting growers whose produce meets his scrutiny. So successful has this strategy been that now Curry has reliable sources for the most irresistible ingredients of the moment.

For over a year now, Ristorante Avanti faithful have been noticing the menu tweaks and changes: small things, like the selection of olives offered at the start of the meal, and more dramatic changes, such as removing the half portion option on selected entrees. There's a new refinement in the presentation. Main dishes and vegetables arrive on individual plates, with unique saucing and seasoning identities, rather than being herded into a single large serving. Sourcing ingredients through local growers and producers has taken top priority. And meats are being given star treatment along with organic salads and heirloom vegetables.

The reinvention of one the area's most reliable dining rooms is the handiwork of Curry, former chef de cuisine at Highlands Inn, who worked at Bernardus Inn and with David Kinch at Sent Sovi before being hired by Avanti owners Paul and Cindy Geise in June of 2002.

Curry lives his craft as intensely as any artist. The spiced, toasted pumpkin seeds strewn atop a harvest of fall beans provide more proof. The seeds came from an heirloom seed saver in the Midwest.

"Here were these sweet potato squash seeds," Curry recalls. "I just couldn't throw them away."

A bowl of carrot soup arrives, as if to underscore his insistence on tasting and tasting until he finds the best, most intensely flavored elements. The color of autumn gold, the soup's haunting flavor comes from painstakingly selected carrots and a hit of apples. A pretty cluster of toasted almonds and parsley in a pool of maple syrup anchors the center of the golden soup.

Curry brings these intricate flavors to Avanti's tables, and his choices encourage the small growers to reinvest in the land. Molino Creek, Meder Street Farm, Route One, Dirty Girl--these are only a few of the reliable producers Curry has developed relationships with and who form a biodynamic cycle of mutual support.

But keeping the menu stocked with favorite items during off-seasons is a huge challenge for chefs who hate to compromise.

"I realize that I cook for an audience," Curry admits. "I'd like to take salmon off the menu when it's no longer in local season. But I can't." So he researched various farmed varieties, until he found a San Francisco source of Scottish farmed salmon whose fat content pleases him.

It pleases me too, especially as the succulent grilled steak arrives surrounded with an organic garden of new potatoes, English peas and tangy sorrel, all bathed in spectacularly tart crème fraiche. Curry makes the crème fraiche himself. He claims he would make his own buffalo mozzarella too for an authentic caprese salad--if he had time.

(A note to the Avanti followers: Brian Curry might have the time to tinker with specialties now that Avanti has discontinued breakfasts and the kitchen can turn full concentration to its lunch and dinner menus.)

Curry credits the Avanti owners with encouraging his farmers market foraging, and his sourcing of local gatherers like Freddie Mengis, who supplies wild mushrooms during the rainy season, and whose spectacular heirloom apples so blew Curry away that he includes no fewer than a dozen different varieties of them in his current apple pie. Definitive apple pie, let me say, with crust--his mother's recipe--as good as my mom's. No higher praise.

"I want people to come here knowing, assuming, that we use organic, fresh, local ingredients," he says.

Curry is evangelical--and not only on this point. One of his mantras, "Simplify to perfection," seems evident in every dish. The succulent, baked meatballs he added to the menu make a dramatic, direct statement. The house-made papardelle noodles are presented on a separate plate, as in Big Night, a film Curry admires. Meatballs all on their own, glorious in their singularity. And transparent wide noodles. Sometimes a meatball wants to stand alone (though Curry admits he blends them together by the end of the meal. So do I).

"I like taking obscure parts of meat and making them interesting," he says, and he has done just that with a new offering of huge natural pork spare ribs from Salmon Creek Farms--the very presence of this down-home cut of meat caused a sensation when it hit the Avanti menu. They have been rubbed and roasted with a blend of lemon, paprika, sage and other spices, and arrive on a plate all their own. A few perfect new potatoes and haricots verts arrive on another plate to join flavors with the pork. But there's no crowding, no over-blown piling high of plates.

Doing his part for the leaning of America, perhaps, Curry is very high on proteins. If he didn't have an Avanti audience to please, he might just dispatch with starch altogether. A plate of rare Sonoma liberty duck breast is brought, topped with a spectacular "candied" red pepper and a small mound of fragrant caponata packed with tomatoes, capers, eggplant and peppers.

"They're at their peak right now," he says of the latter. "So we have to serve them."

Curry's thinking is exactly how I envision the food I eat at home. What's fresh now, and grown where I live? That's what I want to taste now. When I go somewhere else, some other time of year, I'll sample what's happening there and then. But life's too short to eat something that has been frozen six months ago, hundreds of miles away. What could possibly remain of its original integrity after that much time and space have diffused its energy?

"The region defines the food," Curry insists.

At Avanti, however, I get the feeling the chef is preaching to the converted. "I strive every day to earn the right to call myself a chef with a big 'C,'" he philosophizes. Armed with a bachelor's degree in economics, Curry went on to train in Johnson & Wales University's culinary arts program. He's in the Avanti kitchen every day, and does the hands-on cooking at least once a week. When he isn't training the kitchen staff, he's handcrafting--curing wild salmon, making pastry crust and sampling the farmers markets.

"I work very hard to get the best local items. These peas," he says lifting a fork, "came from Molino Creek, and from a specific person. I can tell you who grew it." He picks up a rib. "This was rubbed with Dalmatian sage --this year's crop. And my nutmeg came from Grenada. I know exactly what the weather was during that harvest." Curry relishes microsourcing the way I relish his way with fresh Dungeness crab. Dispatched by Curry just a few hours before, this succulent, barely cooked bouquet of coral legs has been treated with sage and orange and leeks, such tender leeks. "It's basically an Italian-French version of a Chinese crab dish," Curry explains. "I love being able to come up with something like this, a dish that my co-workers can get excited about. Then I know I've done something well."

Avanti as a biodynamic system includes not only the regional cookery--we literally taste the Central Coast in every bite--but the fact that owners and chef can bike to work each day.

"This is my neighborhood," says Curry, proving that even the chef is regional. The apple pie, however, exists in a realm beyond any known space or time.

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From the October 15-22, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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