Free Bird

For Chef Tim Wood, owning the Monterey Airport restaurant, now called Woody’s at the Airport, is a change from working in high-end resorts.

Sitting at a table at the outdoor dining room of Chef Tim Wood’s new venture, it’s often hard to hear him speak. That’s unrelated to the requisite masks we’re both wearing, and it’s unrelated to the fact that we’re social distancing.

It has everything to do with the roar of engines interrupting the free flow of conversation as planes take off and land just a few hundred feet away from where we’re sitting.

Until Aug. 28, Wood, for about 12 years, was the executive chef at Carmel Valley Ranch – now branded as “Carmel Valley Ranch-The Unbound Collection by Hyatt,” where rooms are going for $400-$970 a night for December.

A new management team had arrived and without any apparent discussion, Wood was gone.

“I got kicked out of the nest,” he says simply. “I never had a negative feeling about what happened; my only emotion would be worrying about what happened to everyone else, my staff, the community and our members.”

And worrying about what would happen to the goats, bees, chickens, in-house cheese program, in-house salt program and expansive chef’s garden, from which he spun such magical dishes as line-caught sea bass with tomato fennel fondue and rainbow chard or a special series titled “Sunset Dinner in the Garden,” where he served, among other items, charred sweet corn with cherry tomato ragu and cast iron fingerling potatoes with housemade creme fraiche.

Instead of wallowing, he took it as a sign from the universe. He could keep doing what he had been doing – working hard for someone else for the rest of his life, “then retire and die five years later,” or he could embrace freedom and figure out what comes next.

What comes next is why we’re sitting at the Monterey Airport, with planes roaring in and out as the soundtrack, at the former site of the Golden Tee Restaurant. Wood has done everything from resort cooking in the Catskills, where he grew up, to fine dining under Michelin-starred chefs in Manhattan. For the past 18 months, the Golden Tee – a place that engenders the same kind of wild nostalgia for Monterey Bay locals as those Borscht Belt resorts do for New Yorkers – had been run by Rich Pepe and Bobby Richards renamed as Fly Away Cafe. It was an odd confluence of circumstances that brought the three of them to the table and helped Wood decide what his next act would be: owning his own place.

To hear Wood tell it, Richards was looking to drive some new business and asked Carmel Chef Chris Caul if he would come in and do his special soft-shell crab one night a week. Caul suggested instead that Richards reach out to his friend (Wood) for the assist.

That meeting turned into a longer conversation, in which Richards said he was looking for someone to take the reins. Negotiations moved quickly.

Owning the airport restaurant, now called Woody’s at the Airport, doesn’t mean just owning the single restaurant. The snack bar downstairs? It’s also his. The vending machines with the sodas and chips? Also his. (And also the reason why, after our conversation, the fancy chef was going to schlep 38 cases of Coca-Cola products that had been delivered at 6:30am, when nobody was there to receive the delivery.)

It would be helpful if he had a clone. Right now, the interior dining room, which can’t be used because of the prohibition on indoor dining during the pandemic, is undergoing a major redo. He’s working on a new menu that will incorporate some Golden Tee nostalgia with fresh takes. He’s even reconsidered how the snack shop serves its offerings, upgrading the meat and bread in the to-go sandwiches and figuring out how to do boxed lunches for travelers to take on board.

And, like Richards had been doing, he’s considering how to drive revenue, in part by tapping into local catering, and serving high-quality to-go options for those who commute on Highway 68.

“I want to return the opportunity for locals to have a nice dinner and hopefully bring what I do to the table – fresh and local – not to knock anyone’s socks off with wafting essence of elderberry whatever,” he says. “I’ve worked three-star Michelin restaurants and high-end resorts, and that’s not what this is. But it doesn’t mean I can’t bring those same techniques here. This is a more casual and family-friendly environment.”

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