Gardens of Avila revamped

Executive Chef of Gardens of Avila Resturant Edward Ruiz (photo by Camas Frank)

AVILA BEACH — Charles Crellin, general manager of Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and  Spa, notes that one of the most frequently asked questions he gets isn’t about the sulfur springs themselves or the many hiking and recreational opportunities available to visitors and guests alike at the resort, but what about what’s going on in a stretch of flood plain along the Bob Jones Trail.

The trail meanders along an old railroad right of way abutting San Luis Obispo Creek all the way to the community of Avila Beach proper. And even in winter months, perhaps especially in winter months after a brisk rain, it takes hikers past lush green fields. Approaching the connection to the Sycamore property from the east, a collection of rust-colored steel pylons jut skyward out of fertile soil.

“I wish we could say it was some kind of advanced agricultural technique [as some people assume],” Crellin said with a chuckle, but explained that the area was originally prepared for hotel rooms just before the economic crisis of 2009, and ownership thought better of finishing construction. “That makes us really fortunate, and really unique in the area that we’ve had that land and been able to have an entire acre dedicated to a Chef’s Garden right in the Avila Valley.”

The Chef’s Garden has taken several forms over the years, and while it’s never failed to produce an abundance of seasonal vegetables of the Garden of Avila Restaurant and partner businesses Apple Farm in San Luis Obispo and Sea Venture in Pismo Beach, the plots have taken a beating from weather since the last two growing seasons.

Now the time has come for a new look at the gardens to go with a new executive chef (since September), a farming consultant, and a new full-time staff position to tend to the facility.

“We [kitchen staff] had been out there doing what we could to get something special out of it,” said Edward Ruiz, executive chef at the Restaurant, who had been on staff for a year before being promoted. “But it’s hard to split your time, especially with a popular place when you need everyone in the kitchen.”

Nevertheless, he said the Garden’s contributions are invaluable, “At a resort people are on vacation so of course, some will want steak and potatoes, but we have people coming right out of the yoga dome to the restaurant and they want something light.”

House salads of whatever is fresh at the moment are a specialty — the restaurant launched a new menu on Feb. 2 — with edible flowers one of the more interesting additions to come from the field. Those pair well with pasta and fish dishes especially, he notes.

Growing up around the strawberry fields of Nipomo, Ruiz added, he appreciates the work that goes into growing the foods he prepares, and, as an adult, even has a soft spot for all the healthy food his grandmother made which he didn’t like as a youth.

At the resort, his kitchen can go full vegan, although the chickpeas, quinoa, black beans and sweet potatoes that make up that signature dish are not currently coming from the garden. He added they’re still sourced as much as possible from as close to home as possible.

Whereas plots kept by individual chefs and grounds crews has worked in the past, with sustainable gardening techniques soil is amendment guided by a consultant using fertilizers from Paso Robles, Crellin noted they’re ready for a new full-time employee, Atascadero-native Haley Trengove, to start whipping the acre into shape for this spring.

“I’ve lived in a lot of places and been a professional farmer since college but this is definitely one of the most community oriented,” she said, noting that she wasn’t at liberty to say much about any changes planned at the site, at least not in her first week on the job, but she noted the  location’s potential, “I’m so excited to be able to spend my time shaping this space.”

The Chef’s Garden is not currently open to the public, but Ruiz said he hopes to add more of an outdoor cooking area for events in the future and there is an established space for some sort of beer garden as well. In season, Crellin suggests June or the colors of the Fall harvest, the area can be reserved for private banquets, events, and weddings. It is located just over the Sycamore bridge, a three-minute walk from our main building.
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