Welcome to the Cachagua General Store. Duct-taped dog balls inspired tonight’s menu.
Singular CGS chef Michael Jones stands tableside, unwrapping how something like this happens with the candor and charisma that accompany his bottomless reservoir of stories. He says Zim, a furry store fixture who belongs to one of his servers and happens to be laying nearby– between chickens scurrying about and a broken pool table pouting behind the rustic restaurant– was keeping his owners up with some particularly loud licking of his nether lands. The “solution” was sudden, and likely contributed to the jailbreak the notoriously flight-friendly Zim choreographed later that night. (There’s a pizza called “Run Zimmy, Run” on the menu– with fresh feta, Saracena olives, mushrooms and onions.)
When the SPCA got involved, the term “animal cruelty” was bantered about briefly and a nominal fine was levied; ultimately, though, the perpetrators were let off with a stern “No home remedies.”
Hence, there at the top of the menu, which changes every week for the mythical Monday-only dinners:
No Home Remedies Roadhouse
8 September 2008
Beneath that heading appears the plunder that draws people to drive deep into the Cachagua backcountry to eat off picnic tables on one of the least social nights of the week: store-smoked wild salmon, panzanella with heirloom watermelons, mesquite-grilled Niman Ranch organic baby back ribs, addictive pizzas honored with ingredients like Corralitos sausage, mascarpone cheese and shitake mushrooms, all exactingly prepared and damn delicious. The same style of infatuation-worthy foodstuffs makes Jones’ A Moveable Feast catering services supremely sought after the rest of the week. Everything is seasonal, fresh and organic. Collectively, the menu resonates with the wisdom gleaned from decades of Jones’ hungry study of food on two frequencies– both flavor profile and provenance, information he honors with extremist integrity– and innovation driven primarily by perennial visits to Western Europe and his son Brendan’s inspired technical skill.
Still, it’s the title that speaks most directly to the rebel character of the one-time Cornell engineer behind the Cachagua Store and, by extension, the Cachagua community. It reveals his joy in lurking outside the mainstream. It knows no apology. Like his food, it’s fresh and changes constantly (the name was Gustav Ate McCain’s Homework Roadhouse a week prior). And, perhaps most importantly, it simply reflects what Jones felt like doing at the moment. Thanks in part to what he cites more than once on his bombastic blog as a lack of certain “neuro-transmitters and impulse control,” he does what he feels like rather frequently.
The roasted Chesapeake oysters with porcini cream and asiago cheese are slippery bliss on stylish spoons. The organic pears and apples, decorated with roasted parsnips, tarragon honey and airy blue cheese foam, transmit a tractor beam. The gorgeous “dueling gazpachos Andaluzes” merit a shootout for a sip.
My dining companions, who were originally a little iffy on the hillbilly look of the creaky establishment and my taste in remote restaurants, suddenly can’t shut up about how exquisitely our appetizers are presented and how pleased their palates are.
Such is the storyline with most of Jones’ creations: They have a certain edge to them, and commonly take a moment to fully appreciate.
His business habits can alienate clients who want more responsiveness from a person helping plan what might be the most important day of their lives.
“If you don’t mind me not calling back, no e-mails, us resisting any kind of menu– a year, a month, a day before the event,” Jones says, “then it’s fine.”
If a customer makes it to the occasion with their sanity intact (he says he and his staff can usually tell if the chemistry is going to be explosive), the results tend toward the resoundingly positive. Local political organizer Mary Green has been using Jones to cater her every event since she emigrated from the East Coast in 1976 and began plying his restaurant-catering trade, which many feel peaked in Peninsula popularity during the reign of Carmel’s Silver Jones restaurant in the late ’80s. “They can get that communication somewhere else,” she says. “You have Michael for quality food and service.”
But Jones’ spiciest dish– and for some, his hardest to stomach– is his blog (http://cachaguastore.blogspot.com/), as a dash of his most recent postings demonstrate.
Smashing: Little is off-limits on Jones’ blog, least of all politics. “As mayor of East Moose F***,” he writes, the GOP VP candidate he calls “Sarah Barracuda” “forced rape victims to pay for their own rape kits at the local clinic.”
He describes a community meeting at the General Store that came in the wake of a Basin Creek Complex Fire response from Sheriff Mike Kanalakis that had Jones and a number of locals bitter at what they saw as mistreatment of the situation: “I just hope we don’t let go of this guy’s short hairs until he actually kicks in and recognizes that no one, federal, state or county, should do anything in our valley without first consulting Cachagua Fire. Oh… and the local citizenry.”
