County culinary royalty Julio Ramirez makes Edgar’s excellent at Carmel Valley’s Quail Lodge.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
The story behind Julio Ramirez’s electric-orange “dog’s nose” habanero salsa is appropriately spicy, involving the Yucatan Peninsula, open-air markets and hot pepper seeds he imported personally. Same for the tale behind the humble Fishwife-Turtle Bay dynasty he co-founded – and the coconut-ginger-lime ceviche and Grandmamma Rosanna Québécoise meat pies he and his wife Marie Perucca-Ramirez have dissected in their global-gastronomic wanderings.
But the story behind the self-made man might top them all. He shared a few morsels of it last week – with an accent as heavy as his enthusiasm – at Edgar’s in Quail Lodge, the setting for his newest culinary chapter, over a choice charbroiled cheddar-bacon burger.
Raised on a Nicaraguan coffee farm by his Spanish-born father and native-Nica mama, Ramirez aced his classes, rode horses around and earned a scholarship to med school in old España. A year and a half in, while working a night a week as a janitor at an haute hotel, he started to fall for food service: “I was fascinated by the buffet,” he says.
One day the chef called him over as he was eyeing the operation with ritual admiration – “I had my chin on the mop, watching,” he says – to differentiate hollandaise treatments when two apprentices could not. He could. If you smell a hint of Ratatouille, you’re not alone. Suddenly he was in the chef’s sights.
The master pressed the young scrub – “You have to do what you love!” – and, ultimately, Ramirez “finally took the guts” to sign up.
That meant more than his med-school scholarship was sayonara: “For 10 years,” he says, “my dad wouldn’t talk to me.”
His work paid for his apprenticeship, but nothing else. He slept in a mattress closet off the lobby and snuck bread and cheese from the kitchen while reading everything he could find on food.
“Our Bible, Escoffier’s Le Guide, any articles the chef passed us, recipes,” he says. “I was totally focused.”
Later, he was given a café kitchen at the hotel, and challenged guests from across Europe to name a dish from their travels for him to summon. His responses earned admiration – and advice. “‘Go to the United States,’” they said. “‘You’ll be famous.’”
He soon discovered a visa program for chefs. Armed with a required $5,000 stuffed in multiple socks and obscure pockets, he ultimately landed in San Francisco, dumped by his cab on the corner of Mission and 24th. Strange men in a Chevy Impala circled the block repeatedly, staring, then pulled over and told him to get in.
“Can you imagine?” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna get ripped off,’ but I didn’t have any other place to go. What did I have to lose, not knowing anyone?”
The men were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who saw “a lost Jesus” in Ramirez’s eyes – and invited him to stay with their family. He started cooking for them, as he would in exchange for rent at other homes while studying English, a prerequisite for his green card. One juco professor named Marie would become his wife – though he says he learned the most at the time watching Tom & Jerry.
An unpaid utility gig at the Blue Fox in S.F. led to other opportunities – and one filling in as sous chef for a friend in Monterey. The rest is local lore: He managed the Old Bath House and the Tinnery for years before launching the then-12-seat Fishwife in Seaside to give its busy blue-collar homeowners something nice, nutritious and affordable. The menu that helped it earn our readers’ votes for Best Restaurant in Seaside for more than 15 years came from a practical question (“It’s the richest fish area around. Why wasn’t there a place with just fish? In Spain, we know a lot of fish”), as did the P.G. branch (he kept seeing checks – remember those? – signed by the more bejeweled Pagrovian-Pebble portion of the Peninsula). Turtle Bay’s award-winning approach to sustainable seafood in bowls, wraps and “tostacos,” meanwhile, was inspired by his widening travels. (He has since sold his interests in both.)
Now Edgar’s is evolving under his watch. Veteran Weekly food writer Jeanne Howard has been eating there for more than a decade: “It’s much, much better,” she e-mailed. “I had stopped ordering the sand dabs but tried Julio’s and they rock.”
I can report the burger is beautiful, layering Vermont cheddar and maple bacon on a half-pound of precision-charbroiled certified Angus beef on a chive brioche roll ($12 with superb sweet potato or garlic fries). If that hadn’t come highly recommended by friends, my dining decision would’ve grown devilish: I love the look of appetizers like the oysters Rockefeller ($14, with spinach, bacon and Pernod cream) and the seasonal prix fixe specials like last Wednesday’s ($25) – soup or salad plus an “Edgar’s Surf and Turf” of prime flat iron steak and grilled wild-caught prawns and a choice of desserts (clubhouse ice cream sundae with bananas and rum caramel sauce, perhaps?).
The main courses look lively too: The scampi stars more wild-caught prawns, sizzled with garlic, white wine, handmade pasta and dry-aged spicy Spanish chorizo, the striped bass’ green cashew pesto and salsa cruda have curb appeal, and the fillet with truffle bordelaise sauce is also inviting. With each entrée ($18-$28) come two seasonal sides, from selections like stone-ground polenta, caramelized carrots with pearl onions and braised greens from Earthbound.
In 2001, Ramirez and his wife became the Monterey County Restaurateur Hall of Fame’s first inductees. It’s great to see the legend back in the game – and that his story’s far from finished.