The executive chef at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Lucy Restaurant and Bar in Yountville, California, Victor Scargle has been part of the culinary world since before he could drive. He started working his way up the kitchen ladder at the young age of 13. Scargle left the University of California at Santa Barbara to get back into cooking, thanks to an apprenticeship with local chef Brian Bird at the Red Lion Resort. It was Bird who encouraged him to head east and work with some top chefs in Miami and New York City, including restaurants such as Tribeca Grill and Four-Star Gramercy Tavern. In 1995, he ventured back to California to work with restaurateur Michael Mina at the San Francisco restaurant Aqua. After spending five years with the acclaimed chef, Scargle became chef de cuisine at Jardinière before joining The Patina Group as executive chef of Julia’s Kitchen, which was a fine-dining restaurant at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. In June 2011, he joined the team at Lucy Restaurant and Bar to help relaunch the establishment’s new concept and design, which made its debut in February 2012. We caught up with the West Coast chef to discuss all things food.
How do you come up with your menus at Lucy?
Some of it is eating out, but because we’ve got a garden on property, a lot of it is what’s in the garden. We’ll see what’s out there. We do our menus a little bit backward. We look and see what’s in the garden and what’s available. That keeps us true to the seasons. Then, we know we can get great duck from Jim [Reichardt] at Sonoma County Poultry; we know we can get great lamb from Don [Watson of Rocky Mountain Wooly Weeders]; we know we can get great beef from Schmitz [Ranch]. All of those things are kind of set in stone. The fish varies a little bit. But if we go out to the garden and see what’s out there, that will tell us, “OK, I’ve got some red choy that I just planted; I’ve got some joi choi and some Chinese cabbage. What goes well with that? Well, duck would go good with that. Maybe duck à l’orange with Asian accompaniments and maybe a little forbidden rice.” We’ve got kale or chard; we’ve got all these different broccolis and cauliflower. That’s what we use for our vegetables à la Grecque with the black bass. So letting the garden push us stays true to everything that we should be about being out here because we can grow stuff year-round.
What are your favorite ingredients?
In the summertime, we’ve got Persian and Pakistan mulberries. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced them. But imagine the sweetest blackberry you’ve ever had on steroids. The Persian ones are fat — they’re the same length but fat — and they’re super sweet. The messiest blackberry that you’ve pulled off a bush that gets all over your clothes, well these are even worse and they’re even sweeter. The Pakistan ones are longer and just as sweet. They’ve got this real sweetness to them and then just this little hint of acid at the end to balance it out so it’s not overpowering. They’re just amazing. They grow on a tree and you have to look up inside the tree to see them; the leaves and branches protect them from the birds. You have to stand underneath them and kind of go up into the tree to get them. The trees will get up to 25 feet tall and they’ll just be loaded with them. I love those a lot.
Sunchokes, I like a lot — the Jerusalem artichokes. We’ve got a great guy here that dry farms potatoes and sunchokes for us. Kohlrabi is something that we grow that’s neat and fun, kind of a twist on a turnip. We grow two different kinds of fava beans, when we can get those to grow. We’re completely CCOF [California Certified Organic Farmers] certified; we can’t spray anything; it’s got to be all natural. [In the winter], it’s broccolis and cauliflowers. We’ve got purple cauliflower, cheddar cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli — these fun different color things. People ask, “What did you do to them?” and I say, “Nothing. That’s how they grow; they’re purple; they’re orange; they’ve got those little bishops heads on Romanesco broccoli.” It’s kind of a way to play with guests, too, and have fun with it because they’re trying to figure out what we did and we’re like, “We didn’t do anything. We put it in the ground and let it grow, seasoned it and cooked it properly, and here it is for you.”
What do you love most about your job?
It’s kind of a little of everything: the ability to create in the team environment — playing sports growing up, I feel like I think I can do it; but I proved last year that I can’t and I need to figure out another way — the adrenaline; the creation; the ability to share with people, as far as coworkers, what I’ve learned in my experiences. So talking about going around Australia; talking about going to Singapore; talking about going and doing these events and the people that you can meet — almost everybody likes food, so the people you get to come across working somewhere like [Lucy Restaurant and Bar] and the other events that we’ve done is pretty cool.
The ability to pass on information and knowledge to other people, and the ability to give someone his feet and teach him almost at the same time. People could come in here and they don’t realize they’re learning something, but they’re going to learn something because they’ve never had these flavors together, they’ve never had these ingredients, they’ve never seen things growing. A lot of people are in a city all their life and they never get to see things grow, so it’s exciting when I can say, “Hey, let’s go out to the garden. We can show you where it’s growing.” It’s that adrenaline, the teaching the unknown, the camaraderie and teamwork, the ability to share with people and to pull them out of maybe a funk. You can really do a lot with food. You can really change the mood of someone’s day. Seeing the smile when they get a little amuse-bouche that was unexpected. I guess it’s kind of powerful, in a good way. You can really shape someone’s day or if they’re coming in for dinner, you can send them out with a different perspective and attitude.
What do you think makes a successful restaurant?
It’s kind of the teamwork community aspect of it. If you look at the people that have been successful, they’ve created a culture. Whether it’s Danny Meyer, Thomas Keller or Michael Mina, there’s a culture of excellence, great product. For a while, there was a trend when guests were starting to write back saying, “Well, we don’t feel like we’re the customer anymore. People are treating it like it’s a privilege for us to come spend our money with you.” You look at people that have been really successful, they’ve never done that. I think Danny Meyer is a master at greeting people by name, knowing your dog’s name. All of the things we strive for and are working for [at Lucy Restaurant and Bar], he’s done. So when you can create that community where everyone is trying to one-up each other with service and the level of quality, that’s when you’ve got a successful restaurant.
There are always things you can’t control with the economy and the world events and all that, but if you create a culture where the locals come in and they feel welcome, they feel like they’re at home. You can either treat them like they’re family or you can treat them like a stranger. If you create the culture of treating them like they’re family — hopefully good family, maybe Grandma is the example we should use — then you don’t have to worry about much else. The whole idea of having this VIP coming in, well if you treat everyone like a VIP, then you’ll be successful. The thing about Napa Valley is you don’t know who the person is in the jeans and a shirt is; it’s probably one of the top winemakers in the Valley who just got out of the vineyard. If you didn’t know Robert Mondavi when he was alive, he would be in blue jeans and a shirt, and you’d be like, “Oh, who is this guy?” So if you treat everybody that way, then you don’t have to worry about when a reviewer comes in or when this person comes in; everybody is already like, “Well, we’re just going to do what we do.”
Photo Courtesy of Victor Scargle