He extrapolates why he would never vote for John McCain: “I am tired of being lied to. I am tired of being treated like a dumb ass. I am tired of being fed s*** sandwiches and being told it is filet on a baguette… His fellow surviving POWs despise him. Call up Phil Butler in P.G., the senior commander at the Hanoi Hilton, and McCain’s superior officer in the prison camp and ask about John McCain. Find me one single surviving POW of the 500-odd who will publicly support John McCain. One. You won’t be able to do it. And they are not saying why. Think about it.”
He even reels off a rambling treatise on the right to bear arms and the Cachagua community’s relationship with guns. (Hint: it’s a close and eventful association.) The ammo includes “Somewhere on YouTube there is footage of [his son] Brendan at age 2, cutting loose with the Mini-14 at the old Howard Ranch at ground squirrels.”; “Once I gave a Buddhist girlfriend a .308 sniper rifle for a Valentine’s Day present and it worked”; “Alcohol may not be mentioned in the Second Amendment in YOUR Constitution. But… why else own 12 acres in the middle of nowhere if you can’t cut it loose once in a while?”
Here, as in face-to-face interactions, the narrative is well informed and uncensored. Kirk Probasco, long-time friend, local restaurateur and co-owner of Stokes Adobe in Monterey, knows this well. “When you first meet Michael he seems larger than life, and right away you know he has some brains,” he says. “He uses large words for large thoughts.”
The postings range from leadership lessons provided by Khrushchev and Kennedy to dissertations on disrespectful “whiny dicks” and “douche bags.” They often approach the boundaries of believable. And like his Kolkovna-style braised Niman Ranch lamb shanks, they tend to arrive meaty and organic.
One could say Jones speaks in paragraphs, but it would be more accurate to say he speaks in these sharp, verbose, stream-of-consciousness entries: part narrative, part commentary, part philosophy, all Jones. He deploys such a story to explain why he pours so much into his work.
The funeral could have killed him. But on the day of his late brother’s service– he describes an afternoon when big names from the world of fashion and magazines paid tribute to the late novelist and editor-in-chief of Harper Collins– it was a small kindness that Jones feels changed everything.
Jones was staying at a Howard Johnson in a corner of Hell’s Kitchen; the loss had him pacing the sidewalk near Tout Va Bien, a small restaurant in the “French Ghetto” where his mentor and friend Etienne Merle got him a job years ago. (Jones abandoned his career in electrical engineering for a life in hospitality after he learned it would’ve meant constantly hanging out with engineers.)
His former boss Jean Claude Couchard spotted him. “He said, ‘Michael, what are you doing? You look bummed.’
“He grabs me, brings me down in the middle of lunch rush, remembers what I drink: champagne, calvados.” Today, years later, the gratitude in Jones’ voice is evident.
After the funeral and party at the publisher’s penthouse, he brought the wake back to the restaurant to thank Jean Claude for the kindness. The night got late and lush; as a result, Jones overslept and missed his flight the following morning. He says he was scheduled to take Flight 93.
Staying Fresh: Michael Jones cites regular visits to France and Spain– and his son Brendan’s brain– as the inspiration behind A Moveable Feast treats like deconstructed panzanella and a Benedict with quail eggs, Jabugo ham and California ossetra caviar.
“If Jean Claude doesn’t look out the door, recognize a friend and customer, see a need, buy me stuff at his own expense,” Jones says, “I’m dead.
“It sums up our whole attitude– take care of the customer first– no matter what.”
The potentially tragic story is a typically dramatic way for Jones to make what seems to be a minor point, but the respect between customer and host is everything to Jones. Pity the patron who neglects this.
“Because I work with my hands, you can crap on my head?” he asks. “No no no.”
On his blog he recounts an evening where he saw an intoxicated golfer throw a drink in a Rio Grill employee’s face after she asked the woman’s group to leave. According to Jones, he promptly pinned the offending patron up against the wall by her neck, placed her under citizen’s arrest, called the police and “speed dialed” his attorney.
Jones internalized that reciprocal appreciation– and a related breakneck work ethic– from Merle, a French chef he worked with in Ithaca, New York, post-college, starting when Merle grabbed Jones as an emergency fill-in after firing his last staff member at knifepoint. That night, they put out more than 130 meals– and washed the dishes. (Jones summarily announces he was “hooked.”)
“I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Etienne,” Jones says. “It’s an interesting paradox: So many [chefs] will do anything for people: burn arms, work until they break, work sick, drunk, whatever, in order to take care of a guest. But it’s respect for respect. Once the guests cross a certain line– bang!– they’re out on the street.”
Or their plate is smashed in half by the bloody backbone of a Monterey Bay halibut.
“The quickest way to get thrown out of the General Store,” Jones says, “is to bitch about the food.”
