Chef John Cox of Sierra Mar (667-2800) has plated some of the most resourceful and creative dishes the area has seen. He does things like rattlesnake confit, fried sardine backbones shaped to look like a scorpions, authentic native acorn bread with pork fat slathered on top and sea cucumber he cooks for a day, dehydrates and then puffs up and seasons with fancy pepper. On my visit this week he had Big Sur “furikake,” venison tartare and pork croquette with quail egg and pickled mustard seeds on the menu.

But it’s what he’s doing with the plates after the food’s been eaten that I hope will change the way restaurants work across the state, while taking a Big Sur-sized bite out of the record California drought. (See cover package, p. 22.)

Here’s how the breakthrough came to be: His night cleaning team would come into the kitchen and hose everything down. In so doing, they would not only send thousands of gallons of potable water down the drain, they would do the same with real dollars, as the water bill swelled and the moisture fried the computer panels of the sophisticated ovens.

Even as he figures out how to cook moon jellies – let alone transport the delicate drifters to the kitchen alive – and how to roast deskinned avocadoes to look like they still wear the peel, he admits this challenge had him “banging [his] head against the wall.”

Then some morels arrived and he couldn’t rinse them because, as mushroom lovers know, the water wrecks their texture. So he pulled a can of compressed air out of the office. The easy clean got him thinking, What else can be cleaned with air? He soon brought an air compressor in to try on the ovens.

Not only did it work, it made it easier. Same for cleaning plates. Suddenly they were saving time and money.

“Within five minutes, it was ‘Wow,’” Cox says. “It actually helps both directions: cost and efficiency.”

After he posted a rudimentary video of the compressor and its plate-cleaning abilities on Facebook (check out the blog, www.mcweekly.com/edible, for a peek), he got more than 1,000 views the first night alone, which speaks to how much people have the historic drought on their minds. (In case you’ve been living in a cave – with its own natural spring – California is drier than a chicharron in the sun. Gov. Jerry Brown responded to the state’s crazy low water levels with a 25-percent cut in use earlier this month.)

Five local chefs touched base the same night he posted it. Cox estimates another three dozen have checked in since. Montage Hotel & Resorts family (with six upscale destinations like Kapalua Bay and Beverly Hills) came calling. U.S. Foods apparently asked about the system as part of hopes to introduce it to member chefs at a San Francisco convention.

Chef Johnny De Vivo of Porter’s in the Forest (625-2035) loved the idea and already has a compressor in his kitchen. “It’s an awareness,” he says. “It’s people being conscious. People in this area are smart. They want to make sure they’re taking care of their neighborhood.”

The setting there is perfect in some ways: Porter’s serves as the clubhouse restaurant for Poppy Hills, which is leading the country in golf course water conservation, thanks to an ambitious $12 million remodel a year ago. The water-smart design was made possible in part because Northern California Golf Association owns it and has more than profit in mind. “Our thing isn’t to just make money selling golf,” GM Brad Shupe says, “but to make golf better for the future, understand best practice in golf.”

One golf course problem: The sucker’s loud, and golfers like quiet. De Vivo’s looking at quieter models, which are a little more expensive, but still not too spendy (starting around $200).

There are other issues, like training staff. So the idea will take some tweaking. Progress often does. But do the math and the possibilities get outright profound. Rather conservative numbers look like this: Sierra Mar estimates it uses approximately 3,500 gallons of water per day, well below the industry average, with one of the single largest uses being the spraying off of dirty pans and dishes before loading them into the dish washer.

Cox guesses one spray handle uses close to 1,000 gallons of water per day. By using compressed air drops 80 percent.

Which leads to the kicker: As California plays home to around 60,000 full service restaurants, the result of these restaurants switching to compressed air – even if they saved less than Sierra Mar, say, just 250 gallons a day – that would equal more than 15 million gallons of water a day and around 5 billion gallons a year. That’s more than 15 gallons of water for every individual in the United States.

Another way to look at it: Rules requiring restaurant to offer drinking water only by request saves about two cups of water per customer, which translates to 18 gallons or so a day at Sierra Mar, and an annual savings of 6,000-7,000 gallons. Compare that to hundreds of thousands saved using compressed air.

“This is an easy and efficient way for restaurants to save water,” Cox says. “If restaurants across the state would adopt this practice it would make a real difference with water conservation.”

Every drop in the bucket counts. Especially when they can make a big splash.

QUICKBITES

Namu takes over for Soban in the old Thunderbird space in Carmel’s Barnyard Shopping Center starting Friday, May 1.

• Discovery on Vista Del Camino in Marina (3170 VDC to be precise): Keoki’s Hawaiian Barbeque (809-8644), where the offerings include musubis, Kalua pork, chicken katsu, loco moco, specials like Friday lau lau plate and shaved ice.

• The bar at Hotel Abrego (324-4546) now has a new GM, a new chef, a full-service bar with veteran bar tender, and opens in full force this weekend.

The Britannia Arms will be showing the Pacquiao/Mayweather scrap this Saturday, May 2. 6pm start, $30/person.

• At Hyatt Monterey, $1 from every wine bottle bought in May benefits The Hope Center for Monterey.

• One of the best wine events of the year, and certainly one of the best values, happens Saturday on Dolores Avenue in Carmel, with the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Winemakers Celebration. See p. 36.

The Wharf Marketplace next to Del Monte Beach is now open early, slanging coffee and a strong selection of breakfast items like the croissant benedict starting at 5:30am.

• Small-farm, artisan lamb stars in a four-course spring dinner with wine pairings 6:30pm Tuesday, May 5, at Cantinetta Luca. ($105 plus taxes and fees, 625-6500).

• Commercial rockfish season starts May 1, and Fisherman’s Wharf is ready to celebrate – as it should, since conservation allowed Seafood Watch to remove rock fish from avoid lists. Wharf restaurants Abalonetti, Cafe Fina, Crab Louie’s and Old Fisherman’s Grotto all feature rockfish entrees to toast the moment. Plus fishing excursions through Chris’ Fishing Trips and Randy’s Fishing Trips leave daily.

• Big win for Alvarado Street Brewery: It took home two gold medals for its Mai Tai and Monterey Common, and two silvers for Minesweeper and Milk Stout, at the Los Angeles Beer Competition.

• Raw food workshop at Pacific Grove Farmers Market 4pm Monday, May 4.

Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

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