Of course, there are other, almost-as-expedient ways to be shown the door.
At Silver Jones, one was smoking– his shops prohibited it long before California law caught up. One group of patrons who repeatedly relit their cigars at Silver Jones ended up on the retardant end of a fire extinguisher. Jones maintains he “ran” another diner who ignored the no smoking rule through the restaurant and off the back deck into a dumpster.
At the CGS, back away from any buttery needs.
“We give you good olive oil and fresh rosemary from the garden. So why do you want butter?” he asks. “It’s a good way to get tossed. We’re not serving it. It’s the whole idea that someone is coming out there and trying to change the restaurant to their specs. No.
“And asking where the food is. ‘We ordered, where’s the food?’ We got four guys back here working as hard as we can. So you have an appointment. I’ll tear up the check, get the f*** out.”
But the most dramatic way to earn an early exit, legend would suggest, is to question the integrity of Jones’ food. One man questioned whether the fish Jones listed on Silver Jones’ perpetually changing menu actually came from the bay, echoing his doubts to his party as Jones left the table. According to Jones, he retreated to the kitchen where he had cleaned the big halibut and retrieved its spine.
“I walked outside with this thing, three feet long, slammed it down, broke all the glasses, picked up phone and dialed 9-1-1: ‘Trespassers on site.’ That’s the Etienne Merle school. Do not accuse me of lying in my own restaurant.”
The San Francisco Chronicle article in a subsequent issue from the food writer sitting a few tables away was likely an interesting one.
Stokes’ Probasco has known Jones since the ’80s. He has heard the stories.
“He’s one of the icons of the Monterey Peninsula for food,” Probasco says. “And he has a very large passion for food and integrity of food… he will not compromise.”
“If he has gotten himself into predicaments in terms of business relations or business decisions, that’s because that other person didn’t have as much integrity. He will not compromise.”
A relentless amount of researching helps Jones inform his principles. He is well-connected and up-to-date with the Slow Food and organic food movements. He swears by the extensive work of Stanford professor and Curious Cook author Harold McGee. A Sunday evening phone call to Jones’ plot in Cachagua found him reading an Economist article about brain foods; he’s also studying Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel’s best-selling critique of the global food system– and some lighter fare to keep the heavier tome from burying any hope. Jones, who speaks French, Italian, Spanish and German, estimates he reads three books a week (mostly police procedurals, he admits; the book club he started at CGS is called Upper Carmel Valley Light Reading and General Soporific Society).
“I’ve never met anybody that studies food as much as he does,” Probasco says. “Not only the flavor profiles but the chemical processes.”
The reason is simple.
Way to Slice It: Jones has pulled off some inspired event innovations on the fly, building a bunker to protect prep chefs from monsoon winds at Carmel Beach and using Dutch ovens and fireplaces when the power at a party for Ansel Adams went out.
“Unless you are taking an active interest in who’s growing your food, who’s catching it,” he says, “you have no idea what you’re buying. Whole Foods is one of biggest offenders. If you see me there, I’m desperate– or buying La Brea bread.”
Jones’ produce comes from his favorite vendors at farmers markets, Serendipity Farms and tiny neighboring Cachagua suppliers who sell to two spots– “eggplant and squash so beautiful you don’t want to cut it,” he says. He is equally strict about his meats. Jones’ restaurants, meanwhile, went organic long before it became a selling point– and they didn’t even tell their customers.
“We didn’t bother to explain,” he says. “It was more about us.”
And Jones and his CGS team are cultivating more than savvy supply lines for food (which they did in an atypical way when they shuttled nourishment and needed items to stranded locals during the Basin Complex Fire). By using access to the store as an incentive, they are cultivating a community once better known for meth and mayhem.
“We used to have a big long list of people who were 86’d,” he says. “There’s only one business in Cachagua; if you can’t come in to buy beer, pizza, can’t hang out, it changes your deal. By my count there are only three scumbags left.”
Meanwhile, for many Cachagua Valley kids, working for A Moveable Feast is a rite of passage. Jones loves working with his youthful staff.
“It’s in my blood, almost like what I do,” he says. “I was a soccer coach for a million years, that’s part of it. Part of it is reliving life through kids, with me learning about food and being exposed to food at high level lit up my life personally; now I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”
Probasco helps put it in perspective. “You know what, does he have enemies? Absolutely. Will they say he’s a nut case? Without a doubt.
“But his legacy in our food industry has touched thousands and thousands, people who worked for him, people he worked for or cooked for,” Probasco says. “Everyone leaves Michael with a better sense of who they are and what they are doing on this earth.”
At the very least, that includes enjoying some of the best food in Monterey County. Hold the butter.